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‘Westworld’ Finale: Twists Can’t Answer Season 1’s Biggest Question

For a series focused on asking big questions about humanity, "Westworld" still needs to address some basic queries about its characters.

Anthony Hopkins Westworld Season 1 Episode 9

John P. Johnson/HBO

Everyone’s focused on getting answers in the Season 1 finale of “Westworld,” but first we need to make sure we’re asking the right questions. Amidst the speculation about Dr. Ford’s new narrative, converging timelines, and secret identities, it’s easy to lose focus about what really matters: humanity.

After all, isn’t the central question of HBO’s expansive sci-fi drama what makes a human being, you know, human? Between the moral tests facing each guest and the complex awakenings of select hosts is the quest for meaning; purpose; value as determined not by the appearance of being a member of the human race but by feelings that drive human decisions.

Thus the central question facing the finale — which must be answered in the affirmative for Season 1 to prove successful — is, “Will ‘Westworld’ rediscover its humanity?”

While we all instinctively hope to be shocked and awed by the twists inherent to this labyrinthian story, such surprises should be treated as desert rather than the main course. Especially after the last few episodes, if not the season’s latter half, of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s genre-blending epic have become overly infatuated with selling their big reveals. [Spoilers ahead for “Westworld” Season 1 through Episode 9.]

READ MORE: ‘Westworld’ Season Finale Trailer: Watch The Bodies Pile Up in Wild Teaser

Watching as Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) learned the truth about her former lover, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), was satisfying in the moment because of how it was captured — succinctly, but with style and grace. The same could not be said for how Bernard’s secret identity was unveiled in Episode 9, as it became starkly obvious who the android was modeled after long before the show confirmed it. By the time the imagined version of Arnold started walking down the stairs to meet Dolores, we’d known for minutes that felt like hours who wore those black leather oxfords.

Westworld 108 Jeffrey Wright Episode 8 Season 1

Both twists, though, succumbed to questions of relevancy soon after the surprise dissipated. Why did we spend so much time unveiling the hidden mysteries of Bernard — twice! — if he was going to die all along? His “suicide” shouldn’t spark genuine remorse over losing a character. (Presuming, that is, he’s really gone.) It instead functions to remind us of the show’s imbalance between characters and mystery. Joy and Nolan cared far more about surprising us with Bernard’s secret backstories than letting us really get to know him, arguably answering the question of “Is he human?” to the contrary in the process.

In overplaying its mystery, “Westworld” forgot its humanity and exposed its greatness weakness: We don’t know anything about these people, robots or whatever in between state the ever-more-woke ‘bots have entered. A brief breakdown of character issues:

Dr. Robert Ford

For all the admirable restraint shown in Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of this Machiavellian mastermind, at this point we’d be glad to see some scenery chewing. At least then we’d see a new side of his personality. When will he have a human moment? What’s driving this guy? There were opportunities to draw the curtain back with Bernard — to show him mourning the loss of his old friend, or taking vindictive glee in his destruction (again) — but his actions were cold, calculated, and routine. These kind of muted emotions lend to the character’s mystery, but they also keep us from connecting with him personally.

Maeve

Sure, Thandie Newton’s a badass. But her character’s recent upgrades haven’t been very rewarding. Maeve’s newfound ability to get her fellow hosts to do whatever she wants simply by talking to them feels like lazy writing: She doesn’t even need a code phrase? Or physical contact? Or anything special to distract from the childlike “command and obey” game she has going on?

Westworld Thandie Newton Season 1 Episode 9

Moreover, Maeve’s most memorable moments are sexualized scenes: when she makes Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) stab her, when she runs naked through Westworld’s Mesa Hub, and when she had sex with her cowboy-toy among the flames. These connections make sense because of her assigned profession within Ford’s narrative, and there’s an argument to be made that Maeve is redirecting the male gaze in the aforementioned scenes. But when she’s working outside of it, the “Westworld” writers seem disinterested, lost, or both — and, thus, so are we.

Bernard

First, his backstory was rendered moot because he was a robot (whether your predictions proved right or wrong). Then the exposition dump doubled down on the meaninglessness of his past family tragedy by explaining how it was his “cornerstone,” or the detail within his backstory that defines him, before killing him off. The fact Bernard looks like Arnold but otherwise lacks any pressing connection — let alone a through-line to the story after his suicide — makes all the time we spent getting to know him largely moot. It’s not that he’s a robot. It’s that his humanity was stripped from him, time and time again.

Dolores

Dolores may be the one exception here. Of the hosts and humans, she’s been given the most time to develop in front of us, and that time has been used wisely. We’ve seen her struggle with both sides of herself: what’s programmed and what’s being set free. We’ve empathized with her specific plight, felt for her romantic connections, and cared about what happens to her, whether she’s being dragged into a barn by The Man in Black or wandering into a church filled with glitchy hosts “speaking” to Arnold. And these earned feelings are only bolstered by what she represents: repressed women; the damsel in distress who’s more than just a blue dress; the love interest who’s also the hero.

READ MORE: ‘Westworld’ Review: ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ Goes Down the Rabbit Hole For Answers

When “Westworld’s” writers focus on Dolores, they largely do just fine. Most importantly, she proves why we don’t need big twists to invest in this series. Dolores has been largely twist-free, outside swatting that fly and whatever’s coming when she meets The Man in Black in Sunday’s episode. Yet she’s not only the best character, but she owns the best narrative of the series.

We don’t need big twists for twists’ sake in Episode 10, “The Bicameral Mind.” The season finale needs to expose the humanity within all its characters, to whatever degree they’re capable of, not whatever degree helps the writers preserve more secrets.

In other words, stop worrying about the rug. Start worrying about what’s underneath.

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Comments

otto

I DONT AGRRE AT ALL

Bill Wilson

I think you’re totally missing the point. You’re focusing on the characters and their humanity… but not your own. What would YOU do if you went to WestWorld. Would you choose a white hat or a black one? Would you be humane or give in to your basest instincts and desires? Would you choose to be good or evil?

The show can’t answer this. Only you can. And if you haven’t yet, then I don’t think you’ve really been paying attention.

    Roderick Beck

    No, good story making does require Lost style antics. The multiple time lines and scene editing is tiresome. As the Queen to Polonius, “More matter and less art”.

Leon Raymond Mitchell

OMG Thank you Bill Wilson. Superb Answer. For me The joy and greatness of the show is moment by moment episode by episode not answering that question cause it seems like the response is ” As Guest you did Ask for this”

Dominic Vielnascher

Well, I think what’s to focus on, and what I think won’t be fully revealed in the final episode, is Arnolds deeper game.
For that sake, my wild guess is that the maze, that lies “beneath” the western landscape, is actually the operation central of Westworld (for it really lies beneath it). In that theory, Ford and all the other operating characters are actually hosts, built by Arnold. So maybe all characters are robots who keep on building new robots. So there actually arn’t any real humans in the park or the operation central. Maybe Arnold is sitting in another operation room just watching (and not interfering) how it all will turn out, like kind of a dryrun for an a.i.-run world… and the Man in Black could be an example for Arnolds ambition to create artificial intelligence, which would be needed to escape the western world and “make it” to the maze (operating level) as an operator.

Nah that won’t be it ;)

Neil Harvey

A great aspect of this show is that it influences the viewer to think about what humanity and consciousness actually is. In that context it is impossible for me to think of Bernard’s backstory as ‘moot’ as Ben states. I don’t think Bernard did either, because of the strong emotions he felt and personality it helped to give him (depressive, compassionate, reflective). With Bernard the show did a great job of showing that memory is critical to who we are, making the fakeness of Bernard’s memory moot, not the memory itself.

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