Westworld: The Bicameral Mind

Posted on December 05, 2016

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Okay, let’s start with this, since we’re going to pick apart this episode, and by extension, the rest of the season:

When Dolores flipped her script and started beating the shit out of William, Tom quite uncharacteristically literally yelled “Oh, KILL THIS MOTHERF—ER, BITCH!” and didn’t even realized he’d done so. It took Lorenzo to point it out to him, twenty minutes later. He had no idea he’d said it out loud, let alone that he’d yelled it. Before we get into some of the nitpicking, attention simply must be paid to that one fact. Westworld, whatever flaws it may have, is very, very good at immersing you fully in its story.

But ironically, for a show that’s at least partially about narratives and storytelling (among many, many other things), Westworld’s first season sure did have a few issues in figuring out how to tell its story. This perhaps isn’t that surprising because the issues the show faced are fairly standard ones for all prestige cable drams. In fact, a good deal of the show’s issues are reminiscent of two other prestige cable series of the last few years, True Detective and Mr. Robot. Like both of those shows, Westworld is slightly too in love with its puzzlebox style and slightly pretentious in the way it dabbles in much deeper themes with no intention of scratching any further than the surface on them.

Let’s start with that latter point. As much as Westworld wants to be a story about the nature of the conscious mind, in the end – literally – it really is a “Robot’s Revolt!” tale. And that’s fine. More than fine, in fact. Also fine is any attempt to deepen such a standard sci-fi story with ruminations on consciousness and references to modes of philosophy and great thinkers on the topic. We would never argue that such things shouldn’t be included in the story. But if we can make a comparison, think of the first Matrix film or the first couple seasons of Lost; two stories heavy with symbolism and references to deeper philosophical and theoretical thinking that didn’t (in the beginning, at least) lose sight of the fact that they were telling standard “superhero origin” and “stranded castaways” tales.

This season, the most thrilling, exciting and emotional moments all season long have been the ones surrounding Dolores’ arrival at consciousness and Maeve’s violent escape from captivity. The show would do well to remember that as it goes into its second season. This is not an argument for the show to dumb itself down. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a request that the show not lose sight of the story it’s really telling. True Detective did that and it left a ton of disappointed angry fans in its wake. We’re also not suggesting that Westworld can only be about one thing. It’s a story about storytelling as well as an examination of consciousness and a rip-roaring robots revolt tale. It can be all of these things. But in retrospect, too much of season one was bound up in mysteries dressed up with intellectual trappings – and in the end, they weren’t the important parts of the story.

Which brings us to the comparison to Mr. Robot; specifically its second season, which was just a little too in love with trying to pull the wool over the eyes of an audience all too primed to figure out its mysteries ahead of time. We got two big twists this episode; one that seemed fairly obvious and took too long to be revealed and one that probably should have had some time to develop rather than left hidden from the audience until the last second. As to the first mystery, we suppose we’ll never know if the “Man in Black is really William” reveal would’ve been so obvious had the internet hordes of mystery-seekers not figured it out and told everyone. But at the very least, it was more than obvious by the start of this episode, which made the slow reveal of the truth seem not just unnecessary, but like the creators didn’t realize the audience already figured it out. We went into the episode thinking that the mystery of William was something that the creators confidently let unfold, knowing that the audience would get there on their own. But the way they dragged out the reveal of the truth indicated that they really though they’d pulled a fast one on us all.

The second big twist was the reveal that Dr. Ford, Anthony Hopkins’ character, is actually (or seemingly) not a sociopathic villain, but a pro-Artificial Intelligence advocate who’s been actively trying to foment the robot revolution that seemingly (there’s that word again) ended the season. If Ford is really dead (it’s possible Dolores shot a host version of him) and Hopkins has left the series, then the audience has been denied any opportunity to hear or see how he arrived at a point of view that would appear to be the total opposite of what he once believed. We only got to see the character pretend to be something he’s not. That’s bad for two reasons: crucial character details are lost and Anthony Hopkins was wasted a bit by the show, which could have done so much more with him than simply have him play another inscrutable sociopath – seemingly.

Having said that, we were on the edges of our seats through the entire 90 minutes and we can’t honestly say we didn’t enjoy it right up to the last minute. It was a good finale to a flawed first season. We just hope the show sticks to the core story going forward and doesn’t assume the audience constantly wants to be fooled with mystery upon mystery. There’s a great tale unfolding here, if the creators could just step out of its way to let it develop.

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