Confession: when I watched the first three episodes of Westworld, I did not think of it as a “mystery box” show. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, a mystery box show is one that teases viewers along with hints and, yes, mysteries, solving smaller crises even while suggesting bigger ones just around the corner. It’s the sort of story that uses mythology as a plot hook, and not just as a structure to build current events on. That approach can work, but it can also backfire spectacularly; ask anyone about the finales of Lost or Battlestar Galactica, and odds are, you just started a very angry conversation you have little to no interest in finishing. (For the record, while I recognize their problems, I dearly love both shows and their finales.)
But like I said, I didn’t put Westworld in that category at first because everything seemed so—I guess “straightforward” isn’t the right word here, but while there were certainly mysteries in the pilot, it never occurred to me to consider the park a place capable of sustaining the labyrinthian confusion of, say, the island from Lost. We knew who designed and built the robots, we even met the guy who started everything, and we knew more or less who the robots were, and who the humans were. Sure, the “hosts” were lost and increasingly confused, but the audience had more than enough information to put things together.
So I was surprised at the theorizing that immediately cropped up; surprised and, sure, a little annoyed by it, because it seems like the easiest way to ensure that you’ll be disappointed by something is to convince yourself it’s something else. But watching tonight’s “Dissonance Theory,” it was easier to see how the show has come to invite this approach, arguably to its detriment. Each new episode piles on the question marks, and while there are just enough periods (and a few exclamation points—all right, yes, it’s a bad metaphor, but I’m committed) to hold it together, the writers are leaning more and more on teasing big events without actually delivering on any of them. If the reveals live up to expectations, that’s great! If not, well, we all enjoy getting angry, right?
“Dissonance Theory” doubles down on the confusion in many respects, offering some tantalizing hints about Ford’s plans without actually explaining them, showing Dolores slipping a little further down the rabbit hole, and catching up with the Man in Black as he hunts down his mysterious maze. The maze also turns up in Dolores’s memory, and in the drawing of a little girl on the street, so even if we don’t have any immediate answers on it, at least there’s a sense of things getting tied together. It is, according to the Man in Black, the final mystery of the park, the one which introduces stakes that actually matter. So that should be interesting.
In the meantime, we get to watch Ed Harris sneer at everyone while waltzing through various Western cliches, and that still hasn’t entirely lost it’s charm. The only time he seems rattled is when two men in the Snake Woman’s gang turn out to be guests, and try to talk to him about his work in the real world; he shuts them down immediately. (Also shut down: my theory that he’s actually Arnold. Maybe the real reason I don’t usually think of shows in terms of mysteries is because I’m terrible at predicting anything?) The Man in Black’s quest is arguably the most straightforward storyline on the show right now, even as its ends remain uncertain—of all the characters, he has the clearest goal, which helps when nearly everyone else is lost in the weeds.
Case in point: Dolores, who’s still sort of almost nearly getting it, but is not quite there yet. This week, she hears about the maze (in a memory or a dream of one of her conversations with Bernard; he tells her it’s a way to find herself, although it’s hard to say if this is an actual memory, or something that was implanted), and tags along with William and Logan as they do some bounty hunting. It’s a little frustrating, given the urgency that ended that last week’s episode, to see Dolores once again wandering in a daze, but it’s not unreasonable. She hasn’t become fully aware yet, and as such is not in control of her own destiny, although she’s taking steps to correct that. William serves his purpose in protecting her from being recalled by park authorities for going off loop, and he protects her against his “friend” when Logan decides he wants to go full evil.
It’s an interesting turn, as it represents one of the few points in the hour when things felt legitimately dangerous—although even then, the stakes aren’t all that high. At worst, Dolores could get shot and returned to her home, and maybe William and Logan could get in fist fight or something. But it seems important that Dolores keep going on whatever path she’s following, and having Logan argue for the black hat approach in a world where such an approach is not just possible but encouraged, raises an interesting dilemma—how can William defend his position without sounding like he’s taking things in the park more seriously than he should?
Then there’s Theresa’s meeting with Ford. Bernard tries to give her some advice on how to approach the man, but it doesn’t do much good. Ford is committed to his storyline (which we only see in construction, as massive machines crunch away at the earth), and a lifetime spent among machines that respond to his every command has given him a bit of a God complex. We’re seeing hints of a potential conflict here, between Ford and the board that manages the park (Delos, the company that ran the place in the original film as well), which could be thrilling, but it’s all foreshadowing, nothing concrete. Foreshadowing is a necessary story tool, but lean on it too much, and episodes begin to feel insubstantial and bland, a lot of floating gas without the necessary match to set it off.
The most promising development in that regard is Maeve getting proactive about finding the strange, hooded men from her dreams. At first this seems like another iteration of “Maeve has some weird memories and freaks out about it,” but when she remembers she’d been shot in the stomach, she decides to find out once and for all just how real her “dreams” are. With Hector’s help, she pulls a bullet fragment out of her midsection. It’s a small thing, but it feels like an actual step forward at the end of an episode that hasn’t had enough of them. So yeah, I think I get the theorizing now. Westworld is a fascinating, frequently tantalizing show, and that, plus the Internet, means people are going to try and fill in the blanks. Let’s just hope the series will start offering up its own answers before too much longer.
- The Man in Black finds Teddy strung up by Wyatt’s gang. The discovery that Wyatt has the answers the Man is looking for adds some more of those necessary connections, as well as potentially clarifying what’s going on between Ford’s new storyline and this mysterious “maze.” And hell, the more we can get these people together, the better.
- I wouldn’t be surprised if the season ended with the Man in Black getting killed. Great as Harris is, the character has to die eventually—it’s bad writing to introduce someone so arrogantly aware of his invulnerability and not have him pay the ultimate price. If I was a betting man, I’d put money on Dolores pulling the trigger (just as I’d bet that we learn that the Man in Black didn’t actually rape her), but that might be too obvious.
- “This is my fucking vacation.”
- Anyone else hoping Dolores pulls an Ex Machina on William?
- Man in Black, critiquing Hector: “You always seemed to have, like, a market-tested thing.”
- Appreciated a quick glimpse into the park’s inner workings when the Man in Black uses a cigar bomb to blow open a lock; it registers as a “request for a pyrotechnic effect,” so at least there’s some control over this stuff, however it works. (Also nice: the reminder that everything the Man in Black does, however seemingly disruptive, is entirely condoned.)
- Another problem I’d like to see addressed: it still doesn’t feel like we know anyone on the show well enough to really be invested them. There’s Dolores, sure, and at least Bernard as a backstory, but if Westworld really wants to go down the mystery box route, it needs to make sure its characters are compelling enough that we’re willing to put up with a lot of narrative teasing.