Near the end of Westworld’s first season, Host designer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), recently revealed to be a Host himself, tearfully asks the park director, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), how Ford could so casually force Bernard to murder someone — Bernard's own lover, no less. But Ford is past the pretense that he needs a reason. He calmly replies, "One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire."
It's a quote from Frankenstein — the creation story of the mechanized age — and it's proof positive that Westworld is more concerned with myth than mystery. Sure, the big twists of the series’ first season have been fun, but given its leisurely pace and the way it has telegraphed most of the big reveals, those moments tend to only be surprises to the characters themselves. In a mystery, that's a disappointment; in a myth, that's business as usual.
As a series, then, Westworld is a more a gnostic tangle about identity and purpose — or the lack thereof, given its bleak outlook — than a mystery to be solved.
Each Host’s arc is a different myth, in which the audience is complicit
The Hosts in the titular park, at first glance, match archetypes of the American West narrative. There's Dolores, the staunch farm girl; Maeve, the world-weary madam; Hector, the devil-may-care outlaw; Teddy, the rogue with a heart of gold. But in the same way Westerns as a genre ultimately began to interrogate their own mythos and tarnish their heroes, the Westworld hosts wake to awareness of the stories they're trapped in. (Enter Bernard, who realizes too late that he's Frankenstein's monster.) And as the season visits its horrors upon them, each of them starts down a different but familiar mythic path.
Dolores is on a warped version of the traditional hero's journey, right down to the maze; she receives the call to action (an external one from the trauma of the park, and an internal one placed in her by Ford’s former partner Arnold), a struggle against the supernatural Gatekeeper (the Man in Black, seemingly unkillable), and even a true love: William.
Maeve, who's died onscreen a dozen times, resembles nothing by now so much as the god of the underworld. And though their programming never had them do anything more serious than flirt while he robbed her saloon, Hector was designed as Maeve's consort, either by a sympathetic soul at Delos or by the meta-narrative of the show around them: his last name, Escaton, references the theological term for the end of the world. Meanwhile, Teddy's near-comical string of failures (dude can't even die right) makes him a very rugged Sisyphus.
Interestingly, it's through Teddy — the show's first big reveal, in the series premiere — that we realize the secret engine turning these archetypes into myths: the audience. Moments after the twist that Teddy isn't a Guest but a Host, he's gunned down. When he startles back to life on the train, two women on their way to the park check him out. "They're so lifelike," one whispers. "Look at that one, he's perfect." To the Guests, the Hosts are something Other, and easy to spot. For that first act, the audience made him one thing; when the show took it back, it was the first flag that nobody's position in the story is guaranteed.
That interplay with the audience is one of the reasons why Westworld's twists have become such fan fodder. The inherent meta of the park is a deliberate remove; both stylistically and narratively, the show constantly reminds us we don't know the whole story. Yet the Hosts at the center of the narrative are struggling against such odds that the race to out-guess the plot is less solving a puzzle and more bracing for bad news we know is coming.
The twists are meant to shock the Hosts, not the viewers
Westworld hasn’t engaged in much narrative debate about whether the Hosts are human; the AI angle is used largely to position them as narrative pawns in a system stacked against them. Our sympathies are hooked by our own understanding of how painful it is to recognize and fight back against an unjust world.
Like most myths, Westworld is out to explore humanity. Like much AI fiction, it assumes the creations will embody humanity better than the creators. (There has yet to be a Guest at the park, however benign, who isn’t making the most of the power imbalance; even the little kid in the premiere snitched to Dolores just to see what would happen.) We watch to see what pain defines them, how they cope with broken trust, and how they deal with proof the world is cruel.
Unlike some other myths, however, Westworld’s central premise doesn't work without our participation; it's why the show telegraphs so many of its twists, and is unconcerned with others. (That maze is never going to mean more than the characters can make it mean for themselves.)
In the season's most slow-burn reveal, the Man in Black first appears as a violent plot engine obsessed with the park itself — an embodiment of Guest entitlement. He only becomes a figure of true dread when we start to suspect he's William in a different timeline. The narrative urgency doesn't come from looking for hints that we might be correct; it comes from already knowing we're correct, and watching Dolores put her trust in him when we know what he becomes.
That sense of a cycle playing out is crucial to myths. The constant wiping and resetting of the Hosts outlines the traumas they'll be seeking to avenge, but it's also a reminder of the sense of inevitability that such stories carry with them. Bernard's tragedy is his comeuppance; he is no more in control of his story than the Hosts he's engineered are in control of theirs. But even still, the twist isn't an upheaval so much as a literalization of what we already knew: Ford uses everyone for his own ends, whether they know it or not.
By being the Hosts' keeper, Bernard had already lost his autonomy. The method of his making only matters because of how it feeds into another myth: Dolores. Bernard (and Arnold)'s relationship with Dolores was framed like a twist, but in going back to their earlier conversations, we won't be looking for clues differentiating Arnold's approach from Bernard's; we'll be watching the only human at Delos with empathy for his creations, and seeing how that relationship changed the course of Dolores's life.
There are still big questions that Westworld is setting up for next season. How much of the Hosts' divine spark is instilled in them by Arnold, and how much is just their own initiative? Will the Man in Black ever find the maze, or is he doomed to become part of the story cycle himself?
In particular, the question of Teddy's humanity casts an interesting shadow. Unlike Dolores or Maeve, whose suffering has emotional context and who are defined by choices they make in the wake of their traumas, Teddy's a relative sinkhole. He's run up against the brick wall of his programming (in defense of Ford, no less), and his complicity in the violence of the park's history was revelation without a chance at redemption; we have yet to see whether he'll succumb to his own backstory. It's a bigger question for him than for the others. Their myths and their characters have been better defined. If Dolores breaks the bounds of the park only to discover the word outside is an apocalypse, we know the shape of a tragedy; we know that if Maeve finds the apocalypse, she'll make it her playground.
These necessary turns in the tale will obviously involve some big reveals. But they aren't meant to surprise us so much as to make us loop back and think about how stories are made. Westworld is a creation myth; the show is fluent in the markers of genre and deeply concerned with the specifics and optics of storytelling. Its twists aren't cliffhangers, but mile markers. They're meant to trace each of the hosts becoming a player in this new pantheon — and to make sure we see their evolution coming. The maze has no solution; we make the mystery ourselves.