Culture

It's maddening, disingenuous storytelling.

I’m Over Westworld. So Why Can’t I Stop Watching It?

At the end of Season 1 of Westworld, after waiting weeks for the show to finally get to “the big reveal” that had seemed painfully obvious since the middle episodes, I made a promise to myself: I’d stop watching this show. There’s way too much other good TV out there to spend hours sitting through something I’m not into.1

Then Season 2 rolled around and I forgot all about that promise. Like Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard, my memories felt frustratingly fuzzy. Didn’t I like this show? I must have. I vaguely remember watching all the way through last season. Evan Rachel Wood’s character was fun, right? And wasn’t I still rooting for Thandie Newton to find her daughter continue wandering the park dropping devastatingly cutting one-liners on know-it-all humans?

Now though, we’re four episodes in, and I’m finally starting to remember what bothers me so much about this show, even though I can’t quite seem to quit it. After a horrendously opaque season opener, the episodes have been getting steadily better week by week; last night delivered what has to be the season’s best episode so far. And according to previews, next week promises to finally take audiences to Shogun World (Eastworld?) for some long-teased samurai versus cowboy action. Which means I’ll be watching again next Sunday, even if I spend the rest of the evening complaining about it afterwards.

Like Pacino in The Godfather — or Newton’s Maeve at the end of last season — just when I thought I was out, this show pulls me back in. And I think I get it now. Because this isn’t a TV show per se, as much as it’s a Lost-esque puzzlebox masquerading as “thoughtful” prestige TV.

Originally, I’d hoped last year’s season finale, featuring Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores going full T-1000 on the park’s assembled black tie guests, might be an indication the show was finally becoming untethered from its feedback loop of questions and answers that just led to more questions. But it turns out that was just Westworld leading us all to the beginning of the maze. To the start of Anthony Hopkins’ “final game” from beyond the grave (at least until the show hits a narrative wall and needs somewhere else to go).

This week introduced us to the mechanism/MacGuffin behind what was already setting up to be this season’s “big reveal”: the little red ball that will tell us who’s really in Bernard’s body after he washed up on shore at the beginning of the season minus his glasses and that telltale scar. And I’m just theorizing here, but I mean, it’s obviously Arnold, or at least a copy of him. And the real question is who made him (Dolores) and why (as part of her complicated endgame to escape the park).

And… oh man, I’m doing it too, aren’t I? Falling into the show’s trap. Watching it not because I particularly enjoy the characters or their stories, but just to figure out what’s going to happen next.

See, Westworld, like the park itself, seems specially designed to pull out our worst impulses — and as viewers, that includes the tendency to confuse flashy plot twists as substitutes for satisfying narrative world building. Blame Lost, blame Twitter and Reddit. But we’ve entered an era where decoding art has become less about grappling with the themes a work raises than unlocking some hidden “true” meaning. We’ve been trained to look not for symbolism, but for Easter Eggs.2 We’re now more interested in “clues” than characters. Nothing can be open-ended. It all has to mean something. To give us an answer.

And Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s show is one that seems to be perfectly calibrated to our current age of fan theories and post-show recapping. There’s Reddit forums dedicated to scouring screenshots for hints. Multiple podcasts breaking it all down, if you want to spend even more time guessing what’s going to happen next. It’s not just Westworld that inspires this kind of obsessive close reading, of course — it’s become something of a cottage industry for the Internet’s resident content farmers.

Thanks to fans, Game of Thrones’ “R+L=J” reveal was uncovered several full seasons before the show actually got around to it. And before that, Mad Men was the series de jour to inspire weekly thinkpieces devoted to unpacking its meaning. But with Mad Men (and to a lesser extent with Game of Thrones), those recaps were an attempt to better understand the sometimes-messy motivations of the show’s central characters. Not to simply piece together an intentionally confusing narrative.

And that’s what makes Westworld so frustrating. We’re merely purposefully not being shown the full picture. Instead, it’s slowly being doled out drip by drip, week by week. Last night, Bernard was explicitly told what audiences already knew — that he’s having trouble keeping his memories straight. And as a result, he apparently only remembers just enough to keep advancing the plot, but not enough to answer any actual questions. At least, not yet. How convenient.

That flashback/flash forward structure allows the show endless directions to go in to build out new narratives (call it the This Is Us Protocol). Some of that is just smoothing over sloppy filmmaking — like, say, how long Shannon Woodward’s Elsie was stuck in that cave eating protein bars, and why she didn’t notice Bernard walk right by her the first time he went into that secret lab — and some of it is hiding real breadcrumbs meant to be picked up by audiences. (Even if it’s getting harder to tell the difference between the two.)

It’s a maddening, disingenuous way to tell a story. Much like Lost before it, Westworld promises this will all make sense eventually — as long as you just keep watching. And that apparently hijacks my brain chemistry in a way I’m not proud to admit.

Like most science-fiction stories about robots, Westworld seems interested in exploring the idea of consciousness, and what it means to be human. The thin lines of code that separates mankind from the AI we’re building to replace us. And whether they’re hosts (like Dolores) or guests (like Ed Harris’ Man in Black) or something in between (like this week’s Jim Delos-bot), the characters spend a lot of time spouting pseudo-philosophical dialogue about love and death and fate. But it’s awfully easy to miss all that when you’re watching only to see when Jeffrey Wright is Bernard and when he’s Arnold and when he’s some as-yet-to-be-revealed someone else. And that’s the show’s fault. Because it trained us to watch it that way.

This week, we were told, “If you’re looking forward, you’re looking in the wrong direction.” Which isn’t so much a helpful hint as it is another reminder that the show continues to misdirect us with its multiple timelines. Because apparently Westworld is less a show to be watched and enjoyed, and more a puzzle to be solved. And I guess I’m stuck waiting around to see if I can figure it out. Just like the hosts, I can’t seem to escape the park. My programming won’t allow it.

References   [ + ]

1. I still haven’t even started The Wire. (I know, I know!)
2. Which is partly how/why those erroneous rumours started floating around that it was Trayvon Martin’s dad in the “This Is America” video and not Calvin The II.