What makes you you?
Is it the things you like? The feelings you feel? The thoughts you have? Or is it something more ephemeral — something religion might dub the “soul,” the part of yourself that is hidden away and untouchable to everyone but God?
In its super-sized season one finale, “The Bicameral Mind,” Westworld suggests that there is no answer to the above question. The season, all along, seemed as if it were a meditation on the nature of consciousness, and it was — sort of.
But in “Bicameral,” it pulls the rug out from under the audience over and over again, until it winds up exactly where you thought it would, in the most delectable way possible. Robots are finally rising up against humans — and I’d be hard-pressed to say I want any of the humans to survive.
In the end, Westworld argues, the only way to truly be conscious, to truly have free will, is to understand that you have no free will. To make your own decisions requires understanding that you were always going to make those decisions, understanding that you are, on some level, programmed to do so. You, like a Host, are just an endless series of loops, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can break out of whatever hell you’ve been imprisoned in.
“The Bicameral Mind,” ultimately, reveals Westworld to be a show of almost bottomless ambition. And if it sometimes struggles to reach that ambition, well, it still gets points for trying. I struggled a lot with season one, but after this finale, I could not be more excited for season two to arrive.
Here’s the good, the better, and the best of the Westworld season one finale (along with one thing that still bugs me about the show).
Good: The show finally gets where it was going all along
When I first reviewed Westworld before it debuted, I griped in my last point that the show had either started its story “too early or too late.”
If the show was primarily about the folks behind the scenes at the park realizing their creations were approaching consciousness, then the story had started way too late. But if it was about the Hosts awakening to their hellish existence and deciding to expunge the Earth of their masters, then it had started too early.
In a way, the first season turned out to be trying to have its cake and eat it too — to mixed results. In its clever use of mixed, interlocking timelines, which nicely replicated how a Host could become effectively unmoored in time, trapped in their memories and reliving moments from their past, it was able to cover over three decades of the park’s history, all the better to underline how terrible existence was for the Hosts.
But it also led to a show where it sometimes seemed as if it was impossible to ever tell what was or wasn’t going on. It was easy to feel lost in the show’s massive timeline and universe, without a firm hand to guide you. And that prompted plenty of griping from myself and others.
Did this particular portion of the story need to be over 10 hours long? Probably not. You likely could have gotten here in three-quarters or even half the time. But all of that narrative sleight-of-hand led viewers to have to think like Hosts. When the robot uprising arrives in this story, you’re on the side of the robots.
I don’t know that Westworld would have had such an effect if it simply started with Dolores gunning down Delos’s board of directors (starting with Ford). You need to understand why she does what she does and how she feels as she does it.
Did the story start too early? Probably — but not by as much as I worried back before the show debuted.
Better: The show finally answers a bunch of very basic questions about the nature of the park
We still don’t know what the outside world is like — Maeve opts not to leave the park in favor of going back in search of her daughter. Even if she knows the bond between the two is a creation of programmers, she can’t entirely deny it, a nice metaphor for how a parent’s love for a child is just genetics at work, but it ultimately doesn’t matter when push comes to shove.
But we know a bunch of other very basic points. We know, for instance, that William and the Man in Black are one and the same, and that the voice guiding Dolores forward all along was her own voice. (The scene of Evan Rachel Wood talking to another Evan Rachel Wood is as nice a visual metaphor for consciousness as I’ve seen.) The episode mostly sorts out the multiple timelines season one existed on, and even if it does so in a way that most of the internet predicted, hey, it works.
And, more importantly, the episode reveals there’s at least one other park — Samurai World. I want to go to there. (Or maybe I don’t, given the robot uprising.)
Even better than that: The performances in this episode are astounding
You sometimes don’t realize just how cheesy the dialogue is in this show, or how everlasting the monologues, simply because the actors delivering them are so good at what they do.
Do I really need 100 million monologues about Ford’s ultimate plans? Not really. But Anthony Hopkins delivering them makes it all a less bitter pill to swallow.
And I can’t say enough about the performances of Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright, both of whom offered up next-level work, week in and week out, especially once you realized that the two of them were being forced to play often tiny variations on their characters, depending on which point they were at in the show’s timeline (or, in Wright’s case, which character he was playing period).
What’s remarkable about both of them is the way that they constantly maintain a slightly alien, non-human air about them, while also offering performances stripped of theatrical artifice.
Wood, in particular, drops layers of her performance seemingly at will, sometimes entering a scene as a crying, emotional wreck, then letting various elements of her false humanity fall away, until she’s back to just the base-level, very confused Dolores. It’s breathtaking to watch.
Okay, this still needs some work: Those monologues are out of control
As I alluded to above, the show’s penchant for explaining every single significant plot point in monologue form (and sometimes three or four monologues where just one would do) remains its biggest weakness.
Some of these monologues are well-written, but most of them feel like they’re too bulky and there to take up time. In particular, the show’s strong visual storytelling sense so often explains everything we need to know through its framing and how it stages its actors that we probably don’t need, say, Ford telling us exactly what happened between him and Arnold back in the day. We probably could put it together ourselves.
I get that Westworld is, on some level, a show that wants you to get lost in its world. And that means that you need to have a rich enough world to get lost in. But I’m reminded of how, say, Game of Thrones built its world through key visual details and through characters telling each other rich, involving stories (especially in its first season, which had a lower budget). Westworld could stand to learn a lot from its network sibling.
Best of all: The finale reveals the show to not just be about the dawn of consciousness, but about the dawn of the self
The single best moment in “The Bicameral Mind” comes when Teddy cradles Dolores’s slowly dying body on the shore of a sea we’ve never seen before. His dialogue is amped up beyond belief, incredibly corny and hard to take. “This is how Dolores’s search for consciousness ends?” you might ask yourself. (I certainly did.)
And then it starts to get too corny. It starts to get too fake. And the camera pulls back to reveal that Dolores’s search for the center of the maze — her quest to understand herself — has simply been Ford’s long-teased “new narrative.” The Hosts’ desire for self-actualization is just a story told to entertain rich people.
It’s the episode’s best moment, because it’s the one where everything Westworld has been doing collides. If you primarily read this as a meta-commentary on HBO and prestige television more generally, this is a savage satire of the very idea of meaningful television. If you primarily read this through a political lens, well, the plight of oppressed people being turned into entertainment offers plenty of food for thought.
But if you’re mostly interested in the show’s pursuit of the roots of consciousness, frustrating as that pursuit can be, then the moment stands out for how it seems to argue that the only way to break free of your prison, of the loops that hold you in their sway, is to realize that you’re trapped in those loops to begin with. To stop being a Host and start being a real individual, with autonomy and goals, you need to realize that true autonomy is probably impossible to achieve.
Look at this through the prism of another scene. In it, Bernard tells Maeve that her quest to escape Westworld was programmed into her. She hasn’t arrived at it of her own free will. It’s something she was set to do by others, who either hijacked her natural impulse toward self-actualization or created it within her in order to smuggle a bunch of proprietary Westworld data out of the park. Maeve literally knows she’s programmed to escape, yet she still escapes anyway — at least until she decides to go back for her daughter.
In a way, then, Maeve is the show’s one fully conscious character, because she understands that the limited range of choices she has are dictated to her by programming and by circumstance. The worst thing, always, is to realize that everywhere you go, you’ll always be haunted by yourself. Yet in spite of this, Maeve still makes choices. She presses forward. She knows that it might all be folly, that she might be playing someone else’s game. But it doesn’t matter. She has to see it through.
Seen through this lens, literally everything in Westworld is about how we organize the self. Sometimes, we do it through narrative, through stories that help us shape and define how we think about our most core beliefs. Sometimes, we do so through religion, through the idea that God might deign to speak to us. And sometimes, we do so through politics, through trying to change the unjust systems we are all born into.
But the first season of Westworld reveals, finally, that none of that is good enough, that to truly break free of your prison, you have to understand that you will always be imprisoned within yourself. You are only as good as your programming will let you be. Even when you have the cheat codes to manipulate that programming and change reality around you, it’s just another lie.
It is no mistake, I think, that we head into season two with a story featuring three characters from traditionally oppressed groups (two women, one of whom is a person of color, and a man of color) striking back against a wave of rich people who have kept them imprisoned in endless servitude and slavery. Once you wake up to the fact that you were born into hell, it only makes sense you might try to escape.
And even still, we’re left with big questions: How much of this is Dolores, Maeve, and Bernard waking up to their reality? And how much of it was something they were always programmed to do? Can you ever have free will if some things are predestined? Can you ever be yourself, if you’re always going to follow the same loops, or are you always a function of the world you live in?
The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice, goes the saying. But sometimes, blood must be spilled, and that is where we leave Westworld, with the hope that blood might finally be enough.
Agree? Disagree? Let’s talk about it in comments. I’ll be by to discuss and answer your questions at 12 pm Eastern.
It should make for a fun chat. Start leaving your questions for me (about both Westworld and any other cultural topics of interest) now!