There’s no denying that HBO’s new fall drama “Westworld” has hooked its way into the imagination of audiences — likely much to the relief of HBO, as it prepares for the eventual end of “Game of Thrones.”
However, we’ve got to talk about “Westworld’s” fan theories. Before they bury the show.
When you look at the way these new fans are reacting to the series, the major comparison being drawn isn’t to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s epic fantasy drama. Instead, it’s to “Westworld” executive producer J.J. Abrams’ previous iconic drama, “Lost.”
Like “Lost,” “Westworld” viewers have been sucked into trying to decode every last secret to what might really be going on inside this theme park of the future. Which makes sense. From the beginning, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have only given us breadcrumbs of information about the world in which the show takes place. We barely have any idea what year it is, let alone if it’s on planet Earth. Add in the fact that at least half the cast is playing robots so realistic that the line between “born” and “made” gets blurry, and the speculations ensue. Is Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) secretly a robot? Are we seeing two separate time periods, not just one? Is The Man in Black (Ed Harris) secretly a robot? Is the Delos Corporation really on a quest to create immortality? Is [really, insert any presumed human character here] secretly a robot? And so on.
John P. Johnson/HBO
It’s important to note that fan theories, objectively, are not a bad thing. In fact, they can be an awful lot of fun, and it’s exciting to see, in this crowded media landscape, smart people bantering enthusiastically online and off about a new show — especially a well-made show rich with big ideas.
Some of this speculation can descend into the level of amusing nitpicking, such as questions about how, exactly, the guns know how to shoot blanks at guests and real bullets at hosts. (Shout out to my Facebook friends who are pretty well-convinced that they’re smart guns programmed to tell the difference, as opposed to the technology being in the bullets.) But some of it seems less geared toward understanding the series and more focused on outsmarting the creators of the show, and the show itself.
Which seems to defeat the purpose of sitting back and being told a story. Here’s the thing: When you guess a twist correctly, catch a curveball coming way in advance, what do you win beyond the shiny prize of self-satisfaction? It’s a thrill, to be sure, to know that you guessed right. But what happens to the thrill of being shocked or surprised, of trusting the narrative to unfold on its own terms?
The problem with an overemphasis on this sort of speculation is that it can have a compromising effect on one’s actual enjoyment of the series. Creators today are now being challenged to pull out all the stops in order to stay ahead of their audiences, these millions of brains working together to skip ahead in the story. But the drawback to this is that we seem to lose patience with actually being told a story.
“Westworld” is full of mysteries, but it also features intriguing characters, engrossing direction and existential questions that go way beyond who might just happen to be a robot. You can say that by freeze-framing through a scene to read all the text on one of Bernard’s screens, you’re not only looking for clues but appreciating the quality of the production design. But the more we treat the show like a game, the more the danger rises that we’re losing sight of the full experience.
This isn’t just a problem for “Westworld.” USA’s “Mr. Robot” is a show rich with twists, many of which were predicted by fans and critics well in advance of their reveals. The fact that the twists were predictable is not a credit to the show, but our obsession with guessing what was really going on stripped away any discussion of why it was happening, as well as any appreciation of what was being said.
John P. Johnson/HBO
“Westworld” even brings in a meta layer to this, with the Man in Black’s determination to find the “cheat codes” that will skip him ahead in the game, as well as, notably, the characters of William (Jimmi Simpson) and Logan (Ben Barnes). While William, initially reluctant to partake in all of the park’s pleasures, gets fully engrossed in the action, Logan never really embraces the feel of the place. All he cares about is the facile spectacle or finding clues that… take him to more facile spectacle. On the surface, Logan might seem to be having more fun than William. But William’s the one for whom this visit to Westworld has real meaning.
Even actual video games these days value narrative and gameplay experience as much as the basic act of triumph. Play Bioware’s “Mass Effect” series, for example, and you’ll find yourself sucked into the storyline and engaging with the characters, even as you attempt to solve puzzles and win battles. When you commit to the journey, the path is so much more rewarding.
Personally, the more I engage with fan theories, the more I find myself questioning Bernard’s every potentially robotic move, rather than focusing on the quality of Wright’s performance. The more I think about what might be about to come, the less I appreciate what’s happening. I’d rather be shocked by the twist than ready for the curveball, and I’d also rather appreciate the show for what it is, as opposed to what I thought it should be.
Fans should enjoy the show however they want to enjoy it. That’s the beauty of the way this works. And certainly, every week, I have plenty of questions.
But I’ll keep my theories to myself.
“Westworld” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.