HBO’s new series Westworld is one of the biggest shows of the season – but also one of the most frustrating. It has a production quality that puts its 1973 B-movie source material to shame. The showrunners have shown real ambition in their handling of this series. They’ve combined transhuman sci-fi with a satire of video game conventions. We have a show that’s violent, sexy, disturbing, and gripping. So why does it feel like Westworld is such a drag half the time?
We are now more than halfway through the ten episode run of Westworld’s first season. At this point in the series, Westworld has divided itself into four separate storylines. Much of the series’ running time is now dedicated to several extremely vague mysteries. Meanwhile, whole episodes are devoted to the slow unraveling of hidden plots. But while we learn about Arnold and the Maze, why are we making such slow progress with the characters?
The latest episode of the series feels like the first in weeks that actually had something concrete happen. It was also the one that had the least to do with characters looking for the Maze, but also gave definite answers as to what is going on. This episode built on the strengths of the series: the power struggle behind the scenes and the growing awakening of the Hosts. So why did we have to tread water until now?
Lost in the Maze
The Maze is a plot point that exists to stir fan speculation. The writers put it in the show to make you and your friends argue as to what (or who) it is. As expected, the fanbase is very happily trying to figure it out. Fans noticed that the recurring Maze sigil actually looks a lot like a scan of the human brain. Westworld has become a puzzle of clues, which hopefully will add to some kind of grand reveal.
My worry, however, is that shows built on a single mystery are not building on solid foundations. Just how good was Twin Peaks after Laura Palmer’s murder was solved? LOST toyed with its audience for years. Did we ever find out what those stupid numbers meant? The X-Files could never actually tell us the full truth of the alien conspiracy. Battlestar Galactica forgot to give the Cylons a plan. You could spend hours online arguing over the intricacies of the details.
Meanwhile, HBO’s The Leftovers — possibly one of the best show on TV right now — avoids its central mystery altogether. The show is based in a world after ten percent of the population vanished with no explanation scientific or otherwise. By the end of its second season, it is no closer to answering what happened. In fact, the entire show is built on studying what happens to people when there are no answers. It’s a character study of despair and a search for faith.
Mystery Over Characters
Mysteries are thrilling and fun to parse out. But in the end, the actual answer to the mystery rarely adds up to all that much. The Maze could turn out to be anything. It could be like Pokémon’s Missingno, a glitch that’s taken on a life of its own. Or it could be a path for the Hosts to become more human. Or it could be Arnold’s overly-elaborate plot for revenge. Unfortunately, the Maze is not all that interesting right now because the journey to it has very small stakes.
Westworld keeps holding its cards so close to its chest. Some episodes have the characters traveling unclear distances. The scrapes they get in are not very tense because no character can actually die in this universe. Humans are safe, and Hosts will just come back. Then the characters will collect another clue as cryptic as the last one and move on. If you have no idea how many steps the Man in Black needs to take, watching him take another step just isn’t exciting.
It gets worse, though, when Westworld cannot even do much work with its characters. Everything is wrapped up in the mystery. Ford is still in his shell of secret plans and Anthony Hopkins’ god speeches. Most of the upper management seems to have a hidden agenda. The Man in Black cannot even be given a name. Poor Dolores is as much a mystery to herself as she is to the audience. Teddy was just given a brand new backstory, and even that is unknown.
Not much can happen too soon for these characters, or else the cat will be out of the bag. Any scene with Dolores and William is a good time to go to the bathroom because nothing is happening on that front very quickly.
The Structural Magic Act
What you might notice during the course of Westworld is how disconnected the show seems to have become from itself. Much like weaker mid-season episodes of Game of Thrones, Westworld features several completely independent storylines that do not interact. We currently have four: Maeve’s awakening, Dolores and William’s adventure, the Man in Black’s adventure, and the power struggle for control of the park. While the characters interacted in one plotline in the opening episode, from then onwards, things quickly split up.
A running theory now is that the four storylines are happening at different times but are edited to appear concurrent. Characters rarely cross between stories and when they do, they do so as very different figures. Lawrence was the Man in Black’s punching bag for a few episodes. Then, when he showed up in Dolores’ story, he was the crime lord El Lazo. Was this just his character resetting after the Man in Black killed him to his earlier loop? Or are Dolores and William’s events happening way after/before the Man in Black’s?
This structure is probably going to be the big reveal in the last episode. Westworld seems to be trying for a twist that the Saw franchise pulled off several times. But along the way, it just slows things down. Every storyline needs to hold its horse and buggy to wait for the other storylines.
The Maeve Oasis
There is one thing that is currently working brilliantly with Westworld: Maeve Millay. Thandie Newton’s character is one of the few with a clear arc so far. She’s woken up during repairs and discovered that her reality is not what she imagined. She continued to wake up, to escape her programming. After this past episode, she’s managed to reprogram herself to be much smarter. That will make her a threat to the human controllers.
The thing with Maeve’s arc is not that the ultimate trajectory is clear. She could be defeated next week. I would prefer to see her continue to hide as a Host and begin to work for her revenge. It’s an exciting possibility of transhuman upheaval, opening the show up to anything.
The tension does not lie in artificial mysteries, but the basic storytelling joy of “what is going to happen next?” Eventually, we might reach this point with the other characters. We just need to wait out the threads of the mystery for the remainder of the season.
It’s All a Game
Westworld is still arguably the best show airing on television right now, possibly only behind Atlanta. For all its issues, Westworld is an incredible program with a lot of promise. However, some of the potential answers are more promising than others. (I’ll bet the farm that at least one human is going to turn out to be a Host — a low hanging fruit for a twist ending. Double my money if it’s Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard.)
As much as the mysteries are Freshman weaknesses for Westworld, there might be something here. Westworld is uniquely a show about a video game. The humans act according to their wildest desires. They’re like 12-year-olds who first discovered the anarchy of Grand Theft Auto. So if a TV show is going to be about gaming, it only makes sense for the show itself to be a game. The Maze, Arnold, everything, it’s all a game the writers are playing on the audience.
Unfortunately, we won’t know if the game is worth it until the end of the season. I’m going to continue watching and enjoying the show, warts and all. We might be finally moving towards real progress and real resolutions of arcs. That should make a great finale for the season.
But if we do not know what the heck the stupid Maze is by the end of season 1, there will be a real problem.