Westworld's finale was bad, but its empty cynicism was outright obnoxious
In its first season, Westworld was a show about breaking out of repetitive cycles. In its second season, the show was the repetitive cycle, encircling its characters in familiar story beats.
Big moments kept repeating. Maeve (Thandie Newton) got shot a hundred times in episode 6 as she watched her daughter run away. She got shot a hundred more times in the finale, as she watched her daughter run away. There were constant replays of Maeve’s tragic backstory flashback, the daughter, the house, the Man in Black at the front door. In the present, because Westworld is the size of the city block, Maeve found her daughter just in time for the Man in Black to come to their front door again.
Repetition as an idea is interesting. As a narrative device, it’s…well, repetitive. This season juggled timelines, but that trick had resonance the first time. If you figured out early that Young William (Jimmi Simpson) would grow up to be the Man in Black (Ed Harris) — well, that revelation only deepened the experience. The noble romantic hero in one generation became the nefarious villain in the next one —like if Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine grew into Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, or like if George Lucas in 1977 became George Lucas in 2002. In season 2, the twisting timelines wound up serving the repetition. In the past, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) tried to figure out what was happening, and in the present, Bernard tried to figure out if he ever figured out what was happening. He went to the Forge in the past, and he went to the Forge in the present. He killed Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and resurrected her; she killed Bernard and resurrected him.
Round and round. I suppose there is a clever philosophical explanation for all this. I’ve been pondering the finale ever since Sunday, and I have come up with simpler theory. In season 1, the Westworld creators were playing with clichés. Every Host was an archetype awakening to a new awareness. They saw how limiting their characterizations were. The Damsel in Distress was tired of distressed damselhood. The brothel madam was done being abused by any man in any world. Anthony Hopkins’ Ford was the paternal creator ready to get out of his creations’ way. Season 1 ended with this world’s god shot through the head. The old world was finished; the clichés were exploded.
And I think the show had no goddamn clue what to do next. So they built their own bespoke clichés. Bernard kept wandering around blankly, diddling his iPad like an actor receiving new script drafts in the middle of a scene. Maeve’s sole motivating purpose was Finding Her Daughter, which was also the purpose of the vast squad of characters who spent this season following Maeve. Suddenly the Daughter was all-consuming backstory, on a show that once merrily stated all backstory was an illusion, that all the old enemies and beloved parents and tragic memories was just so much core programming. Season 1 of Westworld was the show for anyone experiencing Origin Fatigue after watching Bruce Wayne’s parents die for the 137th time. Season 2 of Westworld was the show for anyone wishing Bruce Wayne’s parents could come back as robots and get killed again, over and over.
I want to try and take the finale’s big idea seriously in a second, but I don’t want to underrate just how awful this was as a 90-minute piece of televised entertainment. Things were happening for no reason. Dolores found the Man in Black in a field, because Westworld is the size of a city block (except when someone wants to go to the Valley Beyond, a journey which takes precisely 10 ½ episodes). And Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) killed Elsie (Shannon Woodward) while Bernard was watching in the shadows, because why on earth would a villainous mastermind businesswoman check to make sure nobody was around when she killed someone secretly? (My colleague James Hibberd liked it a bit more than I did, though nobody liked the speeches.)
But Westworld revealed an empty vision in its finale, less cerebral than self-loathing. The trouble started when Dolores and Bernard went into a digital worldspace, where they met The System. The computer program took the shape of Ben Barnes, which we all would do if we had the chance, honestly.
The System had been spent infinite femtoseconds trying to decode human consciousness. James Delos (Peter Mullan) had been uploaded to this cloud, and the Delos intelligence was a perfect replica — but when downloaded into a new body, it fell to pieces. What was happening? Is immortality impossible? (Peter Thiel will be crushed!)
Nope. The problem was that the System was trying too hard. “I needed to know why they make the decisions they make,” it explained. “The longer I looked for an answer, the more I realized: They don’t.” Humans don’t change at all, the System insisted: “They best they can do is live according to their code. They are deceptive simple. Once you know them, their behavior is quite predictable.”
This was pretty rich, coming from a show full of predictable characters living according to the most clichéd codes of narrative conduct. This was in a season finale where two lost lovers were reunited in gauzy slow-motion, where all the bad corporate guys were killed, where heaven is a place on Earth, where even poor Teddy gets to live forever in a digital field that looks like a billboard advertisement for rehab.
Now, maybe we were meant to take the System’s words with a grain of salt. Of course an emotionless supercomputer would reduce humanity to a lame statistical algorithm. When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re a computer program, everything looks like a computer program, which is why so many tech-obsessed humans think the universe is a simulation.
But Westworld doubled down on this idea, suggested it was an ongoing motif. Bernard watched Charlotte Hale kill Elsie — one lame character who spent the whole season talking about Abernathy’s brain, killing another lame character who spent the whole season waiting patiently for someone to kill her. From this, he deduced that humans weren’t all they were cracked up to be. “They’re just algorithms, designed to survive at all costs, sophisticated enough to think they’re calling the shots, to think they’re in control. When they’re really just…”
“A passenger,” concluded Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who was now a ghost whispering advice in Bernard’s ear, except it turned out he wasn’t a digital ghost (like he was before), he was a symbol of Bernard’s consciousness.
I’m not sure how seriously we should take any of this, really. If you drill down, there are complications. Season 1 ended with Dolores talking to her own imaginary friend — herself, or her subconscious, a reflection of the philosophical notion that God is just the voice in our head, that maybe God is our head. Season 2 ended with Bernard talking to an imaginary friend who looked an awful lot like his actual creator, Ford. This seems more depressing, somehow — an indication that Bernard is stuck with his original programming, a lost boy whose best instincts take the face of his father.
But the finale tried to dramatize this sweetly, a final conversation by the beach, Anthony Hopkins disappearing with a speech about the horizon line, ah yes, Behnahd, it is there, where the water meets the sky, that you and I shall meet again. In general, season 2 turned out to be pro-Ford, in a way that was eerie and reductive. The coolest thing about Maeve was how she didn’t seem to fit into any plan — not a chosen one like Dolores, not engaged in some great philosophical game like the Man in Black. She was the proverbial bug that became the feature, the best character in season 1. And then season 2 sent her on a daughter quest, before landing on the worst revelation of the season: She was always Ford’s favorite. The individualist was Chosen, too. All hail Ghost Daddy, God of Exposition! (Continued on next page)
The truth is, Westworld takes a dim view of humanity because it has a dim ability to develop characters. It can joke about bad writing — farewell, Sizemore! — but it can’t conceive a character with dimension, with the danger of new possibility. Its biggest idea, apparently, is that sometimes humans are secretly robots — a reveal that happened twice in the season finale, depending on how you read that post-credits scene and how much you care about Bonus Hemsworth. Every character is a single-service entity. Felix (Leonardo) and Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum) were introduced as lab techs who helped Maeve, and they returned this season when Maeve randomly ran into them, because Westworld is the size of city block, and their last big moment of the season strongly implied that they would continue lab teching to help Maeve in season 3.
In hindsight, the weirdest thing about season 2 was how unwilling it was to embrace its own chaos. Season 1 ended with the intimation that the Hosts were awakening. Season 2 walked back that possibility as far as it could. Only some Hosts were awake, and besides Dolores, the awakened Hosts were motivated by the same old backstories — lost daughter, lost love. Dolores had followers, but from what I could see, they were all programmed to follow her — except Teddy, who got reprogrammed quickly. How can a show have so many pointless characters? Half the cast was following Maeve to find her daughter, half the cast wanted Abernathy’s code, and a few chill dudes just wanted to ascend to digital heaven.
It’s bad enough to have a show with characters who live out storylines built on boring repetition. But for that show to go on to declare that humanity itself is an algorithm, that the human experience is a series of cycles repeated? That’s the cheapest kind of cynicism, a know-it-all tone that you only hear from a teenager who thinks this whole world is a scam, mom and dad. This is what happens when a show is too gutless to change itself: Endless resurrections, pointless detours into new worlds, Anthony Hopkins explaining what everyone is doing while they’re doing it. Westworld underrates the human condition, but that’s just a flaw in the show’s programming. Humans have imagination. Westworld doesn’t.