Is Westworld a show to be watched, or a puzzle to be solved? Could it be both? Does it matter? As is becoming customary for a series this driven by metacommentary about itself and the genres to which it belongs – science fiction, prestige television, HBO blockbusters – the best place to look for answers is in the story itself.
Take the menacing Man in Black. A 30-year veteran of the theme park, he's convinced that its narrative possibilities have been exhausted. "This whole world is a story," he tells Lawrence, his hapless companion. "I've read every page except the last one. I need to find out how it ends. I want to know what it all means." To that end, he's uncovered the facility's secret history: The legend of Arnold, the park's lost co-creator, whose madness Dr. Robert Ford details at length elsewhere in the episode. "He created a world where you can do anything you want," the MiB later explains to the tattooed desperado Armistice. "Except one thing: You can't die. Which means no matter how real this world seems, it's still just a game. ... [Only] I believe he had one story left to tell. A story with real stakes. Real violence. You could say I'm here to honor his legacy, and I think your tattoo is the next piece of the puzzle."
So, you've got Arnold's life and death, his last great story, the map of a maze found when the Man scalped the piano player a few episodes ago — the same maze that Bernard touts to Dolores as her route to freedom during one of their surreptitious consciousness-raising sessions. There's Armistice's red-snake tattoo, a commemoration of all the men she's killed on the way to her true target: Wyatt, the crazed cult leader whom Dr. Ford added to poor Teddy Moss' imaginary history last week. To the Man — who uses the terms "story," "game," and "puzzle" interchangeably — these are all pieces to be assembled into some unseen final shape, at which point he'll have beaten Westworld the way you, say, beat The Legend of Zelda by navigating the final dungeon and defeating Ganondorf.
There's just one problem: The Man in Black is crazier than a shithouse rat. As critical role models go, he leaves a hell of a lot to be desired.
This week's episode – "Dissonance Theory" – cautiously but unmistakably advances the idea that the zeal to get to the bottom of things is distorting, even destructive, of a story's value. Without exception, everyone who tries to figure out what it all means drifts closer to doom.
Seriously, go through the characters one by one. Bernard is breaking all kinds of rules, to say nothing of ethical guidelines, by trying to make Dolores truly self-aware. For Miss Abernathy herself, consciousness is hardly a gift to be relished; it dredges up buried memories of murder and mayhem, and in a strange flashback sequence, glimpses of the maze and the church that seem to be tied to Arnold and Ford's final grand scheme.
Speaking of Ford, his new narrative appears to be linked to his late partner's endgame, and everything we've seen about it – from the massive machines involved in its construction to the army of pliant robots at his command – looks creepy as hell. The Doctor himself doesn't help matters when he manipulates and strong-arms Theresa, the head of Quality Assurance, into staying out of his way. He mocks the idea that he's gone mad, but his actions say otherwise.
Meanwhile, Maeve the madam is absolutely tormented by her memories of the story behind the story. In the episode's most unnerving bits, she draws one of the masked technicians who last repaired her, only to discover an entire cache of past sketches she doesn't even remember making. When she sees one of the park's Native American children carrying a doll carved to look like the park staffer of her dreams, she learns from badass bandit Hector Escaton that the "savages" see these figures as sacred visitors from beyond: "The man who walks between worlds. They were sent from hell to oversee our world." It's a clever bit of programming on the part of (we're guessing) Arnold, who was fond of using religious visions to cover up stray commands. But it turns Maeve into a suicidal nihilist.
The point is this: Given what happens to every character who tries to solve the puzzle, perhaps it's best to just enjoy things as they unfold, if you can indeed "enjoy" a story this grim.
Unfortunately, the majority of the show isn't making this easy. While the horror elements pack a jolt and the "conversations" between robots remain enthralling, everything else is shooting blanks. The human characters are still a major flaw: Aside from Ford and his lunatic zeal, everyone who works at the park is utterly joyless and unpleasant. When Bernard and Theresa smile at each other in his bedroom, it almost feels like a continuity glitch.
In particular, the loathsome black-hat Logan is all but unwatchable in his clichéd obnoxiousness; "You're gonna grow to love me, I promise," he says to his dully good-hearted companion William, but we have our doubts. In some clunky exposition, he also raises the idea that the two of them are part of the family that owns the park, which means they'll be even more important to the story as it progresses. Great.
Perhaps to compensate for the undercooked dialogue, the score is omnipresent and obnoxious, telegraphing every emotion we're supposed to have during every scene: ominous hums in the production facility, lugubrious strings during Dolores' touching moments with the menfolk, jangly Mexicana when the bad guys and bandits are on the scene, the ironic use of "La Habanera" for a slow-mo massacre. Hey, Westworld: Have some faith in your players – ahem, viewers. We can figure this out ourselves.
Previously: Player Haters