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.]
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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, 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.