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What makes Westworld so tantalizing is also what makes it so frustrating

The show’s lack of broader context is great for fan theories but bad for story.

Westworld HBO

NOTE: Spoilers for episode seven of Westworld follow.

HBO’s Westworld is taut and tantalizing, a gripping and gorgeous sci-fi puzzle box of a series with a stellar cast and a meticulously designed world that feels at once real and unreal. It’s uneven at times, but it’s also a perfect show to become obsessed with because of the questions it raises, the depth of detail it suggests, and the mysteries it hints at (and sometimes even resolves). Even in its lesser moments, Westworld always leaves viewers wanting more.

What makes the show so effective at reeling us in, however, is also what makes it so consistently frustrating. Nearly every episode — and practically every scene — feels like it’s missing some additional piece of information, some backstory or insight, some connective tissue to tie it all together. The series is marooned in its moments, untethered to anything outside of itself, and sometimes even disconnected from that. It’s a show that defiantly refuses to provide viewers with necessary context for what they’re seeing.

By hiding basic information, Westworld creates a barrier between viewers and the characters

One of the main ways Westworld does this is by hiding basic information that the characters in the show presumably know. So far, the show takes place entirely inside its Western-themed fantasy park and the hidden workspaces that keep the park running. But we know nothing about the outside world — whether it’s in the present or the future, what the state of the world is, what sort of technology is common. Even the physical boundaries of the park itself are unclear; for all we know, the park doesn’t exist on this planet, or even in physical reality.

Presumably some of the characters — in particular the human employees who manage the park’s operations — know some or all of these answers to these questions, but the specifics are never raised or discussed. The park’s management is itself a mystery. We know that it is run by a company called Delos with a board of directors, but little else is clear about the company and how it is organized and run.

It’s possible, of course, that this information is left out because it’s actually unimportant. Or maybe it’s just being held for a later episode that will eventually explain it all. But Westworld holds out so much so often that it’s hard to trust that the material it does leave out is irrelevant.

Tesso Thompson in Westworld
Tessa Thompson plays Delos executive director Charlotte Hale … or does she?

This turns even mundane scenes and character interactions into maddening guessing games. When Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), the Delos board’s executive director, finally shows up midway through the season, one of the park’s senior employees, head of narrative Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), doesn’t recognize her, which seems a little bit odd given her title.

It’s also unclear whether Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), another one of the park’s top officials, knows who Charlotte is or has any existing relationship with her — despite a scene suggesting Theresa communicates with the board. Hale also seems somewhat young to be on the board of a wealthy and powerful corporation. She mentions having a predecessor, which makes it sound like she’s new, but it’s never made clear what the history is there, either.

Most or all of this information is known within the world, and presumably both Cullen and Hale know it too. That makes the scenes between them hard to read, and it makes the characters themselves seem opaque and incomplete, like a film strip patched together from fragments. We don’t understand how they relate to each other, or what they know about each other, which means we don’t really understand who they are.

This approach to storytelling keeps viewers in the dark. And, perhaps worse, it creates a barrier between viewers and the characters, who, by design, are not transparent. It’s designed to make us suspicious of the characters rather than to allow us to get to know them. It doesn’t lead to understanding; it leads to misunderstanding and confusion, a kind of purposeful vagueness that seems designed to keep viewers on edge.

It’s suspenseful, sure, but it’s also kind of infuriating. The lack of contextualizing information invites viewers to assume that all is not as it seems, to constantly be bracing themselves for some big reveal.

That’s an assumption Westworld has proven accurate, particularly when it revealed that Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) was not a human, as both he and other park employees believed, but a robot, programmed and controlled by park co-creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). When the series gave us a scene showing what appeared to be Bernard talking to his wife in the outside world, it wasn’t trying to establish him as a real person with meaningful human connections. Instead, it was allowing us to think of him as a human — even though he’s not. Sure, you can argue that it served a narrative purpose by showing us what Bernard thought was happening. But it also was kind of a trick that allowed viewers to come away with a false impression. Even the context it provides can’t really be trusted.

Westworld’s misdirection is tantalizing, but it also breeds suspicion

This inherent untrustworthiness is part of why so many Westworld fans are already focused on various theories that attempt to “explain” the show — to guess what it’s really about. The show’s unwillingness to connect and contextualize its scenes and characters, to offer simple information about timelines and even names, makes it great fodder for speculation.

But it’s all rather empty. Maybe William is actually the Man in Black as a young man! Maybe Bernard is actually a robot! Okay, now it turns out he is. But so what? It’s not clear what the payoff is, besides seeing a theory proven right. Why not just play it straight from the beginning, letting viewers in on the secrets and then exploring what they mean? Westworld’s story has been shaped to serve the reveal rather than the other way around.

Would Bernard have been any less interesting a character if his true nature had been known from the outset?

Giving up on gimmicky secrecy doesn’t mean giving up on intrigue. Shows like Game of Thrones, The Americans, and Breaking Bad have generated plenty of obsessive fans and feverish speculation about what the story will eventually reveal. (On Game of Thrones, for example, essentially none of the main characters knew the secret of Jon Snow’s true parentage, aside from Ned Stark, and the elder Stark had an incentive to keep quiet.)

But while those shows had their mysteries, they didn’t make a regular habit of holding out on viewers. So the speculation they invited was more about how the story would develop, not about trying to decode the scenes themselves in order to find the hidden meaning.

As you’re watching those shows, they raise questions about what will happen or, occasionally, what has happened. Westworld, in contrast, mostly raises questions about what is happening.

There’s an appeal to this sort of narrative trickery: It keeps you off balance, and gives even the most mundane scenes a certain tension. It also helps avoid unwieldy exposition dumps, and allows characters to talk freely without stopping to explain things they already know.

This sort of misdirection is part of what makes the show so tantalizing, but it also helps breed suspicion. What’s the show hiding? What’s it not telling you? What’s it telling you that isn’t true, or isn’t the way it seems?

But ultimately it breeds bad habits into viewers, training them to watch the show for what it’s hiding rather than what it’s actually showing them. In the end, this creates a competitive distrust between the viewers and the showrunners, who are always trying to stay one step ahead of each other.

It’s an approach that makes Westworld seem more like a puzzle than a story, and encourages viewers to maintain a wary distance from what’s being shown onscreen, turning watching into an exercise in spot-the-tell. Westworld’s craft — its design, direction, and performances — is admirable, and its ideas about artificial intelligence, fate, and narrative are intriguing. But too often the show feels like a clue-hunting exercise, the narrative equivalent of a point-and-click adventure game — a show that doesn’t want to be watched so much as solved.

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