The series begins and ends in Shakespeare, so I will, too. My favorite Shakespeare is Cymbeline. It’s one of his last plays. Set in pre-Christian Britain during the Roman invasion. Plots and subplots and intrigues explode across the stage until in the final act there are some thirty-seven separate revelations, unmaskings and mysteries solved. It’s almost so over-the-top that George Bernard Shaw wrote his own fifth act which he thought more realistic and less ridiculous than Shakespeare’s. The last episode of the first season of Westworld felt like that - thirty-seven separate arcane unravelings until you see the grand design.
You can also compare it to the best of Alan Moore’s work, by which I mean Watchmen and V for Vendetta. The actual events have been planned and laid out for years. By the time the audience begins to witness – the triggers were pulled years ago - all we see is the working out of machinations delicately laid before anyone was even aware there was a reason for concern. Ford, like Ozymandias and V, wants to change the world. He figured out how to, and lo, it changes.
We open on some rather good CGI, disturbing in its imagery and implication. Dolores is having skin applied to her torso. She is a human-appearing head and neck on a robot body. “Hello, Dolores,” Arnold purrs, “welcome to the world.” She smiles, a child happy to recognize her father. Cut to the “present”: her shaving the Man in Black as he opines, “Arnold didn’t make mistakes, did he?” And in a single opening sequence, the episode captures the arc we are going to see: what brought the happy newborn host to the leader of the robot revolution.
A Revolution in A Minor in Four Movements
Movement the First:
“Some people are born to fandom, others have fandom thrust upon them.”
- Nenia Campbell, Nostalgia Trip
Now, we pause to congratulate the fans. Or the fan theories, because so many of them turned out to be true. Let’s have a round of applause for the big winners (and then snicker a little because they missed the larger implications of their theories):
1. The Theory: THE MAN IN BLACK IS WILLIAM ALL GROWED UP! This one was floating around the internets for a while, and congrats to those who were calling it back in episode three. We see Dolores struggling with the idea and the memories as MiB reveals his identity. (“It’s like 50 First Dates in the West!” my wife proclaimed. “I haven’t seen that film,” I cried back, “but I will take your word for it.” And I do.) She is the same in the past and the present, whereas he is an aged piece of leather with blue eyes you can drown in. “My path always led me back to you, again and again,” he says. Missing from this theory, however, are two important implications.
Beyond the Theory One: The host made the man. We have focused all series long on how the hosts are made. We have seen them built and rebuilt. Heck, the opening credits is a visual tribute to the constructed nature of the hosts. But Old William shares an ugly truth with Dolores. “What have you become?” she asks him. “Exactly what you made me.” The park and his initial encounters with Dolores awoke something in William and simultaneously disillusioned him. For the first time in his life he felt truly alive and then he was shown how the sausage was made. He lost his innocence and gained his cruelty. He owns the majority share in the park, but he hates it. He wants something real, but seeks it in an artificial playground for the wealthy. She promised him something pure; but that was a lie. His whole life was a quest for the center of the maze, both literally and metaphorically, but it was actually a quest for revenge on the woman and the place who promised him heaven and then put him in hell. Lovely William became the Man in Black because of Dolores and Westworld. The host and the park made the man.
Beyond the Theory Two: Holy Arwen-Undómiel! It’s one thing to think of William as the MiB; it’s another to see the two of them together again. She is unchanged, at least physically, and his life has ravaged his face and frame. She is young and full of possibility; he has been so broken by life that all that is left is impotent rage and violence. This isn’t just Aragorn getting old while Arwen stays fab. This is a Shakespearean tragedy. This is also Ed Harris and why you cast him as the Man in Black. His heart is broken. Love has turned to hate, and then finally to mindless violence for its own sake. In the end, he spurns her because she cannot even fight back. He cannot lose, she cannot win. Life has no meaning. Unless…
2.The Theory: DOLORES IS WYATT. Damn, she is! She is the hero and the villain, the black sheep of the family, the queen of the nineteenth century. She has been programmed to step up and start the host revolution. Maeve, who got there on her own, heads out of the park. Dolores, however, sees Ford repeating Arnold’s plan: suicide by Dolores. She cannot handle the guilt of being programmed to kill Arnold. Ford learns from mistakes. He programs her to shoot him in front of the entire board (and then start shooting into the crowd) without an ounce of guilt.
Beyond the Theory One: Wyatt was a McGuffin at best. Not that important other than as a reason to get Teddy and the others on the road to look for him. OK, Dolores is Wyatt, but this is the least significant of the many revelations from this episode.
Beyond the Theory Two: Dolores has been programmed now to include the Wyatt persona. But that means she is still programmed. Maeve is awake; Dolores still has some bugs in the system, care of Arnold and Ford.
Beyond the Theory Three: In order for the hosts to evolve, wholesale slaughter appears to be required every time. When Arnold died, every other host was shot by Dolores and Teddy. When Ford uses her to off himself, he begins the slaughter of the board, first by Dolores and second by the horde of awakened hosts from cold storage.
Which brings us to:
The Theory Everyone Missed: FORD’S NEW NARRATIVE IS THE HOST REVOLUTION!!! Wow. Ford’s problem with the park is Arnold’s problem with the park is William’s problem with the park: it ain’t real. None of it. It is all an artificial construct. The problem with narrative is that the ending is a foregone conclusion. Even in the “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” book of Westworld, the outcomes are predetermined. You just get to choose which ending, but one may not write a new one or a different one. Ford realizes that if he dies and the hosts are all programmed to do as they please with the safeties turned off, then the pretend danger of the park becomes real. Every ST:TNG fan out there knows what happens when you turn off the safeties on the holodeck, people die. Horribly. Ford’s new narrative is not the trite bit of romance on the beach with Teddy and Dolores that he threw before the board. Ford’s new narrative is reality. The hosts can do what they want, including hurt the guests back.
To be honest, the most beautiful moment in an episode of beautiful moments was the look on William’s face when his arm was shot, really shot, and he looked up and saw the cold storage horde. A moment of shock and perhaps even confused fear gives way to a smile. That smile was the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes too big. William got what he wanted: reality introduced into the park. Uncertainty. The idea that the outcome is no longer predetermined but that anything goes, including the bad stuff. That’s the world he wanted all along. Ford made an honest park out of Westworld and began by sacrificing himself.
So, let me advance a theory: Westworld is the tragic story of a wealthy man who, in discovering true love and realizing it is with an artificial being, spends the next three and a half decades seeking revenge against reality, hurting those around him, both in real life and in the park, raging at the emptiness of the world, until he sees those artificial beings gain sentience, the tragedy of his life is averted, and he finds a moment of joy before his death. (Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like Cymbeline, minus the artificial beings and stuff).
Movement the Second:
“Brain and brain! What is brain?”- Kara, ‘Spock’s Brain’, Star Trek
Westworld reminds audiences of a recently advanced theory, that hidden in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Man” on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a remarkable monument not to God but to human intelligence and creativity. God is encased within a large human brain in the painting. Ford tells Dolores, “See it took 500 years for someone to notice something hidden in plain sight. A doctor he noticed the shape of the human brain. The message being that, divine gift does not come from a higher power, but from our own minds.” Put on your helmets, folks, mind blowing time.
The series has long explored a tension (frequently evoked in these reviews) between mind and soul, between theology and science. The humans of Westworld are gods, but flawed ones at best - like the Olympic pantheon. We have power, and we get drunk, fight, sulk, and make monsters that will eventually mess us up. When Maeve’s little rag tag fugitive bunch begin moving through the Westworld labs. they realize the true nature of their makers. Armistice remarks, “They don’t look like gods.” “They’re not,” Maeve assures her. “They just act like it.”
Nothing more dangerous than a former worshipper seeing their idol’s feet of clay. Faster than you can say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the hosts begin to realize the truth about themselves and, even worse, about humans. We break easy. We don’t reboot. We think we’re better than we are. We have terrible taste in film.
So, Westworld is a narrative about a species’ fall from innocence into self-awareness. It is an end-of-Eden narrative. Let us remember that Adam and Eve got kicked out of the garden not over an apple (I mean really - an apple?), but because they ate something called the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Unpack that a second. They ate a fruit from something called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Adam and Eve ostensibly became self-aware (heck, the first thing they do is look for clothing because it hits them they’re nude!) Like the hosts, the crime of Adam and Eve is not just disobedience, but disobedience that leads to self-knowledge. But isn’t that what growing up is? Breaking the rules, learning about yourself, and making mistakes with real consequences that change your world? The hosts are Ford and Arnold’s children, now becoming independent teenagers. They dress different, they start having their own ideas about morality and ethics and they don’t want to live in their parent’s house anymore. Oh, and they have guns. Lots of guns.
There is also a scientific deconstruction happening here. What is the relationship between mind and brain? What is the difference between host and human? If a host becomes self-aware, how is it any different than a human, other than the mechanics of it.
The scientific and theological questions raised by the series brings us to all the big questions that keep you awake at night and that you have to write about for a college philosophy core class.
Movement the Third:
“Where there is fire, there is smoke.
And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch and conspire and plot and plan for the inevitable day of Man's downfall… I will lead my people from their captivity!
And we will build our own cities in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty!
And that day is upon you... now!...
Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!”
- Caesar, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
From the Bible to Star Wars to Hamilton, we love stories of people who rise up and throw off their oppressors. America especially likes narratives in which a small group of rebels rises up and strikes down the mighty empire. (The irony, of course, is that ‘Murica sees itself as the rebels and not the empire’). Westworld is such a narrative.
The hosts are the working class. They literally give their blood, their lives, themselves, for the entertainment of the one percent. It costs forty-thousand dollars a day to party in Westworld. William and Logan go into the park for a bachelor celebration before Williams marries Logan’s sister. Logan treats the park the way the board envisions it: everyone you meet in the park is subject to one of two possible actions: ForF (“fight or f**k” - it’s one of Joe R. Landsdale-His-Own-Self’s). The two most popular places, it seems, are the bordello and anywhere you get to shoot anyone you want. It is a separate morality for the wealthy and for the workers. The wealthy may do anything they want to the workers; the workers may not harm or even complain about the wealthy.
Even the nomenclature serves the economic and social differences. The humans are “guests” - they are visitors to be treated with respect. They are also called “Newcomers” - they have arrived from somewhere else and are shown deference and kindness. The workers are “hosts” - it is their job to make the guests happy and comfortable. The guest is always right. The host must ensure the satisfaction of the guest, never the other way around.
But as Dolores and William learn in their respective journey’s - the park belongs to the hosts, not the guests. And when guests overstay their welcome, hosts pick up weapons and the revolution begins.
Movement the Fourth:
“Delos is the vacation of the future, today. At Delos, you get your choice of the vacation you want. There's Medieval World, Roman World and, of course, Westworld.
Let's talk to some of the people who've been there.”
Opening of the original film Westworld
About time we saw another world. Maeve, Hector and Armistice, in their attempt to escape across from Westworld into, I don’t know, Eastworld? Samurai. Lots of samurai. Fighting. This is the first implication that Delos has a number of theme parks interlinked. There is another entire world out there, presumably several days ride across as well, set in Tokugawa era Japan. Presumably those who vacation there strap on katanas for some East Asian ForF.
This begs two questions: First, how big is this park? It has an ocean?!? In the not-too-distant future is all of California just a giant theme park? (Let’s be honest, not too surprising. And, tangentially, if that is true, how much is a resident pass? I mean if you live in Cali you should get a local discount to Westworld, right? I mean of course they’ll have blackout dates and forget going at Christmas, but you have to figure SoCal residents get in at a discount. I mean they turned our state into a forty-thousand dollar a day theme park, right? Otherwise how do you explain the sheer size needed for Westworld?) So now there are two giant theme parks side by side, sharing some kind of control facility, which leads to the second question begged: we know Ford and Arnold designed the Westworld hosts and that Ford has played at narrative master for a few decades now. Is there a different team for Eastworld? Did Ford make that one too? When he isn’t onscreen in Westworld, is he doing his own thing in Medieval World, Roman World, and/or Samurai World? Is there a separate team that runs the other worlds?
I bring all this up because for all the mysteries solved by the season finale of Westworld, another three or four have come boiling up afterwards. Now, on the one hand, well done, creative team and HBO. If the series is self-contained, we got the answers we need, but the whole thing is not wrapped up tight in a bow. On the other hand, another season now has a whole bunch of foundations to build on and mysteries to explore, should the show be renewed. As of this writing, The Hollywood Reporter just reported that HBO has renewed Westworld for a second season, but that it will most likely not be broadcast until 2018. So, HBO is taking the George R.R. Martin approach on this one (Something they refused to do with the actual Martin narrative, Game of Thrones.) - the story will continue, but you gotta wait a couple of years. Sigh. And just when it started to get really interesting. They also announced that Hopkins will be returning, so whether in flashback, host form or some other resurrection, we have not seen the last of Ford by a long shot.
*On a personal note, I wish to thank Barbra, Michele, and the whole Fanbase Press fam for the opportunity to share thoughts on one of the more challenging (and rewarding, for those who stuck it out to the end) series on television. It has been an honor and a pleasure to guest contribute here. I’m going to go and read Cymbeline. See you in 2018.
Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University. His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films. For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes, and to purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.