Six Characters in Search of an Author: A Review of Westworld

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SPOILERS AHEAD!
THIS IS A DEEP DIVE INTO WESTWORLD,
BOTH SEASON ONE AND ITS FINALE.
SPOILERS AHEAD!
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This weekend, HBO’s science fiction epic Westworld wrapped up their inaugural season.

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Since Sunday night, I have been working through my feelings about that finale, and about this season…but that final episode of Westworld feels best summed up like this…

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One more…

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My frustration with Westworld, I should make clear, does not come from the production’s incredible acting ensemble. Sir Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Robert Ford, one of the creators of the “realistic-with-safety-parameters” theme park, takes subtlety to all new heights with a performance that should be dissected and taught in acting schools everywhere.

Oh, wait, someone’s already done this…

Alongside Hopkins are unforgettable performances by Ed Harris (The Man in Black), James Marsden (Teddy), Jeffrey Wright (Bernard), and Thadie Newton (Maeve) who all test limits and layers of the acting trade within their performances. All absolutely flawless, and considering the challenges thrown at them, Westworld is a real triumph. At the center of this maelstrom of talent is Evan Rachel Wood (Delores), the constant thread in this tapestry of technology, ethics, philosophy, obsession, oppression, and insurrection. Wood is absolutely stunning in her role, and the journey she takes us on is revealing, emotional, powerful, and absolutely exhausting.

I also can’t fault the production invested into this reimagining of the 1973 Michael Crichton thriller. From the look and feel of the “Control Center” watching over the park to the hierarchy of the Westworld tech staff to Ramin Djwandi’s score (occasionally sneaking in classic rock through Maeve’s player piano), a lot of thought, time, detail, and attention went into this updated Westworld

Well, hold on a minute. There was one tiny detail overlooked in Season One…

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Where the hell were we going with Season One?

I won’t lie and claim that I wasn’t enjoying the tumble down this rabbit hole. It was fun as every week we were given yet another tantalizing morsel as to what Westworld’s endgame could possibly be. Would the board members outwit Ford who has claimed full and total control over the hosts? What would happen to Delores once she achieved self-awareness? Will Maeve reach her own potential and build that army she was talking about in order to break free of the park? Five episodes in, and we were discovering new layers to this mystery. Eight episodes in, and there was…still more to discover? Okay, I guess the show runners have got a plan. Episode Nine…and…we’re not done? And then, we get to the final episode…

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All week, geeks are losing their minds over DAT ENDING (which I’ll get to in a moment), quoting “These violent measures…” line, but I’ve been bothered by a few major hiccups that writers never really addressed…

stubbsAshley Stubbs. Remember him? The head of security? When we last saw Ashley, he was checking out why Elsie Hughes’ tracker was online in the park. Remember her? She was “on vacation” according to Bernard, but her transponder was discovered in an abandoned area of the park. So Ashley goes out to investigate. By himself. No backup. Inexplicably, his comms blink out. Then he is attacked by Native American hosts.

Now, think about that for a second. Westworld’s Security which tracks everything about the hosts and the park, picks up a transponder of an associate who is supposed to be on vacation. The HEAD OF SECURITY goes out ALONE to investigate. His comms fail. And Security notices nothing. And there’s no follow-up inquiry. It’s been at least a day or two since anyone’s seen the HEAD OF SECURITY who went out ALONE to investigate a rogue tracker…and no one is doing a damn thing about it. Oh, wait, hold on—the Delos Executive Board is having a party IN THE PARK in a couple of days. Since the entire Executive Board of Delos is in attendance, maybe the HEAD OF SECURITY should be sweeping through a territory, just to make sure it’s safe, seeing as how they all know “Ford is unstable.” Oh yeah, no one has seen the HEAD OF SECURITY since he went out ALONE on that weird call, now have they?

To be fair, why would anyone notice a missing head of Security, seeing as no one really cared about…

The storeroom. So there’s this whole thread of paranoia concerning Dr. Ford’s stability, especially in how he seems to nurse a god complex, and you see it in that above scene between him and Theresa Cullen. This, along with the “bold, new narrative” that he’s not telling anyone about but tearing up old property over and scrapping works in development is enough to start a behind-the-scenes plan to kick the old man out. Okay, I get that. Makes sense. What didn’t make any sense at all—and was hardly a secret at Westworld—was how no one showed any concern over Ford going down to the lower levels by himself. You know, the lower levels where hundreds of deactivated hosts are just standing around? Why were these host deactivated, you ask? They were malfunctioning, a “malfunction” defined as no longer staying within parameters of programming, unexplained seizures, and retaining memories of past lives.

storeroomOkay, so you’re telling me that on this Executive Board, aware that Ford is unstable and disappearing for hours-on-end in the storeroom, no one at Delos said “You know, he’s been spending a lot of time in that storeroom of offline hosts. You think we should—I don’t know—dismantle those hosts and use them for spare parts?” No, no, no, let’s just keep malfunctioning lifelike robots naked in a giant warehouse. Sure, Unstable Ford wrote the programming for these hosts, but it’s not like he’s going to do something like reprogram them. Right?

Sorry, but after that lunch with Ford, Cullen should have been on a phone, saying “Send a couple of crews down there. I want those decommissioned hosts dismantled, smelted down, and as far away from her as possible, and I want it done today!”

Since I mentioned Theresa Cullen, let’s address another sore spot I have over Westworld

bernardBernard Lowe. Okay, we’re in a future where we have foldable iPads, multi-leveled massive corporate headquarters that double as dormitories, a corporation so big that there’s even a class system amongst the associates, and—not missing the obvious—life-like automatons.

You know what else this vision of the future has? Photos. And video. And probably advanced social media.

So how is it that no one looked at Bernard—especially Theresa who was the director of the park and sleeping with him—and said “You look a lot like Ford’s old partner, Arnold. You know, the other guy who built Westworld. Anyone ever tell you that?”

I mean, that was the big reveal of Episode Nine, right? Barnard was created by Robert Ford to replace his dead partner, Arnold. But no one noticed—not a soul—that this new guy, Bernard, looked — just — like — Arnold. Come on.

Come.

On.

You’re telling me no one noticed? People know what Steve Jobs looks like. People know what Jim Henson looked like. People know what Walt Disney looked like. If these guys were strolling around a Delos event, I think people would have noticed.

I’m going to come back to this little detail.

The Inside Job. Anyone remember this little wrinkle early on? Someone is stealing the secrets of Westworld. No. Wait. Someone on the inside of Delos is stealing secrets. No. Wait. It’s the Executive Board that stealing these secrets! But why? Damned if we know. That plotline just got dropped after a good amount of development. At first, I thought it was some kind of angle the Delos Board was playing. If they let Ford go, and he were to pull a “poisoned well” tactic and erase all files behind the hosts, this stolen IP wasn’t really “stolen” but more like a backup because, you know, “Ford is unstable.”

This plotline looked like it was going in a pretty cool direction. Someone is using a satellite uplink and getting core code out of the park? Who? Why, it’s Theresa Cullen, Bernard’s girlfriend! You know, Bernard…who kinda looks like Arnold, you ever notice that? And she’s doing this on the orders of Delos Board Member, Charlotte Hale!

Wait—Ford, who we all know is unstable, is agreeing to leave the park after he introduces his new narrative? No harm, no foul?

Okay. Cool.

Dr. Robert Ford’s New Narrative (a/k/a DAT ENDING). All right, now we get to DAT ENDING where all hell breaks loose at Dr. Ford’s new narrative and retirement announcement, his “bold new narrative” he’s been on about for most of the season. His “new beginning.” Before this definitive moment happens, we get gift wrapped a revelation that it was suffering the hosts needed in order to achieve their self-awareness. Thirty-five years in the making to reach this point, this incredible achievement in science, technology, and—yes—evolution. With this achievement reached, at least according to Ford, what does he do with this new life he has created? He unleashes his host army, overrides safety protocols, and turns the malfunctioning hosts—you know, the malfunctioning hosts that Delos has been collecting like Pokémon—on those who betrayed him.

Um. Okay. Sure.

finale-1200There was a lot given to us in the finale, but Westworld has been apparently leading up over ten episodes to Ford simply getting in the last word with the Delos board members. This finale not only felt hollow, it felt like taking a trip from your thumb to your pinkie by way of your elbow with a casual detour around your shoulder so you could admire the view. As for this revelation about self-awareness through suffering, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense as the only Delores, Maeve, and Bernard actually achieved it without malfunctioning. Even Terry, who hinted at that epiphany, never really reached that point. He, like the others, remained true to their programming. Case in point: The host army following Ford’s orders at the party.

So, ten episodes of twists, turns, and big reveals has all been…to settle a grudge?

True Detective, Season Two was more rewarding than this. And you know how I felt about that.

But the wrinkle in the finale that really set me off?

felix“It’s complicated.” You want me to go on a fully fueled rant? Have your series showcase incredible writing and then pull “Amateur Hour” mistakes in the finale. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Penny Dreadful. Still pissed off, if you were wondering.) This was perhaps the grand daddy of “F.U.’s” to the audience who stuck Westworld out to its bitter end. Maeve is growing closer and closer to her freedom, seeing levels of the Delos building that no other host had ever seen before in a conscious state. Then, after crossing from one wing to another—mind you, a wing that had never been introduced or even mentioned over nine previous episodes—we get a glimpse of Samurai World. When Maeve asks what this is, worker bee Felix Lutx—and mind you, it has been made clear that Felix is as entry level as they come—responds with “It’s complicated.”

Woah-woah-WOAH, SPARKY!

What the fuck do you mean by “It’s complicated.” and how the fuck would you know if it’s complicated or not? Having  a low-level tech say “It’s complicated.” in response to Samurai World is equivalent to a Communications major from JMU explaining to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee the recent AT&T/Time-Warner merger. Sorry, but no, this is not complicated. Not to you, Felix, because you are just a tech. This is the company. This is a different division. This is not complicated. You could have said “If you want to get out of here, stop asking questions. Just follow me.” Instead we get “It’s complicated…” which is low-hanging fruit for perpetuating fan theories. It’s not complicated. It’s sloppy storytelling, making drama where there is none.

posterHere would be why I was completely dumbfounded by the end of Westworld: Season One, and where I think the series after so much promise stumbled into an epic faceplant. Every episode featured some incredible reveal, and the writers and producers were so aware of this they produced companion featurettes called “The Big Moment” that played at the end. However, Westworld was trying so damn hard to impress us with weekly “water cooler moments” that somewhere in the production, the overarching story—the direction and eventual destination we were all heading towards—went forgotten or contradicted itself. (Bernard was the greatest victim of this.) Westworld began as an exciting adventure full of wonder and mystery, promising to reveal so much to us in that final episode. Problem is, we were so blown away by the journey itself that the destination was a bit of a letdown. Now, my buddy Nick Kelly thinks that “This is only the beginning…” but if that is the case, then Westworld’s storytelling skills have gone from “shit” to “complete and utter shit” because if you can’t have a clear direction for your characters after ten episodes, you have bigger problems. From the sounds of things before the first episode dropped, they did.

So we are left looking at the end of Westworld wondering if we should have taken that left turn at Alberqueque, and if the wait until 2018 for Season 2 will be a better payoff. Honestly, if this season is any indication, I’ll be sticking with episodes of Ballers and Silicon Valley. The characters there may not be as sophisticated as those in Westworld; but at least I know with those shows, whatever destination were heading in, it’ll be worth it.

 

6 thoughts on “Six Characters in Search of an Author: A Review of Westworld

  1. I think I was most disappointed by the “Man in Black” storyline. All that time we spent watching him onscreen searching for the maze, and… there was no payoff whatsoever. It wasn’t for him. His whole quest was a waste of time. And since Dolores was just carrying out Ford’s planned narrative, it doesn’t look like she actually reached the metaphorical center of her maze either. She’s still a puppet.

    Maeve? Maybe she reached her center. After all, she rejected her script and broke out of the “Exit-WW” and “Infiltrate Mainland” narratives (assuming that rejection wasn’t also scripted). But like MiB’s storyline, we had a whole season leading up to a fakeout; she merely turned aside from her goal at literally the last second for a reason that made no sense. She *knew* that the girl wasn’t really her daughter; that it was just a role that had been imposed on her. She said so aloud. But, hey, she saw a (presumably) human woman with a daughter, so hey, let’s just give up our hard-won goal and and go find Park 1, which *probably* isn’t Samurai World, but anyway I hope Hector and Istice have a chance to express their opinions on Maeve using them as cannon fodder while denying them the opportunity to actually escape as well.

    And while there’s some evidence that Felix and Sylvester were hosts — like, say, Felix’s face appearing on Maeve’s tablet when she was making changes to her “friends”, and the host repair tool working on Sylvester’s throat — unless they confirm that, their accedence to her fairly weak blackmail when they had ample opportunities to wipe her makes that part of her storyline seem unsatisfyingly contrived.

    William-is-the-Man-in-Black might have been more interesting if we’d gotten to see more of his journey, but we literally got a perfunctory “tell, don’t show” on his transition from one to the other.

    But, anyway, yeah. Up until the last couple of episodes, everything seemed to be heading in a great direction. And then it all kind of fell apart. Either they were juggling too many plates, or they painted themselves into corners, or something.

    As to recognizing Bernard, though, Arnold died before the park even opened, nearly 35 years previously. If Theresa was the same age as the actress who played her, she would have been about 12 when Arnold died, so probably not yet employed by Delos. (And that’s around the same age I got my Apple ][… and, sure, I know what Steve Jobs looked like, but I wouldn’t be able to pick 1977-era Steve Wozniak out of a lineup today, even though I know I’ve seen pictures of him once or twice.) And in the flashback where Bernard awoke for the first time, Ford was significantly older than he was when Arnold died. So, very possibly, there was nobody left in the Mesa who’d ever seen Arnold’s face by the time Bernard was “hired”. Perhaps there were pictures of Arnold around on the Internet, but… well, it’s never even crossed my mind to research who the original founders of my current company were, or look at pictures of them back in the day. Our promotional brochures, financial reports, and such certainly don’t mention them, nor have I ever seen any photos or busts of “Our Founders” at either of our headquarters. So I don’t think it’s necessarily THAT farfetched that nobody realized Bernard looked like Arnold. (Even the fact that he doesn’t age could be explained away by the line in the first episode about “rotating home”, depending on whether or not people ever rotate back.)

    Okay, I told a lie in the first paragraph. My biggest disappointment was that Lee “Dunning-Kruger” Sizemore was still alive at the end of the season. But that’s not really a narrative flaw, I suppose.

  2. There are still a ton of hints that haven’t been explained. I rewatched the finale’ tonight. “You’re an awful human being.” Maeve says to Felix. So, maybe he is a host after all. Why does the man in black’s right arm hardly work when he’s at the gala. What if Arnold was never really a person in the first place? That would certainly explain why no one recognized him. There’s just a ton that’s left without explanation, and I like that. Also, if you watched and didn’t stick around to the post-credits scene, you may want to revisit. Armistice is a genuine badass, and I get why John just called her Istice. Very nicely played.

    Also, Lee is a self-absorbed douchebag, and I hope he gets tarred and feathered. I think the Man in Black is every bit as content to see the hosts gain consciousness. I think it’s what he has wanted all along, especially for Delores. I think he’s in lock-step with Ford’s idea that they haven’t suffered enough, and that’s why he has been especially cruel to Delores. His goal isn’t for himself. It’s for Delores, out of all the hosts, to achieve consciousness and unlock what she should truly become.

    I think Ford believes that Arnold (real or in his head) knew the goal all along. The lesson is the robot uprising. However, I also think he’s still alive, and that Fordbot got the bullet in the brain.

    Check out the Shared Desk podcast for this and much, much more.

    • The MiB barely uses his arm at the gala because Dolores broke it in the graveyard behind the church.

      (And since I can’t imagine that the resort would let guests walk around with broken limbs if they have the ability to heal them – especially a guest who’s the majority stockholder – I think that suggests that the devices they use to repair hosts don’t work on humans.)

  3. Pingback: SPECIAL EPISODE: The Geek Wolfpack Podcast and the Nerd Out App Kickstarter | The Shared Desk

  4. Ashley Stubbs was working when William took Delores way off her story line, and sent a bounty hunter host to collect her and take her back, until William said “She’s with me.” Now, Mr. Stubbs also reacted twice to the Man in Black’s antics, one time approving an explosive display, another time remarking “That gentleman gets whatever he wants.”

    So the head of security has been there since the Man in Black was on his first trip to the park, and Ashley hasn’t aged a day in thirty years…

  5. This was a riot to read and I haven’t even seen the show! Glad I didn’t!

    You know, I seem to stumble upon this kind of thing on a regular basis, even on things I don’t watch. This happened to Dallas, JAG, Battlestar Galactica (though I think I forgive them for season 3), Gilmore Girls, The Gilmore Girls Netflix thing, the aforementioned Penny Dreadful, The Mummy franchise, the Terminator franchise, Lost, X-Men, Transformers, and Russell Crowe’s acting career.

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