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There Are Two Westworlds

Jimmi Simpson as William. Photo: HBO

I suspect that audiences watched two different finales of Westworld last night. If you were a casual Westworld fan, someone who catches it every week but doesn’t spend a lot of additional time thinking about it, the revelation of William as the Man in Black was most likely quite surprising. Not to mention everything that followed — multiple timelines, the meaning of the maze, Dolores becoming Wyatt and massacring every host in the park. It’s a whopper of a reveal! What a humdinger of a surprise!

But if you were in the audience of people who’d been reading theory posts, listening to podcasts, clicking through subreddits, and sharing carefully edited GIFs with meaningful captions, what you saw last night was a confirmation of a lot of stuff you already knew. Not only that, you saw Westworld move quite slowly toward that revelation, drawing out the William twist over several minutes of confrontation between the Man in Black and Dolores, and falling back on a Man in Black voice-over that verged on pedantic. Without question, there were other things in the finale to keep the theory-heads occupied — Maeve’s rampage through the facility, Armistice’s … fingertip play, Dolores’s discovery that the Arnold voice in her head had been leading to her own selfhood the whole time, and of course, the big gala set piece at the end.

Still, the finale hangs on that William–Man in Black reveal. It comes smack at the center of the episode, acting like an inflecting point between the show’s past and the finale’s shift toward a (maybe samurai-themed?) future. The episode teases it and teases it, before finally turning to an explicit cut in which William puts on a black hat, looks down, and then looks up again as the Man in Black. And if you already knew it was coming, that twist feels perfunctory at best.

In this, the Westworld finale makes good on two crucial aspects of its central narrative premise. The first is this: Surprise is the primary engine for storytelling. It’s been a part of Westworld’s raison d’être from the start, beginning with the premiere’s reveal of Teddy as a host, building through storytelling that tended to prefer obfuscation over making sense, and threading through the Bernard-as-Arnold reveal before landing on the finale twist. There’s an appeal to it, of course — everyone likes a good surprise. It actually feels like old-school TV in that respect: It’s not all available on streaming, which means first-run Westworld fans all experienced those twists at the same time, and were forced to see them at a measured, week-by-week pace. (Even critics stopped getting screeners at the tail end of the season.) Unlike the ending of Orange Is the New Black, or even the more recent, modest wallop of the finale to Search Party, we all got to sit there together and see Dolores look wonderingly at the Man in Black and say “… William?!”

Except some reasonably sized chunk of the Westworld audience saw that moment and did not feel surprise at all. At best, they felt the satisfied vindication of having known all along. There’s a pleasure in being in the club of people who already knew. But thanks to the second of Westworld’s central narrative premises (characters are cardboard cutouts who exist to drive the plot), I feel confident that pleasure was modest at best. It might have felt quite satisfying to already know William was the Man in Black if you cared about either of those characters, at all. If you were truly rooting for Dolores to be happy, her heartbreak in that scene could still have been crushing. Instead, we were all stuck in the position of the Man in Black, trying to be patient but inwardly scoffing at Dolores’s plot-delaying tears. If you didn’t already know the twist, it was, “Pull it together Dolores! I want to know the truth!” And if you already knew, it was, “Pull it together Dolores! I knew this was coming, so let’s move it along, please.”

There’s been a lot of writing already on how empty Westworld’s characterization feels. Jen Chaney considered that angle to think about how different the show really is from Lost. James Poniewozik wrote about the show’s clinical detachment from its own characters (and from the entire idea of being human). And Alison Herman has already written about how the endless theorizing drains Westworld of its pleasure, leading to a show where you’ve already figured out the twists and there’s not much else to drive its appeal.

The finale felt like the perfect laboratory to test those ideas. Here was a major twist that some of the audience knew, and some did not. The twist is both fundamental to how we understand the season as a whole, and it’s pretty underwhelming from the perspective of how we think about the characters. On the one hand:

And on the other:

This is not to say that the Westworld finale was bad overall. As usual, the show’s aesthetic is fun to watch just for its beautiful robot-Western perfection, and once you’ve figured out the multiple-timelines puzzle, watching the careful editing back and forth feels like watching a TV show in a language you’ve finally figured out how to speak.

But the finale’s best moments are also evidence of how important the characterization issue is, and how much stronger the finale could’ve been if more of the show were undergirded with any kind of empathy toward its players. For all the emptiness of the William–Man in Black twist (if you saw it coming), there are brief flashes of that story that feel meaningful, particularly Dolores’s realization that he’s a monster and her resulting shift into Avenging Angel of the Robot Apocalypse. What makes that work is that we’ve read her as a victim this whole time, subject to the whims and operating system fiddlings of all the men around her. We can appreciate Dolores taking agency in her life because she’s been cast as lacking agency for so long.

The same is true for Maeve, who gets what may be the most interesting conundrum of the finale, a conundrum that the finale spends frustratingly little time with. After her violent quest for self-actualization and self-control, Bernard reveals to Maeve that her “escape” motivation has been a narrative that was written for her all along. Her plan to get out on the Westworld train is not a choice after all — it’s just the next move in her new story. She brushes this off before Bernard is able to explain the rest of her narrative. (So does the finale, choosing instead to linger lovingly on too many sequences of Dolores mowing down hosts in the Wyatt timeline and moving in a daze through Arnold’s suicide narrative). Maeve’s big ending is that she makes what appears to be  a real choice, one that’s rooted in what little we’ve come to know about who she is and what she cares about. Rather than follow the pre-written narrative, Maeve gets off the train and returns to the park to find the little host girl who’d been her daughter. Never mind that most of Maeve’s story has been centered in righteous fury at her own mistreatment and her disgust that so little of her life was real. She chooses to go back for her “daughter,” and it’s the most impressive, satisfying move we see a host make in the whole finale. (I say that even after Armistice’s glorious pleasure in discovering the effectiveness of automatic weapons, a sequence which would’ve been vastly more fun if we’d had any sense of Armistice’s interiority earlier in the season.)

Or maybe not. What if Maeve’s choice to go after her daughter is the narrative she’s been programmed to follow? This is the crux of the Westworld problem: Maeve could be striking out on her own into a bid for humanity, or, it could be just another twist.

There are two Westworlds for the audience — the Westworld for people who’ve already figured out all of the twists, and are impatiently waiting for a new raft of “clues” about the next puzzle, and the Westworld for people who experience the surprises in real time. But there are also two Westworlds within the show. The dominant one is based on twists and tricky editing and a frustrating delight in overcomplication. It feeds the theory-heads and simultaneously gives them little to hang onto when they actually watch the show and realize they’re right. The other Westworld, the one struggling to break free of the burden of “surprise,” is the show I’d hoped I was watching all along. A show about humanity and selfhood. A show about choice. A show about sexuality and greed and parenthood and memory, rooted in emotion and empathy.

I’m looking forward to finding out which Westworld shows up next season. It would be nice if, like the hosts, the show could build on what’s already come, and use the memories of these surprises to create deeper, more thoughtful characters. But I worry that like Robert, the show may wipe everything, return to an older build of the narrative, and try to start the surprises from scratch.

There Are Two Westworlds