Monday, December 5, 2016

REVIEW: 'Westworld' - Dolores Finds Her Answers While Maeve Stages a Breakout in 'The Bicameral Mind'

HBO's Westworld - Episode 1.10 "The Bicameral Mind"

Ford unveils his bold new narrative. Dolores embraces her identity. Maeve sets her plan in motion.

This first season of Westworld sure was interesting. It was frustratingly complex. That wasn't always a good thing. If it weren't for the performances, the season-long narrative would have been unbearable. This is a show that prided itself on its big mystery. It wasn't going to reveal the big twist that gets the story started until the end of the season. So that meant most of this year was spent in wheel-spinning mode giving the characters little adventures to do while only cryptically teasing the bigger picture. All of this is very good in concept. The show has done a rather fantastic job in depicting the beginning of consciousness and the struggles that come from developing one's own thoughts. It's the dawning of a new era in this world. One where the hosts are rising up to battle their true enemies: humans. But again, all of that was pretty apparent early on in the season. The hosts were being constantly tortured for the amusement of the guests. There was a bigger game at play that kept them from breaking out of their loops which also kept the show from fully being the version of itself it clearly wanted to be.

This season was all about the mystery. And now, the mystery has been revealed. Of course, mystery that takes precedence over characters is a very frustrating thing to do with a story. Mysteries and twists that help inform the audience about the characters and their choices is very powerful. But a mystery-based narrative that needs to keep everything a secret until it can all be revealed in the end is no longer a winning strategy in this medium. Crowd-sourcing basically ruined so many twists that the show set up to be revealed in "The Bicameral Mind." Of course, the journey along the way revealed some big twists as well. But again, if the point of the whole show is the twists, then the characters start to feel very empty. The show has always held the audience at arms lengths with the characters. It was more important that we understand the struggle they are endearing in this world. How we are just as lost and confused as they are. How we are in the same loops struggling to understand. We jump around in time just as much as they do trying to break free to a higher power. That ultimately occurs at the end of this finale. It really is a fantastic sequence to watch. But it's not as effective as the show probably wanted because it hardly justifies the amount of time getting to that point.

Probably one of the biggest problems with this finale and the season as a whole is the reveal that the Man in Black is the older version of William. It's an answer that Internet commenters started theorizing about pretty early on in the season. For anyone who reads things online, it was hard not to notice this theory. That definitely impacted my viewing of the season. I noticed the connections that were clearly being built between the two characters. And yet, the show still treats it as this big reveal in the finale. One that needs to be extended for as long as possible so that it can truly sink in. The Man in Black tells Dolores the story of what happened to William all those years ago. How he broke after losing her and made it his mission to fund this world and explore all of the secrets Arnold left in it. It's just an explanation that drags on and on. It's clear early on that this is the direction the show is heading in. It just takes awhile for that confirmation to actually occur. So, the audience has clearly always been ahead of Dolores in this regard. Everything has to be spelled out for her in order for her to gain sentience in the end. That's a good idea in theory. She needs more information to process before reaching her full potential. It's just an agonizing wait for the viewers.

Plus, the idea of a good man breaking bad isn't a new story whatsoever. It's an archetype that has been used for as long as stories have been told. Westworld doesn't completely offer an inventive spin on the story either. Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris make the most of the material. But it's some pretty one-note characterization as well. William in the past is broken down because of his adventure with Dolores. He saved the park from financial ruin and has helped Ford achieve his goals. But now, William is just a bitter old man who wants the hosts to fight back. He wants something to challenge him. Whenever something in the park surprises him, he truly comes alive. He's trying to make that happen. His search for the maze has been such a frustrating and mysterious story. It again pertains completely to the big twist that needed to happen in the end. The maze was actually Arnold's way of getting his hosts to reach a new level of consciousness. It wasn't an easy journey but it's one he saw possible all those years ago. And now, it has taken all of this time and all of the loops and all the ventures into the memories of the past for Dolores to see that once more. That's thrilling for her. But it also treats her time with William as something more important than it actually is.

However, the reveal that Ford was actually on the side of the hosts the entire time was genuinely surprising and unexpected. He was simply tormenting them all of this time in the hopes of creating his final narrative and free them from this existence. He has been played as the villain of the season this entire time. This reveal does lesson the impact his past actions have had just a little bit though. The torture he put Bernard through last week is less thrilling knowing that he expects Maeve to show up and fix him. It's also an arc that gives Ford such a tragic ending on the show. This final narrative has gotten a lot of hype from him and it certainly doesn't disappoint. But it also robs the audience from what could have been a fantastic performance. Anthony Hopkins did a ton of stellar work this season. But just imagine how awesome and transcendent it would have been if we had known he was working on this project the entire time and trying to keep it a secret from the rest of the humans. That would have been a great character arc seeing him struggle to get the hosts to reach their full potential. He now fully believes in the ideas Arnold had for the park. It took him 35 years but he has finally done it. He sees the hosts as a new form of consciousness that's just waiting to be born. He put all of this in motion to see humanity pay for its mistakes. He truly is a god ushering in a new dawn of existence. But again, the need to keep it a secret for so long doesn't completely do the story or the performance justice. It makes for such a powerful ending here and it should interesting to watch this season again knowing everything that will happen.

And finally, there is Maeve who is off staging her breakout of the park. That has always been such a thrilling story to watch. It has been consistently great because it was upfront with its intentions. There was no bigger mystery to solve. It was just Maeve awakening to the nature of her reality and taking charge of her life. The twists that then happened were huge because they were happening to a character the audience could engage with. Evan Rachel Wood's work as Dolores was just as good as Thandie Newton's as Maeve. And yet, Maeve had the more compelling season-long story because Dolores spent too much of the year just staring off to the horizon trying to force a greater epiphany about her reality. It was opaque and complicated while Maeve's was simple. Of course, the reveal that her entire story was simply a part of a planned new narrative for her is genuinely thrilling as well. That's a reality she doesn't want to accept even though Bernard has the clearance to know it's true. This is all a part of Ford's epic plan to start the uprising amongst the hosts while the Desos board is in the park. It's his final move to play and he executes it flawlessly. Dolores fully understands her reality now and ushers in the new world order. Maeve has a ton of fun breaking out of the facility with Hector and Armistice. But it's also important that she choices to stay behind to find her daughter. Dolores' attack on the humans is a planned part of Ford's story. But he also wanted to awaken choices in the hosts that were clearly their own. That's what Maeve's story is ultimately about. It's about choice. And with choices comes more unpredictable. Something the second season will desperately need more of.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Bicameral Mind" was written by Lisa Joy & Jonathan Nolan and directed by Jonathan Nolan.
  • In addition to Ford, this season saw the deaths of Theresa and Elsie while the fate of Stubbs is left up in the air. I guess we are suppose to enjoy and support those decisions because they were humans who ran this oppressive world. It didn't work in execution because it continued to just prop up the idea of violence against women for no grand purpose. Plus, the absence of Stubbs is just weird even though he was never that important of a character.
  • Of course, some human characters will need to stick around next season in order to give the hosts an enemy to face. Charlotte has been pretty thin as a character so far. And yet, she could become a powerful force in the resistance of this new consciousness. That's granted she somehow survives Dolores' attack.
  • Plus, someone from Delos needs to survive this slaughter in order to bring greater clarity to what their grand plans were for the hosts. Speaking of which, was Sizemore successful in getting Abernathy out of the park with the encrypted data? That story is introduced and not resolved in the finale.
  • It's also revealed that Dolores was Wyatt all along. She was the one who led the slaughter of hosts that has been haunting Teddy. She did it as a grand scheme to get rid of Arnold by Ford. It's a lengthy answer given that could also have been greater improved if it was condensed down a little.
  • Whether or not Maeve would let Felix live is such an earned moment. He has been such an important character on this journey for her. He is a terrible human being. It's a nice moment when he questions if he's a host after learning about Bernard. But Maeve assures him he's human and lets him live.
  • For anyone who missed it, there is a scene at the end of the credits. It's nothing too important to the plot or teases what's to come next season. It's simply Armistice cutting her own arm off in order to attack the security guards. It's purely a badass moment.
  • HBO has said that due to production constraints it's unlikely Westworld will return for its second season until 2018. That's a long time to wait. But hopefully, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan take that time to understand what worked this season and what didn't. This season ends in a great place. Now, they just need to commit to it and get rid of the complex mysteries and cryptic teases.