There are some things that Westworld does really well.
The design, the tone, the very meticulous world-building and plotting – these have all been exceptionally handled throughout the show’s season-and-a-half. And, above all else, the writers’ absolute commitment to plunging the depths of Westworld’s thematic concerns cannot be faulted at all.
However, there are some things Westworld hasn’t always been the greatest at. Character development hasn’t always been a strongpoint. But in a show that is focused on the deconstruction of artificial characterisation, this is not a huge concern. It’s unusual, and makes for an oddly distanced viewer relationship when other shows will be angling for empathy, but the style here is wholly connected to the substance, and so I’ll accept it as part of the show’s own character.
Additionally, and more damning, is Westworld’s tendency to favour plot reveals over plot development. And given the show’s need to work harder to earn empathy to its characters, this seems doubly concerning.
To watch the first season with full awareness of the two timelines, and of William’s development from earnest – and failed – romantic into the amoral Man in Black, is to watch a grand, macabre tragedy. This is something Lost did so well. How does this person turn into that person? The audience follows the character and feels every turn, every downfall, but also, every moment when things might have gone another way. The entire plot of Romeo and Juliet rests on this notion: we know how things are going to turn out but we watch to see how it happens, why it happens, and agonise over every knife-edge moment that might have turned out otherwise.
As it played, the first season, for William’s storyline at least, was an exercise in biding time until the reveal. The only pay-off is if the reveal is both shocking and momentous to make everything else worthwhile, because the emotion in a reveal is wholly different to the emotion of anticipating it. We forget why we were bothering with William’s meandering travels with Dolores the second it becomes clear that this has just been a ruse to hide his real, eventual character from us. Furthermore, it undermines the work done in Dolores’ narrative, about her progression to consciousness.
Shorn of narrative trickery, the final downfall of William as he becomes the Man in Black is high tragedy. It’s what Breaking Bad built its foundation on. The character’s eventuality is emotionally in keeping with the journey there, and so the audience has a constant level of empathy throughout. And it hurts them. This is something The Americans has been living off: constant empathy with amoral characters. There’s no way anyone would bother with The Americans if it just tried to run a gimmick that they were good, normal parents until the end of Season 1 and then surprise! they’re spies after all. Homeland tried that and look what happened.
Anyhow, all of this preamble is getting to the point where at some point Westworld needs to tell its story and not mess around with its story. Trawl through any audience discussion about the show and its endless obsessions about what is this character’s backstory, what is their connection to other characters, what is the Cradle, what is this mystery, what is that mystery. It’s not necessarily mystery-box plotting as it is withholding information to weaponise audience obsession.
It’s easy to fall in this hole. Most current tent-pole cinema is built off this. Hide information from people and they want to know what it is. Ultimately though, like any magician’s trick, the answer is never as good as the mystery. And so it’s hollow. We forget the thing that we wanted so badly. Again, Lost didn’t really go in for this bullshit so much (even though it’s easy to deride it for not giving everyone all the answers). What Lost did, and Breaking Bad, and other shows that dabbled in chronological fuckery, is they told you something outright. Jack gets off the island. Walt grows a beard and gets a big gun in the boot of his car. They gave you concrete details, and then the tension, the engagement, the empathy came from watching how the fuck this could possibly happen. All of Season 2 of Hannibal operated on this premise.
I’m hazarding a fairly confident guess that the Bernard we’re seeing in the most recent timeline on Westworld is not Bernard, but Arnold. So if this is the case, and this is one of the great big reveals that might occur around episode 9 or 10 of this season, then let’s consider it another way. What if the show told us from the beginning of the season this is Arnold. Holy fuck it would motivate the audience to invest in that timeline, to watch and feel the journey of Bernard as he descends into irreparable breakdown until he is resurrected as the long-dead Arnold. That would be a gambit that would generate for Westworld was it has had great difficult in achieving: real compassion for its characters. As it stands, that timeline is one we watch, uncertain why Bernard is behaving the way he is, and mining the background of each scene for potential clues that can make us feel clever in several weeks’ time.
Of course, I could be wrong and it’s not Arnold, in which case let’s just pretend the previous paragraph was an exercise in hypotheticals. Regardless, rewatch some of the season so far with the intent that this is Arnold and not Bernard, and shit it’s so much stronger for those moments.
So, Shogun World and ‘Akane No Mai’. Westworld finally gives us a – mostly – moment-to-moment plotted episode that generates empathy for characters old and new, and allows us to see and connect with the inner motivations of two central characters in Maeve and Dolores.
Speaking of which, these are the two characters whose storylines also routinely get derided by viewers. Witness how much praise there was for last week’s ‘Riddle of the Sphinx’ because it eschewed both of them and instead focused on William, young and old. So many obsessively admiring posts about William’s showdown in the rain, his brutality in torching Delos time and time again. They love it. It looks great. It’s acted great. The soundtrack is great. The shots are amazing. And yet: what’s it about? What do we get? Backstory and clues.
For all of ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’s excellence as an episode of TV (and it is still excellent), fit it into the macro story of Westworld and what we got was information on how some things came to pass before the main timeline, and some suggestion about what might happen ahead of the main timeline. But in terms of actual moving the story forward in the here and now: well, Elsie and Bernard met up and Bernard did some remembering.
‘Akane No Mai’ moves us ahead in leaps and bounds. Time actually passes. Maeve develops as a character. She meets other characters and we instantly feel for them because we witness who they are and how they are thwarted in what they want. Dolores develops further into somebody that she hasn’t discovered yet. And in doing so, destroys Teddy, who had only just learned that he could be someone he wasn’t programmed to be.
He released a prisoner last week after Dolores ordered him to execute them. This is Teddy, whose obedience and loyalty are cranked to the max. Teddy has just discovered that he, underneath all the code, can have an original thought and act upon it. And now, reprogrammed by Dolores, he may find that some vestige of this brand new person might still remain.
And he and Dolores discover real intimacy between them. Not ordered by a narrative, not to accommodate some guest of the park, this is a choice that both of them make. Dolores is the most pilloried character among the viewers, because she doesn’t engage in the visceral surface drama that William does, or participate in action-scenes slow-motioned to retrofitted pop songs. Her journey is what the show is about. She is a blank canvas discovering her personhood, and refusing to participate in the narrative expectations that so many men – particularly William – have wanted from her.
The clearest I can get on this is look at how much people enjoyed Dolores as a character last season when she was a damsel in existential distress, and now seem uninterested in her as a character now that she’s rejecting what they want. This is true autonomy from a character and we should cherish every moment she’s onscreen: it’s pure creation of a new person.
So I enjoyed this episode immensely, because it seemed to enjoy telling its story wholly. There was no deliberate obfuscation, no jumping around to preserve mystery for a later date. Here are our characters, here is our story, this is what it’s about. That I can watch and watch and watch and, most importantly, feel something.