Welcome to TV's golden age of "What the hell did I just watch?"

Jeffrey Wright and Evan Rachel Wood in HBO's Westworld
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)
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Sunday night was the season finale of Westworld—an episode whose plot points I will not be spoiling here, because to do so would suggest not only that I actually retained them, but that I had some understanding of their significance. I’ve watched two seasons of the HBO sci-fi drama now and, while I’m mildly conversant in some of the things that have happened within them, were I to be cornered at a cocktail party, then put in the position of actually having to discuss specifics—like the characters’ relationships to each other, their desires and motivations, or anything beyond who shot, fucked, or fucked then shot who—I would disintegrate into windy, feckless blather about the Bigger Questions, rambling on about the debased nature of humanity or the illusion of free will before chucking a rocks glass through the nearest window while I cleverly made my escape. I’ve clocked some 20-plus hours of this show, and really, the best I can offer is that the robots don’t want to be raped and killed by the humans anymore, and that the humans not so respectfully disagree.

Granted, I’m a couple of weeks out from turning 40, and incipient middle age and the gentle erosion of having toddlers has softened my brain into a sort of pliant, yet irritable mush—like Silly Putty pressed onto a David Brooks column. Frankly, it’s a wonder I recall anything about anything that happens after 8 p.m. But from my weekly conversations on the ol’ A.V. Club Slack over here, it seems the inability to follow Westworld (and the subsequent crankiness it causes) affects even the taut, springy brains of my younger and childless colleagues. Meanwhile, the plethora of “What the hell just happened on Westworld?” headlines that arrive each Monday morning like a drunk’s remorse tells me we are far from alone.

Fortunately for us drooling dullards, there are homemade timelines and “Let’s break down that one scene” articles aplenty to sort it all out for us. Today, these explainers are no longer supplemental, but an integral part of the entire TV process. Watching a show now is merely the first assignment in a weekly syllabus of recaps, postmortem interviews, Reddit threads, and video analyses—though even these are usually peppered with more questions than answers. And all of this is, naturally, just part of the ongoing work of obligatory repeat viewings, which real fans say are required to truly understand it. As the editor of a website that pumps out these kinds of pieces on the regular, our traffic sustained by this ever-spiraling discussion and desperation, I can tell you that this is truly a golden age for confusing television.

In fact, Westworld is just one of a modern breed of deliberately obfuscating shows that demand to be worked in order to—or sometimes, rather than—enjoyed. Its lightly scrambled timelines and endless robot teases are certainly nothing compared to Legion, a series so far gone that most everyone in its orbit has avowed that being confused is entirely the point—that you should just embrace never quite knowing what’s going on as part of its appeal. Indeed, every episode of Legion feels like blundering, in media res, into someone else’s weird dream after they ate too much Indian food and watched a Cronenberg movie. It’s entrancing but often exhausting, though always beautiful to look at, and I’d sure like to sit its cast and crew down and offer $100 to any one of them who can clearly, succinctly tell me what’s going on.

I’m not certain even showrunner Noah Hawley knows, judging by this good-natured gobbledygook he offered TV Guide right after the second season premiered, when everyone watching was already, instantly lost:

“I do think that I’m asking so much of the audience, that I try to be clear about the things that I don’t want you to be confused about. Because it’s important to go ‘All right, there’s a complex thing that’s happening that first hour when he comes back and a year’s gone by, and he says I don’t know. I was just in that orb, and I don’t know what happened.’ But he’s lying, right? Then to say, all right, he was in that club and he had this dance off with these people. What is that about? That was a fight? What was that? It wasn’t a dance battle. It was more of a courtship day. Something like that… If the audience is going ‘Well, was any of that actually real?’ Then, you know, I think that’s overthinking it.”

If you’ve never watched Legion, trust me when I say this quote doesn’t make a whole lot more sense once you’ve actually seen the show. But in Hawley’s defense, at least Legion works its dream logic to logical ends; it’s a show about broken, broken, confused, even openly insane characters, so being a confusing mess itself only reinforces that theme. In that sense, its closest analog would be the creepy granddaddy of them all, Twin Peaks, which returned to Showtime last year to reset the TV standard for fragmentary, hallucinatory storytelling. In both series, “What the hell did I just watch?” doesn’t actually beg for a straightforward answer; both openly scoff at too literal an analysis. Besides, as Hawley suggests, trying too hard to make sense of it all only gets in the way of enjoying Aubrey Plaza swanning about on the disco floor, or seeing David Bowie reincarnated as a giant teakettle.

But Westworld is different. It’s a show that forces you to put together its scattered pieces, just to make sense of its basic plot—a story that is, frankly, actually a fairly straightforward one about sex-bots revolting against their human oppressors. As our own Zack Handlen pointed out in his review of the finale, the second season’s split narratives—with characters wandering through the same locations over and over, a mere two weeks apart, all to protect one last, biggish reveal—seems to suggest that Westworld wasn’t entirely confident that its story would be all that interesting if it were told from beginning to end. You can even sense a strain of that defensiveness from co-creator Jonathan Nolan in this Entertainment Weekly postmortem, where he was asked whether complaints about its confusing timelines were justified:

“It’s all perfectly valid. If it didn’t track for some people, it didn’t track. But look, the first movie that I worked on [Memento] was told backwards, right? I’ve always had a great faith in the capacity of an audience to not only be able to track complicated non-linear storytelling but often to embrace it and enjoy it. Those are the people we’re making this show for… In fact, the second season is a little more straightforward, but it is playing out in two distinct timelines—two and a half if you count the post-credits sequence, and complete with flashbacks. It’s not necessarily for everyone but all of these choices were rooted in the protagonists’ understanding of the reality around them, and centering this season on Bernard’s broken mind as he tries to navigate through the debris of memory. Subsequent seasons will be structured in … different ways.”

Of course, Memento’s reverse chronology wasn’t in addition to constantly suggesting that Guy Pearce might be a robot. With Westworld, you already have characters whose humanity is always in question; it’s the rabbit perpetually coiled inside its 10-gallon hat. Meanwhile, many of its characters are also busy reliving past lives, or communing with the dead, or slipping in and out of each other’s bodies—and all of them are concurrently chasing after some elusive, mysterious endgame at the center of a possibly literal, possibly metaphorical maze. So when you throw in “two-and-a-half” scrambled, overlapping timelines on top of that—again, created just to hide yet another twist—it starts to seem less like a thematically rich motif than intentional muddying, confusion as a stand-in for the complexity expected of a prestige HBO drama. (That many of the show’s characters remain thinly sketched beyond their respective missions doesn’t help.) And it certainly doesn’t inspire faith that the show is making careful, deliberate choices after you learn that, apparently, Nolan came up with another one of those big reveals the night before it was shot.

Rather, Westworld often comes off like it’s laddering twists and overcomplicating things specifically to gin up viral discussion—the kind that takes place across blogs like these, and among the Redditors that Nolan and partner Lisa Joy love to tease and (probably jokingly) steal ideas from. It’s something you can sense in Nolan’s comments about “the people we’re making this show for,” the implication being that any viewer who might balk at Westworld’s haphazard, fourth-dimensional-hat-on-a-hat-having-a-traumatic-flashback breed of storytelling just must not be paying close enough attention, or are otherwise intellectually lazy. ACTUALLY, it’s all pretty straightforward. If you can’t follow it, maybe you’re just not cut out for this show.

This attitude certainly isn’t limited to Westworld—or to Legion, or even to those who remind us that, to be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick And Morty. It’s endemic of a lot of our current, internet-engine-driving entertainment, actually, all of which assume a certain amount of prior research before you’re even welcomed in the door: in the blockbuster comic-book movies that function as Very Special Episodes; in huge sci-fi film franchises that just assume you’ve also caught up on its cartoon spinoffs; even in our massive crossover hip-hop albums. “It’s not necessarily for everyone,” these things say—just the people willing to do the homework.

There’s always been this tribalism inherent to fandom, one that asks you to demonstrate your loyalty—to prove that you belong. During the run of Lost, Westworld’s most obvious predecessor (Lost’s co-creator, J.J. Abrams, is Westworld’s executive producer), I even enthusiastically gave myself over to it. I read “Doc” Jeff Jensen’s rabbit-hole reviews religiously, talking Fibonacci numbers and Rousseau late into the night with my similarly obsessed friends. While drugs were certainly involved, these discussions and deep dives were often as fun, if not far more so, than actually watching the show. But increasingly, it seems, all that extra credit work that once used to provide enrichment to a show now exists to flat-out explain it. It’s no longer a reward for fans. It’s a requirement.

For those who already have enough going on, thanks, this kind of presumption on behalf of a TV show sitting there on your DVR can seem unnecessarily taxing, making you just want to watch some half-hour sitcom instead. I know several critic friends who have already shrugged off Westworld and Legion entirely because they simply don’t have the bandwidth, something they tell me with the easy, carefree smiles of people who just quit their shitty jobs. And even for the diehards who do have the time, as previously demonstrated by Lost (and its other puzzle-box descendants like Battlestar Galactica and True Detective), sooner or later intrigue ossifies into irritation, and the demand for satisfying answers on the level of investment demanded only grows more and more hostile.

I have no doubt that Westworld has some grand, overarching plan for next season, as well as for the three seasons it’s ostensibly sketched out beyond that. I also assume its creators are well aware of the risks of exhausting its bag of tricks and screwing around with its timeframe for too long. But in the meantime, I can’t help but hope that one of those “different ways” that future Westworld seasons will be structured might just involve telling the story straight for once, and concentrating more on making each episode feel meaningful the first time around. After all, “What the hell did I just watch?” turns so easily into “Why the hell should I bother?”