Season 1 of Westworld wrapped up over the weekend, finally giving us a clear picture of the show’s reality…sort of. If you haven’t watched it yet, steer clear, because I will be posting spoilers below. However, my opinion of the show after the first 5 episodes is still, for the most part, how I feel now: its mystery was compelling and it has a lot on its mind, but for a show about the essence of humanity, it has a difficult time inviting us to care about its characters on a human level.
Moving onto spoilers and specifics: the internet really hurt this one, didn’t it? The unfortunate truth of the matter is that it is nearly impossible, in this day and age, to structure a season of television around a surprise. Dan Harmon has talked about this quite a lot, specifically in reference to season 5 of Dexter. That year, the creators waited until one of the last episodes of the season to reveal that the main villain was a hallucination of his apprentice. Unfortunately, the internet acts as a “render farm” when it comes to fan theories, bringing just about every possibility to light and vetting their likelihood. Watching through this lens, the season played out like an abundantly clear joke, until the reveal finally allowed the characters to catch up with the viewers. It further ruined what was already a particularly bad season of the show.
This happened with season 1 of Westworld, too. Not just once, not twice, but THREE SEPARATE TIMES. The theory that William’s timeline was in the past and he was the “Man in Black” came about after episode 2 aired, people started suspecting that Bernard was a “host” in episode 3 (a reveal apparent enough that I noticed it before reading any theories online), and there were rumors that Bernard was Arnold (or an AI recreation of him) after the very first episode in which Arnold was mentioned. This made Westworld a bit tedious at times, as it was so blatantly holding back information just to make these twists hit. However, to the contrary, the confirmation of fan theories made Westworld appointment viewing. Like with Jon Snow’s parentage in season 6 of Game of Thrones, people would tune in to see how much of their speculation was accurate. As it turns out,nearly all of it was.
But the success or failure of a show is determined by far more than whether it’s “twists” hit home. Westworld will be judged primarily on how well its stories played out, and I’m not sure that it was altogether successful. Major stories, like William’s turn to villainy, somehow managed to feel rushed despite the amount of screentime devoted to them throughout the year. Him deciding after a whole season of championing Dolores that Westworld was a “game” and murder was okay, just because he saw her back in town with no memories, is akin to Anakin Skywalker spending two Star Wars movies as a hero and then murdering children a day after ratting Palpatine out to Mace Windu.
Other major stories, too, feel underdeveloped and cheap. Accepting that Ford was always planning this new “narrative” and an uprising of the hosts requires a HUGE suspension of disbelief. Forget, for a moment, that Ford’s motives were never particularly clear and seemed to shift depending on the needs of whatever scene he occupied. For him to have pulled this off, he not only had to rely on the robots (which he could at least control, to some extent, through their programming), but also the predictability of other human beings. The major moment of his new “narrative,” in which Dolores dies in Teddy’s arms, was dependent on William finding Dolores only hours beforehand, getting into an altercation with her about the “maze,” and critically injuring her right as Teddy showed up. This doesn’t suggest masterful strategy so much as shortcuts on the behalf of the show’s writers.
But it’s easy to point out the plotholes in Westworld’s design, as a detailed and logical representation of the park has never been a priority. The writers intentionally write around major details of how the park functions, and perhaps this is for the best, as the show has always been more interested in theme and allegory. But despite their engagement with broad questions, such as what it means to be human and what makes acts immoral, I’m not quite sure they ended up saying all that much.
The show gave plenty of screentime to philosophical monologues about what makes us human, especially where Ford was concerned. But in the end, very little effort was made to make the characters, “host” and “newcomer” alike, feel especially human or multidimensional. Most were given a moment in their background to define them, or a singular goal (often shrouded in secrecy until late in the season) to guide them, but outside of Dolores and Bernard, there were few moments of internal conflict. For a show about humanity, it’s strange how un-engaged Westworld often is in the emotional complexity that defines sentience.
If I’m being kind, I can give Westworld the benefit of the doubt and assume that these shortcomings exist because season 1 serves as an extended prologue to the main conflict. Now that we know the background of the series and the host uprising has begun, perhaps the characters will become more fully-dimensional in their response to the new conflict. But there are reasons to be concerned, too. The poor handling of William and Ford’s characters this season suggests that the writers may not be interested in character consistency or behavior, which will prove problematic now that the puzzle-box element of the show will be minimized.
But all troubles aside, I enjoyed watching Westworld. It’s a show, like many of the Nolan brother’s projects, which shoots for the stars, for better or for worse. There’s nothing else on television quite like it, and if it’s content to occupy its own high-concept philosophically-driven corner while other, more traditional narratives exist alongside it, I can accept that. I just think that there’s a better, more human show waiting to emerge.