The first season of Westworld is over. It ranged from superb to merely good, to bad in one particular instance.*
*I’ll never get over the fact that the head writer of the Westworld theme park approached a woman at a bar and said, “You look like a woman who could use a drink. What’s your poison?”
The first season ends with Dolores realizing something on her own – something that Arnold couldn’t teach her and that Robert gave her the time to learn. This isn’t humanity’s world anymore… it’s hers – it’s the hosts’.
This is a wonderful ending, thematically and narratively. Even beyond the confines of the show itself, it’s the perfect ending for our times right now. No, not because of Donald Trump or global warming, or any of those other actually important things. Rather, because it’s time for a new culture to fully take over: nerd and internet culture. You would think that Marvel’s dominance at the movies would be enough. Television, however, is the final frontier. And I’ll explain how. But first we have to talk about Lost.
Yes, you have to hear about Lost again. No, I’m not sorry. Yes, you have to keep reading.
A popular criticism of Lost during the show’s run was “They’re just making it up as they go along!” Lost was a show that asked many questions, and many viewers, not unfairly, hoped showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse knew the answer ahead of time. Viewers, perhaps unaware of the vagaries of network television, thought Lost was a show that had conceived a mind-blowing ending and then worked backwards peppering in clues and questions about that ending.
This, of course, was not the case. Television doesn’t work that way… or at least it didn’t. Lost, despite debuting only just over a decade ago, existed within the same network model that had produced Gilligan’s Island. The model is “come up with central idea, produce TV episodes about that idea, collect advertising dollars, end show when advertising dollars go away.” The artistic sophistication had evolved, but the model remained the same. There was no point of conceiving an ending to Lost because an ending on television had never been a guaranteed thing.
Listen to Lindelof describe his horror at the prospect of even having a hit show that would have to continue on in an interview with E Online:
“At around 6:15 am, the next morning, I remember sleeping fairly well, uncharacteristically, and my phone rang and it was Tom Sherman who had been the executive who had developed Lost at ABC. I knew it was a ratings call, and this was going to essentially determine the trajectory of my life in some fairly significant ways. And it was Tom, and he said, ‘The show is a monster.’ At the time, I think they were the biggest drama numbers ABC had experienced in four or five years.
And I just remember feeling really terrified. And numb and in shock. And it was a Thursday morning, so I had to go in and go to work, and break the next story, and Carlton [Cuse] was there and everybody was in this incredibly celebratory mood. Agents and executives, everybody was calling. I remember all these baskets of muffins arriving. Just baskets of muffins. I was surrounded in my office by all of this pastry. And I just broke down sobbing because I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m gonna have to make more of this thing.’”
That’s someone realizing that he’s actually going to have to come up with some answers now. And to be fair, he mostly did. Once Lindelof and Cuse were able to negotiate an end of Lost during the show’s third season, the following seasons featured fewer questions without answers and culminated in an arguably successful series finale.
But now, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the showrunners of Westworld, have the benefit of learning from the Lost experience. They understand audience expectations in 2016. The expectation for sci-fi is to have a plan. Because in 2016, you can. Networks understand it’s what the audience wants. The nature between creator and audience of sci-fi is increasingly one of collaboration, and Westworld is in many ways the full realization of that.
So far there isn’t a smoking gun that Westworld has a specific ending in mind. All signs, however, point to it. It’s on a network that doesn’t have to worry about advertising dollars, and the premium cable giant’s other big hit, which it wants Westworld to emulate, is Game of Thrones. And indeed, that series has an ending in mind if novel writer George R.R. Martin really did tell the creators his outline, as opposed to being involved in a massive performance art piece about trolling.
More importantly, though, season 1 of Westworld has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Westworld season 1 was the most tightly-plotted, every-moment-matters season of TV that I can remember. The model of “making it up as you go along” that was the default for television for years. But after Westworld’s finale, I’m calling its time of death as: 23:35 ET, Dec. 4, 2016.
Season 1 of Westworld wasn’t so much a narrative as it was a puzzle. The show even acknowledged as much by having a literal (which turned out to be not-so-literal) maze as a driving plotline for a number of its important characters throughout the season. From moment one of the pilot, Westworld knows how the season will end and was able to pepper in plenty of clues for the folks playing along at home.
Here is an imcomplete list of plot twists that fan communities like r/Westworld were able to guess correctly:
– Bernard is a host
– Bernard is Arnold
– Man in Black and William are the same person
– There are three timelines at play
– Dolores is Wyatt
– Robert Ford’s narrative involves a host uprising.
That’s… a lot. And it doesn’t make showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy bad at their jobs that fans were able to correctly divine so many plotlines. In fact, it’s a sign that they’re great at what they do. Television has always been a collaborative medium. There are so many moving parts: the studio, the network, the creators, the writers, the actors, the sound guys, the cinematographers, and so on and so forth. But for the past several years of television production, there has been another cook in the kitchen, participating in the creation of TV shows just as much as anyone else: the audience.
Television plans its blockbusters now – maybe in response to the Lost “THEY’RE MAKING IT ALL UP” crowd – or maybe because we just have the financial capabilities to do so. I’d like to think, however, that TV blockbusters are more tightly planned now, because we, the audience, the internet, the nerds, want it to be that way so that we can participate.
The Westworld subreddit is as much a part of the show as the lush Western landscapes, Ramin Djiwadi’s remarkable score, or Luke Hemsworth’s surprisingly solid American accent.
We want the puzzles now, because they’re cool, and we can participate. Now, Westworld is our ultimate puzzle show, and by all indications it’s going to stay that way.
Actress Evan Rachel Wood has said that the show’s “real” plotline may begin in season 2.
“Season 1 was going to be this backstory and set up — getting to know the park and characters,” she said. “I think season 2 is really going to be warp speed. The show might really start in season 2.”
That certainly seems to confirm the amount of planning and puzzle-making that have gone into the show. And showrunners Nolan and Joy even admit to taking a production break midway through season 1 just to get all of their narrative ducks in a row and better plan for future seasons.
So the puzzles are here to stay. Nerd culture has won. We get the kind of shows we want now where the plot is so complex that it’s virtually impossible to “make it up as you go along,” but also the artists feel compelled to give us even more clues and puzzles to solve along the way.
That leads to the inevitable question inherent to all paradigm shifts in media: is this a good thing?
Prior to the finale I would be inclined to say: sure why not, it’s not hurting anybody and move on. After the finale? I feel even more emboldened. This can be a great thing… if done right.
The Westworld season 1 finale does it right.
The season one finale “The Bicameral Mind” takes the game that the audience has been playing along with for 10 episodes and incorporates it into the hosts very soul. There was no literal maze that Dolores was looking for. The maze was just a concept – a concept of self. A truly conscious being is able to achieve sentience and consciousness on their own – by looking within. So everything we saw in season 1 was a fun game for the audience but also the metaphorical game that can create life.
Nonetheless, everyone was able to at least attempt the maze in season 1: the audience, the guests at Westworld, and the hosts. Buried deep within that game, however, was the raw material to create new a new species. The materials to do so are: a metaphorical maze, suffering and time. Westworld’s season finale deftly combines them altogether to complete the puzzle narratively and embolden us emotionally.
So yes, puzzle-solving narratives are here to stay, and they can work as long as they respect the pieces of the puzzle as much as the finished product itself.