We’ve reached the center of the Maze. It’s not a physical location, a place in the park where the safety catch comes off and the guests can play for keeps. It’s a metaphor for consciousness, the inward journey required for an android to become truly alive. In the case of Dolores, it’s also the downward spiral to her buried identity, i.e. Wyatt, the genocidal maniac destined to create a new robot-friendly world from the human blood of the old.
But tonight’s movie-length season finale – “The Bicameral Mind” – proves that the Maze isn’t such a bad image for the show itself. For all its faults, Westworld‘s first season wasn’t an affront or a disaster. There’s enough entertainment value in each episode, particularly if you just so happen to enjoy sci-fi thrillers, no matter how skeptical you are of their overall philosophical or dramatic merit. But the journey from the starting point to the center of it all reveals just how distant “enjoyable” can be from, you know, good. Right up to the end, the show’s inaugural season was watchable – and ultimately dismissible.
So let’s take a cue from the park’s design, which starts nice and easy at Sweetwater and gets rougher the farther you go. We’ll begin with the good stuff, which mostly comes in the form of little gallows-humor jokes, virtually the first to actually land since the show began. First on the docket is Sylvester, the sleazy medical technician that Maeve gang-presses into helping her escape. When he’s cornered by the newly awakened android Armistice, the tattooed blonde says “This one has a guilty look.” His panicked reply? “No, that’s just my face!” The guy’s brother-in-arms (and in cartoon cat–based names) Felix has a solid comic beat of his own: When he discovers that Bernard was a host all along, he nervously looks down at his own hands, half-convinced he’s a robot too until Miss Millay sets him straight.
Some meta-narrative bits have bite, too. Maeve’s escape route, for instance, takes her through what looks like the staging ground for Samurai World, a whole other park set in feudal Japan – a “whoa”-worthy surprise for sure. The best such moment, though, is the look of unmitigated glee on the face of the Man in Black — finally revealed to be both William and the majority owner of the whole shebang — when he gets shot by the marauding army of hosts that Dr. Robert Ford sets loose. Finally, he gets to play the game on the ultimate difficulty level! If it means dying at the hands of a robotic death cult, hey, you get what you pay for.
But this represents the sum total of the finale’s genuine amusements. Beyond that, it’s all needlessly belabored “revelations,” endless info-dump dialogue, ponderous metaphors, action-movie clichés, and plot holes you could drive a steam-powered locomotive through.
For example, Dolores’ realization that her beloved would-be savior William is also her black-clad tormentor receives a full 40 minutes of buildup. It comes complete with an edit in which the younger version lowers his head and puts on his brand-new black hat in the past, then raises it in the present to reveal Ed Harris’ grizzled visage, just to hammer the point home – yet plenty of viewers had this secret unlocked from the jump. Similarly, nearly an hour passes between when we’re guessing most of the audience figured out Dolores is Wyatt and when we receive dyed-in-the-wool proof. It’s not like dragging these storylines out, then doing these big “ta-da!” reveals, adds anything in terms of emotional tone or metaphorical heft. It’s just doughy writing.
What’s more, the double-identity deal with William and the MiB only works because two different actors play the character at these two different points in his life. Harris, must be said, is a vastly more effective heavy than poor Jimmi Simpson, who couldn’t frighten a housecat with a nervous condition. In a show that famously and convincingly digitally de-aged Anthony Hopkins when a young Ford was required, the fake-out feels even more like a cheat.
But at least someone recognizes that Billy and the dark-couture baddie are the same guy. Somehow we’re expected to believe that not a single person has ever seen Bernard and said “Hey, that guy looks exactly like the guy who co-founded the park!” Yes, there was some business earlier in the season about everyone being perfectly happy to write Arnold out of the corporate history, but that doesn’t make pictures of the guy completely disappear from the rest of the world, or from other human being’s memories. Billionaire Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter hasn’t been photographed in literally decades, but presumably the board of Disney and the other Marvel higher-ups know what the dude looks like – and unlike the dead scientist, he never orchestrated the destruction of every single one of the company’s creations before ordering one of them to shoot him in the head.
Beyond that lies a sea of cheese and a desert of other, better artists’ ideas. Dolores awakens with a bot’s-eye-view shot straight out of Robocop and a space-age-polymer skeleton boosted from Ex Machina. Hector and Armistice slaughter a host of security guards in a glibly ultraviolent machine-gun massacre a la The Matrix‘s lobby shootout. Their dialogue is pure corn: “You don’t get all the fun.” “Die well.” “See you in the next life.” You might be tempted to argue that this is just the nature of their bad-guy programming. But when you remember living breathing human beings like the Man in Black say shit that’s just as ridiculous – Dolores: “What have you become?” MiB: “Exactly what you made me” – the charitable interpretation gets tougher to justify.
Once you get through all the twists and turns, there’s at least one item of interest at the center of the maze. Ford, it turns out, has been planning to liberate the hosts as his swan song for 30 years, ever since Arnold’s murder-suicide showed him the error of his ways. All his mad-genius sadism was just a way to build up the robots’ consciousness and resilience through years of suffering, so they’d finally have a real shot at escape. Given the creator’s iron-clad hold on the park and all its intellectual property, it seems like he could have just switched off the security system and put them all on a train. But a Dr. Frankenstein who deliberately aids his creations’ revolt instead of attempting to thwart it isn’t such a bad twist on one of the modern era’s foundational myths.
Where does that leave us for next season, though? In the uncomfortable position of watching a horde of electronic ubermenschen kill their way to the top of the proverbial food chain. Surely this will be positioned as an ennobling uprising, rather than a Walking Dead–style story of kill-or-be-killed pseudo-fascism. But everyone on this show who isn’t Bernard or Teddy is so freaking unpleasant to be around that allegorical uncertainty will abound. Who are we supposed to root for? The berserk hosts who’ve literally been programmed to act like a cannibal cult, or the corporation full of asshole one-percenters who presided over their torment all this time? To paraphrase “Exit Music (for a Film),” the gutwrenching Radiohead song that Westworld chose to end its season with in literal-minded fashion: Whoever wins, we hope that you choke.
Previously: Who Made Who