We’re officially halfway through the first season of Westworld, and the show that some critics hoped would prompt water-cooler conversation about artificial intelligence and its existential ramifications on our own future has become, instead, a wildly popular new guessing game for fans of TV mysteries. What else did we expect from J.J. “Mystery Box” Abrams and Jonathan “The Prestige” Nolan? Of course there’s room for Westworld to be both philosophical exercise (with, oh yeah, incredible performance and amazing visuals) and fan-theory fodder. But the twists of this show are inextricably linked to understanding the more nuanced intellectual aspect of Westworld, so perhaps, halfway through the season, it’s time we take a closer, spoiler-free look at some of the most puzzling mysteries.
I say the two are linked because—unlike, say, the True Detective Season 1 mystery of “Who is the Yellow King?”—the answers to the twists of Westworld will likely fundamentally change our understanding of what story we’re watching. With True Detective you were watching two characters compellingly grapple with their inner demons no matter which monster they were chasing. With Westworld (as we’ll explore), you may not know what you’re watching at all. The closest comparison I can make is to Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige, where one actor is playing multiple characters and you don’t know it until the very end. That both changes your entire understanding of what you just watched and invites an immediate re-watch to puzzle over the timeline. I argue we’re seeing something very similar here.
And the HBO series, like its comely robot stars, seems somewhat self-aware about all of this. Before the series premiere, the official account tweeted out the following:
The logo did end up being a vital clue (we’ll touch on that in a second) but, more importantly, the show is encouraging its audience to dig deep into the mysteries it’s laying out. And, in fact, the show-runners, incredibly, kept their own cast and crew in the dark. Star Evan Rachel Wood (Dolores) recently told The Hollywood Reporter that she was scrutinizing Anthony Hopkins’s performance (just like the rest of us) in Episode 5 in order to get a few hints:
I’m still trying to figure out exactly what’s going on in that scene, and who they are to one another, and why he’s so scared. . . . I thought I might be able to get clues from his performance, and then it changed every time. So I was like, “Aw, man! It could be anything!”
And Episode 4 director Vincenzo Natali said in a recent interview with my Decoding Westworld podcast co-host, Dave Chen, that he wasn’t told anything about the timeline of the episode he was shooting.
Just a few more disclaimers before we dive in. The production woes on Westworld’s first season may account for a few mystery inconsistencies we see. According to Natali, he shot Episode 4 a year ago, and that was even another year after Jonathan Nolan shot the pilot. In the span of those two-plus years, the production of Westworld shut down entirely so the show-runners could work out some of the bugs. Who knows how many narratives got dropped or altered in all that time? I should also say that while this is a spoiler-free post (all evidence presented is from scenes that have aired up through Episode 5), there is another level at the bottom of the page. Shall we call it “The Maze”? There, you’ll find some clues based on official footage HBO has released from upcoming episodes. But until we get there, you’re as safe as can be. Let’s dive in.
Who Is the Man in Black?
We’ll start easy with a question the nimble minds over at Reddit cracked within two episodes. But if you’re already on board with this one, stick with me here. There are some new, handsome Ed Harris–esque wrinkles in the theory. The most popular answer to this mystery presumes that we’re looking at (at least) two different time periods in the park’s 35-year history. Here are the basics: William (Jimmi Simpson) and Logan (Ben Barnes) have entered the park at some point in the past. Let’s say around 30 years ago. Fans have pointed out that the Westworld logos are different when William and Logan enter the park vs. what we see in the “modern” story line. (Thanks for the hint, Westworld Twitter account!) In fact, the only other time we see that older-looking logo is, you guessed it, during Dr. Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) 30-plus-year-old flashback, on a lab coat. If you re-watch the episodes with the two timelines in mind, it does mostly track. William and Logan don’t interact directly with anything happening now with Ed Harris’s Man in Black and the older Anthony Hopkins. Going hand in hand with this theory is the notion that white-hat William—due to some trauma in the park—will turn into the black-hatted Ed Harris. Clever editing in that milk-can meet cute certainly supports the theory, and there has to be a reason we don’t know the Man in Black’s name yet, right?
So how does kind-hearted William turn into such a violent, cold-hearted rapist? Ah, there’s the rub. Did we really see him rape Dolores in Episode 1? (Let’s not get too lost in the weeds of questioning what rape is; we can definitely agree Dolores went through something traumatic in that barn.) We see the Man in Black drag her into the barn, yes, but later we see what may have happened inside, and it seems like the Man in Black was more interested in jogging Dolores’s memory than having his way with her. Perhaps he hoped she would help him find the maze. Perhaps it’s something else.
There’s also an even more altruistic interpretation of that scene. We know that on most nights the Milk Bottle bandits attack and murder Dolores’s family and, most likely, sexually assault her or let a guest do so. In a way, the Man in Black might have saved Dolores from being raped. When he meets her again in the streets of Sweetwater he expresses regret he can’t join her at the homestead again that night perhaps knowing that, without him, she might be in more danger. (For what it’s worth, she’s safe that night. The Milk Bottle bandits were too busy glitchily melting down in a saloon.)
So if we accept the William-equals-Man in Black theory (bolstered, in my opinion, by the fact that both actors have piercingly blue eyes), then how did William go from mildly hapless park attendee to someone who can do whatever he wants there? The show is already laying the track for some personality changes. We see the once-shy William taking to gunfights like a duck to water. But the Man in Back also told Dr. Ford that he rescued the park from the ruinous suicide of Arnold 35 years ago.
Logan told William in Episode 5 about how Arnold’s suicide put the park in financial “free fall” and that the company where both he and William work was thinking of buying more shares and therefore rescuing the park. Let’s assume Logan doesn’t make it out of this little adventure alive. Could William—surely promoted from executive vice president in Logan’s absence—become the angel investor Dr. Ford so desperately needs? Does he, in essence, own the park and therefore get to do whatever he wants? We know the Man in Black is involved in some sort of health-based organization (“You literally saved my sister’s—” one guest enthused before being cut off). Could organic prosthetics courtesy of Ford’s android technology be part of that? (More on that in a bit.) Last hint before we move on.
Sure, this could just be some more mustache twirling from Logan and, yes, it’s an efficient way to underline the class-based tensions between these two. But it could also be a quick little nod to William’s future sartorial choices. You might want to pay attention to how William was assiduously cleaning a bit of blood off his white hat in Episode 2, but has now just let the dirt have its way. The hat is positively brown now, and I’m guessing it will only get darker.
What’s Going on with Dolores’s Glitches?
If we accept that the show is bouncing back and forth between William’s time (30 years ago) and the MiB’s (now), then Dolores is our connective tissue. If you re-watch the series with that premise in mind, it’s clear that our journeys into the past are all initially preceded by someone (a disembodied voice, the Man in Black) urging Dolores to “remember.” The show employs a through-the-looking-glass motif (we already know the show-runners think of Dolores with her blue dress and long blonde hair as Alice) to send Dolores back in time. She stares at her own reflection, and suddenly she’s transported.
But are we actually watching Dolores in two time periods concurrently? Yes. The show is using very tricky editing to pull this off, but once you know what to look for, it’s pretty clear that modern-day Dolores, now off her prescribed loop, is retracing the journey she took with William 30 years ago. We saw a bit of this as Lawrence’s (Clifton Collins Jr.) creepy little daughter appeared and disappeared in Las Mudas in Episode 4, but Episode 5 makes it even more obvious. In Dolores’s first scene she is clearly all alone in that graveyard. Until she’s not.
We later see her standing outside a coffin in Pariah. Once again the camera pans around to show her all alone, and then, suddenly, William is there. We should assume modern-day Dolores is back in Pariah just as she was 30 years ago. She also, for whatever reason, decided to make the same costume change. As the episode ends, we see Dolores in her jaunty-shirt-and-pants combo on the train with Lawrence and William. (This is tricky so bear with me.) She’s standing with bundles and barrels to her back looking at Slim’s coffin as William and Lawrence sip whiskey on the other side of the car, sitting on crates and trunks. Then the camera switches angles and we see Dolores standing next to the coffin and the empty crates and trunks where William and Lawrence once were.
In other words, she went off her loop 30 years ago and she’s off her loop again now, retracing her steps and remembering William. She’s following voice commands that at first sounded like Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), the Man in Black (Harris), and even Ford (Hopkins). But now, as she’s waking up, she’s hearing them in her own voice. All this has happened before and will happen again.
Who Is Bernard?
I won’t bore you with this one too much because I went in depth on it last Sunday. You can read all about that here. But there has been a lot of evidence that Bernard is secretly an android. And, as I argued Sunday, that he might also be a clone of Arnold. It sounds far-fetched, but if the post on Sunday didn’t convince you, here’s some new evidence. We know Bernard’s son Charlie died in the hospital. We also know, thanks to some exposition from Ford, that Arnold also suffered a personal loss that sounded a lot like the death of a kid. But how could Bernard’s kid have died in the hospital if, as Ford tells us in Episode 1, diseases are no longer an issue for the outside world?
Perhaps they hadn’t quite cracked curing all diseases 30-plus years ago when Arnold’s kid was dying and have figured it out since thanks to the Man in Black–funded Delos technology (“You literally saved my sister’s—”). We saw that hospital scene with “Bernard” and Charlie during a flashback while he was talking to his wife (played by Gina Torres). But I’d argue that we’re looking at Arnold there. And, probably, even looking at Arnold talking to his (ex?) wife. And definitely looking at Arnold in those one-on-one interrogation scenes with Dolores where Jeffrey Wright wears dark clothes that we don’t ever see him wear in other scenes.
That’s right, Westworld is showing us three points on Dolores’s timeline: 35 years ago when Arnold was alive, 30 years ago when she met William, and now with the Man in Black in play. All those one-on-one scenes are triggered by the similar flashback mechanisms that put Dolores with William. She’s remembering the most important people in her life—Arnold and William (not you, Teddy)—as she travels on her path.
Who Is Wyatt?
Listen, I know we’re all practically choking on the mysteries at this point, but, sorry, I have another one for you. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone is actually who they say they are on this show, so it’s worth pointing out this little inconsistency in Teddy’s (James Marsden) story about Wyatt. Teddy says multiple times that Wyatt was his sergeant down in “Escalante.” He says it to Ford when he gets his new story uploaded and he says it again to the bounty hunters. Only problem here is that in Teddy’s flashbacks, he’s wearing the three stripes of a sergeant and “Wyatt” only has the double stripe of a corporal. That’s not a mistake the military-history nerds at HBO would make.
O.K., so is Teddy actually Wyatt? The real ruthless killer? I’m not quite prepared to make that claim. Doesn’t make total sense that he would be strung up by his own men, does it? But he might be. When Ford first presents the Wyatt narrative, he says to Teddy—whose main function, remember, is to keep Dolores on the farm—“Maybe it’s time you did have a proper backstory. It starts in the time of war with a villain called Wyatt.” Maybe he means Teddy is the villain. All I know is that there’s something very fishy about this story (just look at the guilt and regret on Teddy’s face as he flashes back), and, more than anything, I suspect Wyatt is a distraction from the real adversary. We’ll get to that.
How Have the Rules Changed?
A lot of people who don’t like the multiple-time-periods theory complain that it over-complicates the narrative. And I won’t necessarily disagree with that. But I think it also clears up a few inconsistencies. We’ve been puzzling over why the host’s bullets bruise William but don’t bother the Man in Black one bit. Is it possible the bullet technology has changed over the past 30 years? I think there’s also been a significant policy change in how much the hosts can actually hurt the guests. When William gets to the park he has to undergo an intake questionnaire basically to establish how much pain he can endure. We then see the hosts slap, punch, and choke Logan. If we accept that all that happened 30 years ago, we can reconcile that host-on-guest violence with Bernard’s Episode 1 assertion that the modern-day bots wouldn’t hurt a fly.
When Elsie (Shannon Woodward) is giving the expositional info dump about why only certain hosts can fire guns, chop wood, etc., she says to Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth): “Thanks to a new policy from your boss, only one of them is authorized to handle the axe.” If the policy is “new” then it wasn’t in place 30 years ago, which would explain why it was so easy for Dolores to shoot those Confederados in Episode 5. Perhaps the new rules from corporate (which require security to authorize the Man in Black’s pyrotechnic effects, etc.) are all part of a kinder, gentler, safer Westworld that had to undergo a serious security overall after the “incident” from 30 years ago.
How Did the Robots Evolve?
One of the biggest questions those doubting the three time periods have is about the evolution of the technology of the robots. If William is in the park 30 years in the past, wouldn’t the robots be positively primitive? But it’s a mistake to think that all the robots 30 years ago would look like the herky, jerky Old Bill character Ford likes to visit in cold storage. We see in flashback that even before the park opened (they spent three years in development), the bots were extremely life-like and, according to Ford, passing the Turing test.
Via Ford’s flashback, we see them dancing, strolling, and bleeding when scratched. I don’t think anything we see in this flashback from when the park opened is all that different from the robots in William’s story.
But the big revelation we got in Episode 5 is that while the robots were once made of circuits, they’re now entirely organic biomatter. “When this place started, I opened one of you up once. A million little perfect pieces,” the Man in Black tells Teddy. “And then they changed you. Made you this sad, real mess. Flesh and bone, just like us.” (Someone still needs to explain the blood transfusion technology to me.) So if that’s the case, what do we make of the physical injuries we’ve seen William and Dolores inflict on the hosts? If you prick 30-year-old robots, do they bleed? I say yes. There’s a huge difference between the squib-esque blood spatter we’ve seen coming off the hosts William and Dolores shoot in and around Pariah and the gory explosive messes we’ve seen from the modern-day injured hosts.
I hope that convincingly clears the robot question.
Where Is This All Heading?
If we accept that Dolores and the Man in Black (and, in another life, Dolores and William) are on their way to the center of the maze, then we can expect we’re headed toward a showdown. The big question, here, is what does the Man in Black want out of all of this? He tells Lawrence he’s here to set the robots free and he tells Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) that what he wants out of the maze is “a story with real stakes” and that “you could say I’m here to honor Arnold’s legacy.” Well, what did Arnold want? We know from Ford that his partner wanted consciousness for his creations—to give them free will. Why would the Man in Black want that? Well, it all goes back to—no surprise—Dolores. (The Man in Black calls her name the “magic word” when he’s talking to Teddy.)
We know William (who we’re now assuming is the Man in Black’s younger self) came into the park skeptical of its charms and we know that, just five episodes in, Westworld is weaving a spell on William. Or, at least, Logan seems to think so. (“In a sense, I was born here,” the Man in Black tells Lawrence.)
First the park threw the intake host in the white dress (Talulah Riley) at William. He declined. Then came Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), first in whore mode and then in damsel-in-distress mode, William declined. And then came Dolores. As Logan has been saying all along, she’s the perfect bait for William, who told Clementine he wanted something “real.” (We can assume Logan’s sister is a pretty shitty, insincere fiancée, right? If she’s anything like him?) So what does the park send William? A lovely robot who appears to be waking up. (Maybe she is.) If she can make her own decisions (to shoot Confederados and stray from her loop), she can choose to be with William. And that, to him, is the most seductive prospect the park can offer.
But let’s assume the burgeoning love story between William and Dolores doesn’t end well. At the very least he’s been wiped from her memory. At worst he finds out she never cared for him at all and it was all part of the park’s trap to lure him in. No wonder he’s been taking it out on the robots ever since. Some people have asked why, if Dolores went rogue in the park 30 years before, she wasn’t simply put in cold storage. If the Man in Black is both an older William and a major investor in the park, we can see why Dolores might have protected status. She’s kept prisoner in a hellish, traumatic loop on the farm by Teddy, who acts as both jail keeper and something of a facsimile for the virtuous William. Ford may have even programmed Teddy with William and Dolores’s milk-can meet cute. But what do we guess poor William/Man in Black—nursing a broken heart and injured pride for having fallen for it—would want now after all these years?
For Dolores to remember him, yes. But also to try to wake her up (and any other robot, why not?) again, so he can figure out once and for all if she actually even wanted him. If any of it was real between them. (“Choices, Lawrence. No choice you ever made was your own. You have always been a prisoner. What if I told you I was here to set you free?”) Yes, even after 30 years, he cares about her. In the words of Clementine, “Real love is always worth waiting for.”
Am I putting a lot of speculation out there? Sure. But I don’t think it’s inconsistent with what we’ve learned about William so far. I also think that “love” being the answer to both what’s at the top of Arnold’s consciousness pyramid and the goal of the Man in Black’s bitter quest is, perhaps, the most Nolan-esque solution I can think of.
That means that it’s not Wyatt who is a worthy adversary for the Man in Black. It’s Dolores. She’s the one with the ultimate power to destroy him. Imagine if she fully wakes up and still rejects William? He’ll be permanently crushed. And I think Ford—who wants all investors out of his little world, especially ones with carte blanche like the Man in Black—knows that. That’s why he’s not stopping her on her journey. In fact, in creating a new story line for Teddy, her jailer, Ford essentially freed Dolores to wander off her loop. And now he’s creating a spectacular new story for the two of them to play in. Dolores was almost certainly involved in Arnold’s death 35 years ago, so all of this, as Sizemore predicted, is potentially Ford “chasing his demons right over the edge.”
Here we enter a brief round up of some hints from footage in the HBO trailers for the rest of the season. (Oh and, for what it’s worth, I didn’t talk about Maeve (Thandie Newton) because although I find her story line absolutely fascinating, I don’t consider it all that mysterious. As for the transmitter mystery. I don’t particularly care . . . yet.) I don’t consider the following a spoiler, but if you do, now is the time to leave.
O.K.! For a better look at how the old bots look a lot like the “new” bots, here we see both Dolores and the little-boy bot in their more mechanical forms. Also, I’m not saying that the park has only ever had one black technician, but could those be Jeffrey Wright, a.k.a. Arnold’s hands assembling Dolores?
More compelling evidence that William and the Man in Black are the same person? They like the same knife. We saw Ford give it a significant look in Episode 5 as if he’s seen its dirty work before.
If this isn’t the face of a man figuring out he’s a robot clone, I don’t know what is.
And, finally, I’m guessing the finale will involve the Man in Black and Dolores squaring off at the center of the maze. (If not a literal one, then a figurative one.) I also expect the action will rapidly cut back and forth between whatever goes wrong between Dolores and William to whatever conclusion she and the Man in Black reach. Something, perhaps, like this.
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