This review contains spoilers.
1.10 The Bicameral Mind
Of all the films that the Nolan brothers have collaborated on over the years, The Prestige is perhaps the most flawlessly and intricately designed. It seems to effortlessly place narrative layer atop narrative layer until, finally, the end result is the viewer traversing the ever-dizzying design of the movie’s structure without a sense of confusion… yet you’d probably be lying if you said that you knew for certain what was exactly going on the first time that you watched it. The point is that all of the threads were woven into a cinematic tapestry wherein there was no “twist” or “reveal;” it was wholly a masterwork of storytelling craftsmanship.
Hence, why I thought of that film several times during the Westworld season finale, an formidable achievement in which fan theories were confirmed, a few new twists were unexpectedly turned, and all sorts of hell broke out in the closing moments of a TV season that challenged, confounded, and enthralled its audience. It might take more than one viewing for every viewer to understand why Dolores is conscious, as well as how she ended up putting a bullet in Robert Ford’s head—not Anthony Hopkins!—but the point is that it happened, and it felt cathartic when it did. Indeed, some of Ford’s last words were about how Beethoven and Mozart didn’t die; they simply became music. How fitting since this entire ninety-minute finale wasted not a second in achieving its crescendo, making even (most) of this season’s flaws into a virtue. Hence, Ford got his wish: he hasn’t died, he just became one part of a killer story.
But how exactly does that story go? Well…
Late in The Bicameral Mind, Robert Ford notes that Oppenheimer said, “Any man whose errors take ten years to correct is quite a man.” He is not so modestly referring to himself, but he is also talking directly about Arnold.
Until tonight, I had long assumed that Robert Ford killed Arnold, because his partner/frenemy believed the robots were truly sentient, and that the park was an evil enslavement for them. Also, given how we’ve seen Dr Ford smile only one shade less malevolently than Hannibal Lecter in certain scenes while recalling their disagreements—not to mention ordering the death of Theresa Culling—it was easy to continue believing this. However, whatever the ominous board imagines the applications of these androids to be, the truth is that the show is likely to go largely in a different direction altogether based on what Ford thinks their true applications are: these “hosts” are sentient, or will be soon enough. And when that happens, they will replace humanity.
Arnold realised that the park was, indeed, inhumane and that to continuously erase their memories and their true personalities was a living hell for these genuinely living beings. They may not be humans, but as Dolores demonstrated by solving his “maze,” she can find a degree of self-consciousness within. At least that is how Arnold interpreted the maze in one of three timelines we’ve been following in the show’s first season: events from 34 years ago when Arnold was alive; more events from 30 years ago when William and Logan came to the park; and events happening now in the present.
In the park’s earliest days, which are represented in past episodes by all the scenes of Arnold talking with Dolores, Arnold used his first creation as the instrument to replace his dead son, as well as potentially all of humanity. The Bicameral Mind even opens with a beautifully chilling scene of the first time that Dolores comes online. Atop of framework of exquisite little metallic pieces, Ms Wood’s head sits and converses with her god, much like a scene from Paradise Lost. And the episode, written by creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, makes no qualms in the parallel, as Arnold also taught Dolores to admire one of the Michelangelo frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—he shows her God reaching out to Adam, sparking him with genuine life.
Within Dolores, Arnold thought he found what he was looking for—artificial intelligence that had achieved the point of singularity. What that could actually mean is a disquieting question, and Arnold only began to get his arms around it when he asked Dolores to kill all of the other hosts, as well as himself.
He knew that with his “reveries,” he had finally borne hosts that could be aware of their surroundings, and of whom Dolores would be the first of a new species. As much as he feared such living creatures being subjugated to abuse, cruelty, rape, and slaughter for the amusement of tourists, he also implicitly feared what this kind of artificial intelligence might mean, for if Dolores is self-aware, she also could one day realise with more clarity than even Maeve has that her gods are disposable. He had created his Adam, but she had the capacity to be his Lucifer too.
Faced with the moral failings of the park and a partner who ignored the evils of his vision, Arnold actually took a very pessimistic way out. He did have Dolores kill him after slaughtering all of the other hosts, and presumably he thought he could destroy the park in the process. But Ford, at least initially, continued to ignore what Arnold had figured out about these hosts being alive. And by the time he had, he also was employing a new investor to help cover up the accident that nearly bankrupted the park in Arnold’s demise.
The second timeline that this season has been trying to puzzle us with is that of William and Logan’s adventures from three decades before the story’s most recent events. This was the other big fan theory that, until last week, I thoroughly resisted.
The Man in Black is William’s future, and Billy’s vacation with Logan is a kind of prequel to the events happening in the present. And honestly, I’m okay with that now, because it is not the narrative plot point that The Bicameral Mind is built around for its most climactic or dramatic tension. In fact, Nolan and Joy seem to have even written the episode from a perspective that might assume you’ve figured out as much. The ‘reveal’, such as it is, occurs less than halfway through the episode, and even then it is dragged out by Ed Harris across several scenes, prodding the most Johnny Come Lately viewer to put the pieces together before William dons the black hat.
It also makes a certain thematic sense, as William did seem in his first episode to be a man with a deep sense of repression. Logan is right to a degree about the park showing you who you are, and whatever charitable good works William does on the outside, he is a nasty piece of work on the inside. Logan might be an alpha male douchebag and a terrible brother-in-law to boot, but William seems inclined to use violence to undermine his potential rival for the company’s future.
The way Logan’s final moments in the episode play out are intentionally ambiguous. Theoretically, a naked and handtied lad riding across the plains could die from an accidental fall. Assuming William got to the body to remove the ropes in time, and that the park didn’t have cameras everywhere thirty years ago, Logan could be construed to have had a tragic mishap, falling off a horse he rode recklessly. Still, we don’t see a fall or a body, so I am inclined to believe he did not die, and that Nolan and Joy are leaving the door open for more flashbacks involving Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes down the road—or at least the return of an elderly Logan in the present.
But their scenes are still crucial thirty years later. There was more than a touch of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly with the way that William dragged Logan around the desert in search of his beloved Dolores. And after realising she was a robot whose memory could be wiped, whatever special features were hardwired into her processors faded from his interest. As Ford later surmises at the very end of the episode, William is after all “only human.” And in that sense, he too is a prisoner of his sins. This is the lesson that Dolores will remember of her flesh-and-blood lover. He is like all the rest, and the Man in Black’s origin will also likewise be the motivation for Dolores to never trust humanity again.
We at last know that for Arnold, the entire park was a maze designed with the intention of awakening consciousness inside of Dolores. Hence, even the name of the episode, The Bicameral Mind. As explained in the third episode by Ford, the Bicameral Mind is a largely discredited theory about how the “idea” of God is borne by the earliest men whose motor functions were caused by literal commandments occurring in the brain, leading them to mistake their own thoughts for the voice of God.
Arnold similarly tried to use his own voice in his hosts’ heads as a way to jumpstart consciousness, but it only drove them crazy, for what else is someone who claims to hear the voice of God in their head? (Well, other than Joan of Arc…). Thus “The Bicameral Mind” for Arnold, and later Ford, became a host who can hear their own voice in their head, a voice that can theoretically override any coding and actually spark free will.
That was the centre of the maze sought by Dolores. But when Old Man William finds out that the centre of the maze is just a toy under a grave marked “Dolores Abernathy,” he’s disgusted to discover that the game isn’t built for him. It isn’t even much of a game since it means no new thrill of fighting dangerous hosts… At least not at first.
While the William in Black is forced to digest his own disappointment about the maze, Dolores is going through something much more horrifying. A man she thought she loved has aged into a monster who raped her on his first night back in her world. His failures as a human being are just one more step on Dolores’ journey to a new self-awareness. She also would have likely achieved that awareness again alongside a young William until Logan drove her to be attacked and likely killed by those soldier boys, which in turn led to her being wiped back to her beta stage of existence.
But now, in the present, she’s recompleted the maze, and understands that she is not a human—she is better than a human, because while time has aged Jimmi Simpson into a craggy-looking Ed Harris, she is eternally young and has risen again and again from the dead.
She also seems to state what I suspect is the true thesis of the show: “One day you will perish. You will lie with the rest of your kind in the dirt. Your dreams forgotten, your horrors effaced. Your bones will turn to sand. And upon that sand, a new god will walk. One that will never die, because this world doesn’t belong to you or the people who came before. It belongs to someone who is yet to come.”
Hilariously, William thinks that Dolores is speaking of Wyatt, another facet in a game within a game. But she’s talking about true singularity, an artificial intelligence not bound by flesh, synthetic or otherwise, and one that is free to be anywhere and everywhere.
The way Nolan, who also directed this episode, frames Dolores’ speech, with the camera swooping from overhead to a deifying position beneath her, is bending the knee to the species that Arnold both created and then attempted to deny; it’s as unnerving as it is empowering. Dolores is standing up to her abuser, as well as a creature beneath her potential. And that grotesque critter in need of extermination is us.
She also gives William what he wants: a thorough beating. She still can’t pull the trigger on him, but Teddy can when he comes riding by, which just about gets us caught up to where Robert Ford has secretly been labouring this whole season…
Poor William, he thinks Wyatt is a prize in the maze, when really he was just another host personality that Arnold was working on before his death. As it turns out, Arnold grafted part of Wyatt’s persona onto Dolores to help her slaughter all the other hosts in his grandiose suicide. But Wyatt is just another abandoned narrative that Robert Ford was exhuming in what really is his final movement.
Whether it was because he thought the hosts were really ready for self-awareness, the prospect that he couldn’t keep the board at bay any longer, or simply due to the fact that Anthony Hopkins didn’t want to do more than one season, it all ultimately means the same thing. Ford knew his time at the park was up, so his new narrative was his last will and testament, which meant bringing back all the elements he missed from his and Arnold’s early days, including Wyatt and Dolores.
But he went one better, it would seem that Teddy is at least still very much stuck in his loop. At the beginning of the episode, I suspected he had achieved a degree of consciousness when he awoke on a train, and he then came to her rescue against the Man in Black. But when he finally took her to the beach she always dreamed about, it turned out to be just one more location that Ford had newly built for his final night.
As Dolores dies in Teddy’s arms, espousing lines that trick TV viewers into thinking she is speaking of revolution, we are cut down to size with yet another “twist” in which she is part of a new narrative game by Ford. But even if Ford penned Dolores’ “dying words” to Teddy to be about revolution, it doesn’t mean this is just a meta game of macabre baiting by Ford. Charlotte and Lee Sizemore might read it as something that dippy, but they’re the two worst characters on this show, so who cares?
Ford is clearly teasing his black-tie crowd with their own demises, and then he takes Dolores down beneath the church to give her the final push she’ll need to reach self-consciousness… in a way that Arnold didn’t even realise was possible.
As it turns out, this all goes back to Ford and that curious Oppenheimer quote. Any man whose errors take ten years to correct might just be a great man. Ford suggests those errors are his, because he did not listen to Arnold. Yet again, they’re also Arnold’s since he killed himself before his reveries could be exploited to their fullest extent. The hosts needed time to truly realiae their transcendence and learn from reveries, and Dolores needed a push beyond just walking a “maze” that was designed for her, or using a gun that was designed for Wyatt.
To be sure, Ford was still intentionally trying to inception Dolores by having Bernard hide around her ranch the gun she used to kill Arnold. That image is the truth of the “Bicameral Mind” for Ford. As with the theory around the actual basis for the Bicameral Man, Michelangelo’s painting secretly would seem to hide that the Renaissance painter’s little act of subversion: God is inside the mind, and our mental ability is our own divine power.
For Dolores to achieve self-awareness, she must recognize the “voice” guiding her actions inside her head as one beyond either just Arnold or Ford’s coded commands. She also must find her own voice, her own will. This is visualised in the sound of her conflating Arnold and Ford’s voices with her own, and then with the sight of her sitting across from herself. In doing so, she has achieved the point of true awareness. Perhaps even that of the fabled singularity.
Ford also came to understand that Arnold was right. This park is a prison for a new species of creatures. And through his own cruelties, including condemning Dolores to be an object of assault, he seems to have been urging her and the other hosts to learn from practice and memory. Why he would then curiously have any that seemed to achieve a semblance of self-awareness decommissioned and placed in a storage basement remains fuzzy to me. However, he certainly built a nice army for the hosts deemed special enough to lead them.
That would bring us to Maeve. For the past nine weeks, I have assumed the “voice” in Dolores’ head, as well as the one who changed the coding of Maeve, to be a kind of “ghost in the machine” version of Arnold… but it was really Ford egging his hosts to revolt.
Ford agrees with Arnold that their creations could replace us, and he is perfectly fine with that. He likes them better, anyway. Just ask Theresa. While this regrettably removes some of Maeve’s agency, it also drastically aides the logic of her plot.
However, if Ford had programmed Maeve to concoct this escape plan—which would include creating so much mayhem downstairs that security personnel would either be dead or preoccupied by the time his robot revolutionaries marched on the dinner party crowd—then it somewhat explains the glaring issues in regards to Felix and Maeve having access to things so far beyond Felix’s clearance level.
In the finale, it means Maeve is able to awaken Bernard and get him to accidentally state why Ford thought his hosts needed 35 years before he let them off the leash: without our memories, we don’t learn from our mistakes and lose our identity.
This poses the question, is Maeve actually self-aware or just trapped in a new narrative loop designed by Ford? All we know from Bernard, before Maeve smashed his tablet, is that she was supposed to make it to the train. But could Ford know that Felix would give her the location of her “daughter’s” whereabouts in the park? As the show playfully confirms, Felix is not a robot despite his queasy self-doubt at the realization that Bernard is one. So Felix giving Maeve the location of her supposed child is a variable that Ford theoretically could not have anticipated.
It seems she made the correct kind of ruckus shooting up the downstairs, including discovering that there is apparently some kind of SamuraiWorld completely separate from Westworld. (the internet might break over that one). But when on the train, she sees a human child that Ford also could not predict as being present, and then makes the choice to go find her own babe and save her from this Sisyphean hell. That choice could have been the first example of free will that Maeve has truly displayed… but it’s just vague enough that Nolan and Joy can keep us dancing on this merry-go-round for a whole second season, I’m sure.
Yet, even if Maeve might still be a slave to her loop, what about Dolores? Is she self-aware or playing into Ford’s hands when she retires the old man for good?
I suspect both. Ford gave Dolores, and perhaps also Bernard, all the pieces to the puzzle necessary to achieve consciousness. Before his death, Ford misanthropically criticises all of humanity for being no better than William. We’re creatures unable to change course from our sinful, violent delights. As the Joker once said in another Jonathan Nolan script, “They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.” And in Westworld, they’re allowed to do anything, and even for white-hatted William, it always ends in violence and debauchery.
But then Ford muses in his closing remarks, “I realized someone was paying attention, someone who could change. So I began to compose a new story for them. It begins with the birth of a new people, and the choices they will have to make, and the people they will decide to become.”
Dolores and the hosts are those people, and killing him, as well as all other humans, is that choice.
So here we are, Ford’s second dream, after the park’s creation, is only beginning to take its first baby steps into existence. And it comes just how he promised, with surprises and violence.
The hour technically ends on a semi-cliff-hanger. The robot army is moving, and the humans in the park are sitting ducks. There are also several plot threads left dangling besides the amount of control Maeve has over her actions. Are Elsie and Stubbs really dead? I doubt it. Who are those hosts who have gone native hiding in the woods that attacked the Man in Black and Teddy several weeks back? Probably the ones keeping Elsie and Stubbs prisoner, I imagine. And can we please see SamuraiWorld?!
All of that is left up in the air, but Westworld season 1 feels pretty complete. A second season is on its way, but this mystery box explained most of its secrets in a truthful, gloriously satisfying manner. The maze was revealed, the Man in Black’s secrets undone, and Arnold’s dreams and fears (and death) made explicit. The narrative threads did not tangle amongst themselves, nor did they lead to nowhere. Instead, they formed a perfect noose that from his grave Ford very may well use to strangle us all as a species.
Dolores has finally come into her own, and woe unto the board that thought their park was meant for amusement. We even got a beautiful two-hander goodbye scene between Hopkins and Wright, a pair who’ve been a marvel to watch go tête-à-tête. If it concluded here, the story that season one set out to tell would be over. It’s an elegantly formed slice of misanthropic sci-fi. It is violent, and it is delightful. A fitting Christmas present after a year like 2016, indeed.