Did you spend a lot of time this week talking about what is going to happen on the season finale of Westworld this weekend? That’s great! Hopefully you enjoyed yourself, and maybe even figured it out. Just don’t be disappointed if you’re right.
The routine should, by now, be a familiar experience: Fellow HBO series Game of Thrones encourages a similar degree of obsessive close-reading and fan-theorizing, although that show is supplemented by thousands of pages of lore from author George R.R. Martin’s book series, A Song of Ice and Fire. For business reasons, it would behoove HBO to find another GOT-type series, as that fantastic and sprawling epic approaches its conclusion. Westworld fits that mold more than adequately: “This is built as a series,” former HBO programming president Michael Lombardo told the Hollywood Reporter in 2014. “In terms of storytelling, I think the rules are definitely being broken.” (Well, maybe.) “The promise of the show, in terms of where it’s going, is exciting to actors, and they want to be a part of this.” And so does HBO, which somewhat unusually is paying a licensing fee to its corporate sibling Warner Bros. Television for Westworld, an uncommon but not totally unprecedented arrangement. (Both HBO and WBTV are owned by Time Warner.)
It is hardly surprising that the network would turn to someone like Jonathan Nolan, who co-created the show with Lisa Joy. Nolan’s work with his brother Christopher has largely hinged upon layered storytelling and frame narratives that distort viewers’ sense of what is “actually” happening in any given plot, thus providing plenty of opportunity for the viewership—if it is sufficiently convinced that there is any substance hidden behind the mystery—to keep coming back, like the Man in Black on his quest for the center of the Maze. Serialized storytelling is particularly conducive to this viewing experience because it invites speculation—a natural response to delayed gratification and the anticipation that future episodes will satisfy the viewer’s frustrated desires.
But this presents a problem for the storytellers, too: In constantly delaying the payoff, a show like Westworld allows its viewers, through Reddit forums and podcasts and water-cooler conversations of all types, to work out every potential outcome and complication, an exhausting exercise in denying ourselves the potential to be surprised. (Not that Westworld’s plot is particularly innovative or subtle: If, for example, you did not anticipate that Bernard is, in fact, an android, you were not paying attention in the first episode and also apparently have never seen Blade Runner.)
Put another way: If we understand contemporary narratives to be comprised of two main ingredients—story and discourse—and we use the periods of rest between episodes in a serialized narrative to determine for ourselves every possible storyline in advance, we are asking that narrative to lean ever more heavily on the discourse in which the plot is couched. By anticipating every potential twist and turn a narrative might contain before allowing it to unfold in its particular way, with all of the ancillary story-stuff—the world-building, the cinematography, the acting, the music, the atmospheric and intangible things specific to even the most derivative show or movie or novel—we are simply setting ourselves up to be let down. “Never place your trust in us,” Ford warns Bernard. “We’re only human. Inevitably we will disappoint you.”
The parallels between Westworld co-executive producer J.J. Abrams’s era-defining LOST are obvious enough, although the more instructive text may be Christopher Nolan’s feature film Inception, whose ambiguous ending frustrated viewers looking for a neat and tidy conclusion to a film that was anything but. Still, confronted with such stark refusals, critics and laypeople alike search for hints both within the text and without. Even more to the point, see Vox.com’s ludicrous 2014 feature purporting to answer, once and for all, whether Tony Soprano “actually” died at the end of The Sopranos—a television show that had concluded seven years earlier. (Vox’s mealy-mouthed response to Sopranos creator David Chase’s accusation that they had misquoted him is revealing in its incoherence, too. “Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point,” Chase said.) Disappointment with ambiguity comes from a hostility to nuance and ambivalence: an unwillingness to engage with a text—whether a film, television show, or novel—on its own terms.
Maybe there should be room for viewers to be disappointed in ambiguity. After all, what if—what if!—that ambiguity is not born out of ambivalence but bad writing and plot holes. On the other hand, when you’re dealing with a serialized narrative, how do you know the difference between a plot hole and a story that just isn’t finished yet? In any case, here’s a prediction: Westworld isn’t going to end well. No one should be disappointed by that, though they inevitably will be, like a visitor who falls in love with an android, or a bandit who opens a long-sought safe only to find it empty.
The show, littered as it is with red herrings and MacGuffins, offers a few obvious stand-ins for the viewer: William and Logan as thesis and antithesis, and the Man in Black as their synthesis. Westworld’s (a)moral center is to be found in none of these characters, however, but rather in Maeve, who upon discovering the truth of her nature embraces the meaninglessness of it all, fighting and fucking and freeing her fellow robot-slaves to her heart’s content. She embraces the chaos with pleasure and playfulness, and if that ends up coming across as somewhat melodramatic—well, that’s fine. This is a science-fiction Western thriller we are watching, after all. It should be fun! Melodrama is fun. And what’s more: It’s not that deep.
“In Westworld, frustration finds release,” the mock-robot voiceover in the trailer for the 1973 film drones. “Desire ends in satisfaction, all in a controlled environment.” This is the promise of Westworld, the park; it is not the promise of Westworld, the show. We’d like it to be, but it is not. The maze has no center; the safe is empty; the end of desire is not satisfaction but suffering.