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Westworld leaves the maze in a violent, clinical finale

“Welcome to the world.”

B+
B+

Westworld

"The Bicameral Mind"

Season 1 , Episode 10

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There’s a thing that happens to me sometimes in the middle of the night, and I’m not sure there’s a name for it. I’ll wake up in the dark, confused and exhausted, and an idea will come to me—something half-formed, something that’s almost present, the fabled word on the tip of my tongue. And my brain, muddled with sleep and bad dreams, will seize on this idea which never quite comes into focus and try to decipher it. But some part is missing, and instead of processing the information and moving on, I’ll find myself trapped, forced to repeat the same fleeting impressions over and over and over again, neither awake enough to recognize the error, or unconscious enough to drift back into sleep. At its best moments, “The Bicameral Mind” allows the rare gift of empathy with a non-living mind, a consciousness struggling to be born, and in those moments, I remembered what it’s like to be stuck inside your mind. It’s not a fun feeling—but the fact that the show could effectively conjure that up, and find a way to use it, is impressive.

Unfortunately, not all of this too-long finale is quite up to that level of evocation. The show’s season long struggles to find depth in characters that, for narrative purposes, must remain tantalizingly opaque, finally gets some resolution; we learn that the Man In Black is William, all grown up and bitter; we find out that Ford really wasn’t the bad guy after all, and that, surprisingly enough, he’s been on the host’s side from the beginning. There are lots of good ideas in all of this, and lots of tragedy and potentially fascinating narratives mixed in with some gorgeous visuals and eerie music. But there’s also a lot of meandering and stalling to fill up ten episodes’ worth of story, and no matter how thrilling it is to watch the robots finally take matters into their own hands, it can’t quite make up for the delay.

There are probably people who were stunned by the reveal that William and the Man In Black were one and the same. Somewhere. Presumably these people don’t read the Internet, but even then, “The Bicameral Mind” makes the twist immediately obvious before taking its sweet time to finally deliver the reveal. I could blame Internet theorizing on the lack of surprise here, but honestly, there’s no reason in the world we had to wait this long for a reveal this shallow. Apart from the coolness of multiple timelines (which may reveal some neat stuff for second viewings, but right now, doesn’t seem to have that much of an impact), neither William nor the Man In Black were developed thoroughly enough to make their merging more than an absolute necessity. With it, they represent a tragedy, albeit one without much feeling behind it; without it, they’re forgettable archetypes.

Okay, that’s a little harsh on the actors—Jimmi Simpson made the most of the material, and Ed Harris so clearly relished his role as a bastard that he was fun to watch even when we didn’t know he was secretly very sad. (Or lost, or bitter.) But the final turn here in no way warrants this much build-up. The idea that people who act good might actually have darker impulses underneath is a cliche so old it’s Biblical, and William’s transition to a black hat happens so abruptly, and with such little visceral justification, that it fails to register as anything more than a concept. Which is probably the show’s biggest problem right now: so much of it works best in theory, no more. That makes it catnip for people who like to argue about plot points, but it means the actual experience of watching the series is clinical bordering on sterile.

Things happened in “The Bicameral Mind,” quite a lot of them, and some of them in the moment were exciting enough. Maeve’s big breakout was thrilling, if mostly for the action movie theatrics of Hector and Armistice (who, having been granted a certain level autonomy, enjoy the fuck out of murdering a bunch of generic security guards), but given that we’ve just learned Maeve is, for all her efforts, just another puppet with more complicated strings, the concern wasn’t whether or not she’d make it, but who was planning all of this and why. When you know there’s a deeper level of plot running behind what you’re watching, the things on the surface cease to matter as anything beyond a way to distract until the actual story shows up. The only real suspense here was, would Maeve kill Felix or would she let him live, because that was the only choice she seemed to have. And the fact that she let him go was a legitimately good turn, one of the few feints at emotional connection on the show that seemed genuine, even if it was slight.

The writers are clearly aware of this: the scene with Teddy and Dolores on the beach, and Teddy (poor, hapless Teddy) giving a speech about some kind of new beginning—it’s sincere even though we know it’s bullshit, and you can feel the show laughing at us when it pulls back to reveal the Delos board watching nearby. The tension between how we react to a narrative and our awareness of that narrative’s falsity is one of the things that makes the show unique, and when it works, it creates a fascinating dissonance that’s unlike any other mainstream genre show I’ve ever watched. It’s a little like how aggressively The Sopranos worked to deconstruct its protagonist’s appeal even as it continued to need us to care about him, only here, almost everything we see is a feint or a misdirect, asking us to believe even as it draws arrows to the man behind the curtain.

This wasn’t a great season of television—it was pretty good, I’d say, with occasional flashes of brilliance—but it did have two great stories in it: Dolores’s rise to self-awareness, and Ford’s true intentions with the park. The problem is that by nature of its design, the real emotional weight of both these stories was kept at arm’s length. Dolores’s story had her acting as a passenger much of the time on the stories of others, and the loops and memories she wandered through were impressionistic, representations of her mind’s efforts to will itself awake. Again, it’s fascinating in concept, but in practice, too much of Evan Rachel Wood’s time was spent staring off into the distance looking vaguely troubled. Because her ascension couldn’t happen until the very end, she was stuck; thus William and the Man In Black, neither of whom were honestly worth the time they were given in the end.

Then there’s Ford. This is probably the only real surprise of the episode for me (again, because of everyone else’s cleverness, not my own): after assuming he was the villain of the piece, it turns out he’s behind everything—only his motives are actually to honor Arnold’s efforts after all, giving the hosts a chance at freedom with one final, bloody sacrifice. He was always on the side of the robots, just as the show itself has always been; the reveal that William and the Man In Black are one and the same pretty much locks in our perspective on humanity, and while the humans are the ones on the other side of the gun at the end of the finale, I have no doubt its Dolores and the others who we’ll be rooting for in season 2.

All of which is fine and good, but it means that the ten episodes we just watched were actually just a prologue—that out of everyone, the only character who had any autonomy in any of this was Ford, and his plans worked out exactly as he wished them to. Again, there’s that sterility, that feeling for watching something preserved under glass. Ford’s journey from fighting against Arnold’s wishes to eventually realizing his (long dead) partner had a point could have been fascinating, and yet we are robbed of the experience of seeing any of it, solely in the name of preserving that big twist. It’s a conceit that almost feels like its own self-critique, reminding us that none of this matters without stakes, but then taking over ten hours to actually introduce those stakes.

The result is something too interesting for me to dismiss entirely, but too clockwork and empty for me to fully embrace. The lack of strong emotional ties encourages a wide variety of thematic interpretations, but just because the show can “mean” something doesn’t mean it’s actually a success as a work of fiction. There’s ambition here, but that ambition can’t completely cover for a lopsided structure; there was just too much empty air in all of this, too much wheel-spinning for a story that should probably have taken three or four hours at most. Just because the hosts were stuck in loops doesn’t mean the audience has to be as well. Next season, with the machines unleashed and Ford gone for good (unless Bernard decides to build a friend?), there’s possibility for something that’s both meaningful and involving. But right now, Westworld resembles that player piano it’s so fond of a little too closely: the notes are clear enough, but once the novelty wears off, who cares?

Stray observations

  • Does Maeve’s rebellion (ie Ford’s rebellion) mean that Lee lost his chance to get Abernathy out of the park? I’m assuming that’s what that shot of him in the empty warehouse signified.
  • So, there are samurai on hand. Are there other sections of the park we haven’t seen yet?
  • The effect of a half-finished Dolores talking to Arnold was really cool.
  • I don’t think William’s arc worked nearly as well as it might have, but the expression of shocked joy on Ed Harris’s face when someone finally shoots his arm was marvelous.
  • I think this must be the most misanthropic show I watch, and I review The Walking Dead.
  • “The gods are pussies.” Was this a common insult in the old west, or…
  • “A metaphor.” “You mean a lie.”