Westworld: post-season 1 dissection

The violent delights of Westworld have come to an end, for now. Spoilers ahead as we look back and ask what's to come...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Warning: contains major spoilers for Westworld season 1.

Dolores fires another shot, the discordant music draws to a close and there is a cut to black. A brief moment of silence. What now? Westworld season 1 is over and while the show has settled a number of the major fan theories circulating the internet, the series finale has handed us mere humans some fresh, new, tantalising narrative threads that are nowhere near tied up in a neat bow.

This series has exhibited meticulous attention to detail in its scriptwriting and visuals so it would be wise to accept that the filming of the next instalment could take some time. With season 2 predicted for 2018 at the earliest, what better way to bridge the void ahead than with a look back at the series as a whole, what made it great and the questions that have been answered and left hanging along the way? Strap in for a nostalgic, spoiler-filled journey.

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We were in for something special from the first note of Ramin Djawadi’s original score. Imbued with an uncanny, other-worldliness it is a piece that builds from a gentle, beautiful melancholy to a suspenseful, almost urgent climax. Perhaps Westworld’s theme music was our first clue that the uniform world that the hosts inhabit will soon become unruly, dangerous and real and that the hosts in their unexpected sentience will have the means to avenge their repeated pain.

For all of Westworld’s bold ideas and extraordinary storytelling there is a real beauty to the world of the park, hugely aided by Djawadi’s score, that can often go unnoticed beneath the latest narrative twist. Perhaps this is in part also due to the early knowledge that so much of Westworld is false, without even venturing into the moral considerations. Cast your mind back to Dolores and Teddy’s first exchange in the series; Teddy follows Dolores on horseback out into the wilds of Westworld and we are treated to glorious, sweeping shots of Castle Valley, the real-world home of Westworld, drenched in the light of the setting sun.

“That’s a beautiful sight”, says Teddy. Perhaps the beauty is made all the more striking with the bitter-sweet knowledge that none of hosts, at least at this early stage in the series, have the capacity to appreciate it regardless of what is programmed into their behaviour or written into their script. “Are you headed out to set down some of this natural splendour?” asks Peter Abernathy from the porch of his idyllic country ranch, who is only an episode’s length away from being recalled and placed in the darkness of underground storage.

The beauty is in the detail, too, and the repeated and striking visuals laid down by creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. There is something eerily mesmerising about the image of the perforated paper rotating in the player piano in the Mariposa Saloon and its recurrence encourages us to ask what significance it holds. The self-playing keys make a clear allusion to the unfinished host hand that delicately plays the keys in Westworld’s opening sequence; perhaps an acknowledgement that everything within the Westworld park will operate precisely as Robert Ford wants it to regardless of any host’s role in the matter. The idea of the hosts’ early helplessness is made clear through the repetition of the image of the scrolling paper; the actions of the hosts are inconsequential and their lives on a repeated cycle of steps much like the roll of paper, which will play the same tune again when reset at command.

There is an even darker side to the endless loop of the lives of Maeve and Clementine that even Nolan and Joy do not broach in the series. Hosts are shot and stabbed on a daily basis and the wounds patched up before they are ready to do their daily round again… but what of the prostitutes? As the player piano starts afresh its plinky-plonky tune, there is the horrific and unmentioned understanding that the ladies of the Mariposa have been ‘freshened up’ from their work of the previous day and its parade of eager customers.

Sylvester makes a brief reference during a physical examination of Maeve that she has “MRSA in her abdomen… filthy f***ing animals not cleaning up” and the subject is left there; the stomach-turning reality of the perfection that the paying customers see. It is safe to say that at every turn beauty is undercut by darkness. Much like the thick black smoke of the train that cuts across the sun-drenched vista of Westworld in episode 2, everything that appears perfect is tainted by the murky truth and even murkier morals.

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There’s much to read and discover in the images of Westworld before the narrative is even considered, but boy does the story deliver too. The character development has been gradual and thorough for a number of the key players and there have been hints to later revelations sprinkled throughout the episodes with only a handful of climactic, big-reveal scenes. The creators have been playing with their audience like hosts in their hands and I, for one, was more than happy to let them.

So what are the major discoveries of this barn burner of a first series? Firstly, Bernard is a host created in the image of Ford’s former business partner Arnold. The oft-mentioned deceased co-creator of the park is in many ways living on through Bernard and the codes that he laced into the hosts with the hope that they would achieve consciousness. The familiar talks between Dolores and who we presumed to be Bernard early in the series are thus revealed to be flashbacks of conversations between Dolores and Arnold.

Having suffered the trauma of losing his infant son, a fact developed into a storyline to make host Bernard more authentic, Arnold was determined to bring Dolores to consciousness and felt that the best way to free her would be to program her to massacre the other early hosts before the park’s opening and then kill him. Now we have two realisations in one; how Arnold died and who Wyatt is. You know the storyline with the treacherous villain who massacred a village? Oh yes, Dolores is Wyatt.

You can’t really talk about Arnold’s hopes for creating conscious hosts without talking about the maze, an almost mythical concept that the Man in Black has been seeking throughout the series. The Man in Black has high hopes for the centre of what he assumes to be a literal maze; that it might be a place that ‘unlocks’ a new level to the game of Westworld in which the hosts can react and retaliate at will. He has been frequently told, “the maze wasn’t meant for you”, a sentence that teases him and pushes his quest onward. It transpires that this sentence in fact means ‘the maze wasn’t meant for humans’ as the maze is an idea based on a game played by Arnold’s son that signifies going inside oneself to achieve consciousness. The maze is a journey; an opportunity and gift left to the hosts by Arnold and the maze is no more meant for the human visitors than the park now is, when Dolores declares, “this world doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to us”. The irony of the maze’s exclusivity to hosts is that, in their finding of the centre of the maze, therein lies everything the Man in Black hopes for.

So why does the world now belong to the hosts? Because the final ‘narrative’ Ford releases before he is due to step down is an act of liberation and an homage to his late friend; he has equipped the hosts with the power to make their own decisions. In Dolores’ case, this equipping is literal, and Ford seems very aware and comfortable with his fate when Dolores raises a gun to his head and fires during his speech introducing his new and final story. “An old friend once told me something that gave me great comfort. Something he’d read. He said that Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin never died, they simply became music. So I hope you will enjoy this last piece very much” he says, seeming to pre-empt more than just his retirement and reflecting on his legacy. It is as though Ford requires Dolores to shoot him to activate the new narrative, as he speaks indirectly of her when setting up the story, “It begins in a time of war with a villain named Wyatt and a killing, this time by choice…”

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Finally, another major discovery of the series is that the young, romantic William that falls in love with Dolores is the same man that, thirty years later, owns a majority share in Westworld and runs riot on its sands. The Man in Black. We’ve seen the Man in Black manhandle and abuse Dolores among many others, so something snapped along the way. Perhaps it was a thirst for violence in his quest as young William to find Dolores again or maybe it was seeing her back on her loop some time later with all memory of their time together wiped. It may have been a much-theorised twist but fans of William will undoubtedly be mourning his youthful optimism and honest intentions before, once again, the beauty was undercut by something more dark.

A number of big plot points have been resolved at the close of this series but a notable loose end that we are still left with by the close of season one is the whereabouts of head of security Ashley Stubbs and Elsie. Elsie’s system-tethered device omits a signal, despite her being missing in action and believed to be on leave, and yet when Stubbs goes to investigate in episode nine there is no recovery of Elsie or reappearance from Stubbs in episode ten. Are they still alive? And if so, who is holding them hostage?

There is much to look forward to with the start of Ford’s new narrative in season two in which the hosts are now able to make conscious decisions. Perhaps that mystery body that Ford has been creating in his underground lab is a host in which he can live on in a conscious and indestructible form? Or perhaps he will only exist now in flashback form or as coding within the hosts? There is also the not-so-small matter of where their new-found consciousness will lead Dolores and Maeve and how the Delos Corporation plans to control the hosts’ actions towards guests that pay for pleasure in safe confines.

A teaser dropped into the final episode has had fans champing at the bit for information on the potential of other ‘worlds’; the brief sighting of Japanese warriors in a section of the headquarters emblazoned with the logo ‘SW’. Is this a potential new Samurai World? Nolan himself has talked of the “incestuous relationship” between Westerns and their adaptations of Akira Kurosawa films centred around samurai so perhaps we will be seeing Westworld’s expansion into new genres… or does the newly enabled consciousness of the sentient hosts make this far too dangerous?

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have created a spectacular series that has faith in the intelligence of its audience and is not afraid to play with the huge themes of morality, free will and consciousness.  I take my Stetson off to them.