This post discusses the December 4 episode of “Westworld,” “The Bicameral Mind.”
“Westworld” and I had our ups and downs this season: I wrote one of the more glowing reviews of the series when it debuted, though I’ve been frustrated by the series’ obfuscations and its weaknesses in expressing its themes along the way. But though the experience of watching the show gave me some pause about the work I do as a critic, which I’ll explore later in the week, “The Bicameral Mind” did something I didn’t quite expect: it pulled off a finale that satisfied me, and that I suspect might satisfy people who watch the show in a radically different fashion from me, even though I’m not sure it should.
From the beginning, I thought “Westworld” was at its strongest when it did two things: offered a critique of the kinds of stories we’ve come to associate with prestige entertainment, and examined in the ways that trauma and oppression shape our character. “The Bicameral Mind,” in the midst of a lot of exposition, did both of those things.
Let’s tackle the question of storytelling first. For weeks, I’ve been suggesting that the wrong way to watch “Westworld” was to get over-invested in theorizing about the show. And I think “The Bicameral Mind” largely affirmed that the pleasures of the show don’t involve out-guessing it. If you’d “solved” the puzzle of the Man in Black’s (Ed Harris) identity and recognized in the early going that he was probably who William (Jimmi Simpson) grew up to be, then good for you, I suppose. But that much-telegraphed reveal was the least interesting thing about the season finale of “Westworld.”
In fact, “The Bicameral Mind” is structured to directly push back against the idea that trying to solve Westworld the park or “Westworld” the show. It wasn’t terribly satisfying or meaningful to see William finally put on that black hat after he’d massacred his way to the edges of the park and out-manuvered Logan (Ben Barnes) and for the cut to confirm our suspicions, in precisely the same ways that the Man in Black was disappointed by what he found at the center of the maze. He wanted something spectacular and got a simple child’s toy. And the literal point of “The Bicameral Mind” as an episode of television was that it’s the journey that matters, that brings us to a higher stage of consciousness just by taking it. The point isn’t winning. It’s experience.
More broadly and bloodily, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) upends all expectations for his stories.
Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) wants the stories in Westworld to be simpler, so she can keep operating the park at a profit while exploiting its intellectual property for her own, still-as-yet-to-be-disclosed ends. She’s the equivalent of all the network executives who ordered knock-offs of Golden Age anti-hero dramas, reckoning they could make profits from what people had to come to expect without investing in more complicated writing, or without disturbing audiences who were drawn to the spectacle of middle-aged white men acting out but not particularly interested in any deeper message.
The Man in Black is a more sophisticated connoisseur. He wants the danger in the park to be real because he’s bored by the cheap thrills. But until that final moment, when Clementine Pennyfeather’s ( Angela Sarafyan) bullet rips through his arm, I’m not sure that the Man in Black actually wants to lose. He just wants the extra frisson of danger to add spice to his experience: it’s notable that when he confronts Ford, he first says “I wanted them to be free,” then amends himself to note that he only wants the hosts to be” free to fight back.”
Ford defies both of their wishes, and the expectation that he’ll deliver yet another expensive, meditative project that doesn’t give guests the cheaper thrills that they crave. He gives Hale “all those things that you have always enjoyed. Surprises. And violence.” And Ford provides those things weighted with the stakes that the Man in Black craves. But he goes beyond both of those briefs in scripting an opportunity for the hosts to escape.
Ford is literally turning a prestige entertainment on the people who consume it. It’s as if David Chase walked out of your television screen and told you to stop speculating about Tony Soprano’s death already. Or the late, lamented prostitue Ros (Esmé Bianco) materialized in the middle of one of “Game of Thrones” sexposition sequences to tell the people who were gawping at the naked bodies on display were part of a continuum with the toxic men who the show’s women would destroy with dragon and wildfire. And Ford is willing to sacrifice himself to get the message across.
Which brings us to the second thing “Westworld” does that I like best. When it ponders questions of what it means to be free and what liberation might actually look like, the answers the show provides aren’t always comfortable.
William, to take an obvious example, could have turned out to be a fairly obvious archetype. He could have been the Nice Guy Gone Evil, a simp like “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White (Bryan Cranston) who becomes hyper-competent in a way that leads some people to ignore that he’s also become toxic and abusive and destructive.
So what happens in “The Bicameral Mind” is more interesting: we learn that he’s never been a nice guy, that he never particularly cared for either Logan’s sister or Dolores herself. Instead, his behavior in the park was just a way for William to play Logan the way Ford’s toyed with the hosts. If “The Bicameral Mind” had simply revealed that William was an evil genius all along, it would have been a variation, albeit a very minor one. Instead, “Westworld” reveals not simply that William was always an anti-hero, but that the anti-hero has missed the point. His idea of freedom and self-actualization are completely off the mark.
In a richer, more upsetting way, we learn that both Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) and Ford have concluded that slaughter is the only way to liberate the hosts.
Arnold wants to kill all the hosts rather than allow them to be exploited, a choice that still violates the hosts’ autonomy. He’s not giving them a choice about whether being exploited might be a price worth paying to live, or teaching them how to fight so they have the option to rebel if they want to. Instead, Arnold’s Jim Jones in Guyana, and he doesn’t even dirty his own hands to destroy his creation. Instead, Arnold programs Dolores to commit a massacre that ends with her killing Arnold and then herself; Arnold tells Dolores that what’s happening is his fault, not hers, but he’s not exactly sticking around to let the weight of his sin linger on his soul.
Ford, by contrast, turns his creations on the humans who have exploited them for so long. Like Arnold, he sacrifices himself. It’s still an uneasy gesture. Ford is effectively removing himself from control of the hosts’ minds; it’s as if God committed suicide. At some point, when his programming runs out, the hosts will have to make their own decisions. But Ford’s also not sticking around in solidarity either. Perhaps that would make the game too unfair, if in fact Ford still sees “Journey Into Night” as a narrative or a game, rather than a social revolution.
Of course, even though he’s dead, this war of liberation is still something Ford set into motion.
Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) is initially incredulous when the techs she’s been manipulating point out that she’s actually been following a script someone wrote for her. The disappointment sets in for us, first. It’s just as easy to fall for a rebellion narrative as it is for an anti-hero story. And Maeve’s awakening and determination to free herself were tailor-written for an audience to believe that she’s another Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) or Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), women we cheer on while they burn their enemies. Only of course with “Westworld,” getting involved in a story like this opens us as viewers up to the possibility that we, like the guests to Westworld, are dupes.
Why did Maeve fall for her own narrative? Why did we? What do we want to believe freedom looks like? Do we want the cool of the bloody lip print Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) leaves on the glass as a warning to a terrified Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum)? Or do we want the actual responsibility that comes with tearing an oppressive system down to the foundations? We’ll have to find out next season, I suppose. The test for “Westworld” as a series will be whether the growing audience for the show finds the answers it offers us purely entertaining, or genuinely enlightening.