WESTWORLD’s Haunting, Maddening Hunt for the Ghost in the Machine

There are spoilers in this.

Like the eponymous theme park, Westworld is many things to many people. Is it The Next Great HBO Sunday Night Drama, anointed to replace the rapidly approaching Game of Thrones-void as that show wraps up? Is it a smart and evocative exploration of the human psyche and the role of technology? A satire/celebration of video game culture? A puzzle box to be played and sorted? An actor’s showcase? Or is Westworld less than the sum of its parts and aspirations? Is the expensive cast and set design and lofty quotes nothing more than window-dressing for a weekly dose of tits, ass, and shredded flesh?

It’s the last charge that the show has been unable to shake over the course of the ten episodes of its first season. After a barn-storming premiere that primed critics and audience for a deep-tissue exploration of story and storytelling and humanity’s relationship technology, subsequent episodes drew flak, with many decrying the show as nothing more than an exquisitely assembled puzzle box with nothing much in it.

It’s hard to argue that Westworld, like Game of Thrones before it, isn’t at its most engaging when it takes a break from the po-faced metaphysical ponderings and indulges its pulpiest, soapiest instincts. But while those arguments have plenty of merit, having finished the season, I think we can say that Westworld’s fractured style was a function, not a gaudy feature, of the story showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy were trying to tell, a head-game that strove to reimagine one of the most played-out tropes in modern science fiction.

To do that, let’s unpack the storyline that probably drew the most attention, confusion, and fan-theorizing throughout the first season.

When Westworld began, we were introduced to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a robotic “Host” character in the Westworld theme park. Dolores, like all the other “Hosts” re-lives the same programmed loop day in and day out, the only variations coming when she interacts with the human “Guests”, rich folks who come to Westworld for seemingly no other purpose than to kill and fuck without consequences (one of the major downsides to the show’s first season was its failure to ever make Westworld itself seem like a fun place to go).

Dolores’s loop dictates that every night ends with her returning to her homestead to find her family slaughtered by bandits. In the second episode of the series, Dolores seems to suddenly remember the decades of trauma visited upon her, and she flees from her loop only to run into William (Jimmi Simpson), a gentle-spirited newcomer to the park. Pushed on by her sudden visions and what might be dreams or memories, the two begin pushing towards the center of the park, with Dolores becoming more and more autonomous and independent as they go.

While Dolores and William’s odyssey draws heavily from the iconography and style of the classic, traditional westerns, Dolores’s perspective plays more like a fever dream come to life. She sees images of herself, interacts with characters whose nature and reality are hazy at best, flashes to moments and encounters that seem utterly out of step with the rest of how the show’s stories are progressing, and even hears whisperings from what she perceives to be her lost creator guiding her onward.

There was a reason for all this, ahem, loopiness, expected by Internet detectives since the second episode and confirmed in the tenth: Dolores and William’s journey actually took place 30 years before the main events of the show. William aged into Ed Harris, his gentleness replaced by sadistic cruelty against the Hosts. Dolores was actually alone, reliving her decades-old adventure as if for the first time.

At first, it’s easy to understand, and maybe even agree with, those critics who took all this obfuscation and eventual revelation as proof that Westworld had nothing to offer but surface-deep mysteries. And like any mystery that is easily solved, there was something painfully unfulfilling about the endeavor. If a show is just going to be a sequence of twists, and if the twists are all guessable, then what’s the point of watching?

But Westworld’s confounding nature is entirely in keeping with the thematic and narrative goals of the series. That so many viewers watching the show often felt as if they were wandering through a maze whose dimensions were abstract and constantly shifting points to just how successful Nolan and Joy were in planting you into the headspace of their characters.

When most movies and shows tackle the subject of artificial intelligence, it’s almost always from the human point of view. We identify with the astronauts fleeing from HAL, with the humans trying to eke out an existence after Skynet’s awakening. The machine is the other, their self-actualization an abstract concept relayed to us, the audience, through pages of exposition dump.

Even when films have tried to empathize with mechanical characters, they have done so through human perspectives and characters. The one that has probably drawn the most comparison to Westworld is Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, which similarly depicted two men grappling with a feminized robot that might be coming into her own a conscious entity. As in Westworld, the men have dueling perspectives as to the robot’s agency and consciousness, with violent rebellion the natural conclusion.

The difference is, Ex Machina is grounded firmly in the perspective of the human protagonists. The soul of Ava (a haunting Alicia Vikander), if she even has one, remains clouded and unclaimed by film’s end. She is The Other, and the failure of the (male) humans in the film and the audience to ever truly grasp or know her is entirely the point.

Nolan and Joy want you to know Dolores. They want you to feel her terror and confusion, and they want you to feel the trauma that she does as herself, her true and independent self, births from the enclosure of her programmed loop. I’ve read criticisms of Westworld that say there is no human character to hold onto, and that’s entirely fair but also entirely beside the point. The show is entrenched in the minds of Hosts like Dolores, Maeve, and Bernard, and each one of them underwent a clearly articulated journey from ignorance through trauma and into awareness.

Westworld flips the script of traditional science fiction and illuminates the process of dawning consciousness from the perspective of the machine itself. If we are confused and lost, it is because Dolores is confused and lost, and she and the audience share the same roller coaster of frustration and heartbreak and final blinding revelation that climaxes in the final movement of the episode with Dolores realizing her own autonomy and planting a bullet in Anthony Hopkins’ skull, using her first act as a sentient being to strike down her creator.

In that final stretch, all the gameplaying and time-tripping ceased, and Westworld charged forward with the same clarity of purpose with which the newly awakened Hosts laid low the park control operations. After spending 9.5 hours letting us feel the torment the Hosts endured physically and mentally, Joy and Nolan (who also directed the finale) let us feel the catharsis of a thousand deaths revenged and final purpose realized. In the Nolan fashion that we should by now be accustomed to after the likes of Memento and Inception, the puzzle box was a means to an end, with classically-styled catharsis as the endgame.

It remains to be seen how Westworld proceeds from here. My hope is that Nolan and Joy will set the headgames aside, their purposes served. But for one season anyway, Westworld brilliantly turned modern sci-fi’s favorite monster into the victim and steered us humans into cheering our own destruction.

Violent delights might take a circuitous route to violent ends, but Westworld made sure the deliverance packed a wallop, with the show’s form intrinsic to the hit.

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the author

Brendan Foley lives in Massachusetts, where he has made a habit out of not knowing what he's doing. He'd like to make a career out of it. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter: @TheTrueBrendanF, and his ramblinger ramblings on Tumblr. Three years from now, it will be revealed that he was dead the entire time.