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Our Craziest ‘Westworld’ Theories

Is everybody a robot? Is anything real? These are our wildest guesses.

HBO/Ringer illustration
HBO/Ringer illustration

Every once in a while, a television show manages to generate watercooler conversation nearly as interesting as the show itself. Right now, that show is Westworld — so we asked our staff to share their most out-there theories about what’s happening in the wild, wild, very futuristic West.

They’re All Robots

Kate Knibbs: My theory about Westworld is that every “human” Westworld employee that we’ve met — Bernard, the cigarette lady, even Dr. Ford — they’re all robots, too, but they don’t know it yet. Dr. Ford thinks he’s all-powerful because the real humans have implanted a memory to convince him that he’s the creator, when really, they have simply delegated any task involving dirty work to a higher tier of android.

Westworld seems keen to traffic in big “holy shit did you see that” TV reveals, and it has already been teasing the idea that the corporate entity behind the theme park is conducting a far larger and more malevolent experiment beyond a pleasure-robot theme park. What if this plan involved tricking robots into enslaving other robots in a controlled environment, and the real revelation about the nature of the self isn’t going to come from Dolores or Teddy, but from the characters that are presented to the audience as human? Yo — what if there are NO humans in Westworld at all and the park’s visitors are ALSO robots and the overlords are actually messed-up-looking aliens who are running the park as an elaborate simulation to prepare for their upcoming invasion of Earth????

I don’t necessarily have “evidence” in favor of this theory, but there’s absolutely nothing in the show so far that can disprove it. Also, this would make for a much more interesting show.

It’s About the Matrix

Claire McNear: Is the park an actual, physical place? If it is, wouldn’t its precise size and layout be extremely well defined, without any of the cowboyish yeh don even know stuff about what lies beyond the main town? Wouldn’t it be not altogether dissimilar from a military base, with fences separating it from the outside world? Doesn’t that seem a little impractical? Wouldn’t college kids protest outside? Wouldn’t people who aren’t supposed to be there break in? Wouldn’t it make more sense if the park in fact was not a physical place, and was instead a digital reality, with guests hooked up mentally from someplace distinctly un-deserty? Doesn’t it seem not totally unlikely that a VR fantasy would be created in 2016? Am I about to suggest it’s really just The Matrix? Are there no new ideas in science fiction? Is Westworld a dumb rip-off just waiting to reveal itself? Is that all there is?

It’s totally The Matrix.

It’s About Games

Jason Concepcion: I have two theories:

Theory I: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan used the Bartle taxonomy to shape Westworld’s characters.

In 1996, professor and game researcher Richard Bartle published a paper titled “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS.” Using what is known today as the Bartle taxonomy, the paper classifies gamers into four categories: killers, achievers, socializers, and explorers.

The player types break down as follows:

  • Killers “get their kicks from imposing themselves on others.” They are predators. Killers are driven by the charge they get knowing that “a real person, somewhere, is very upset by what [they’ve] just done, yet can themselves do nothing about it.” The reason that Westworld’s androids are programmed to have realistic emotional responses to violence and are kept ignorant of their Sisyphean existence is to please these players. When guests talk about “going full evil,” this is what they’re talking about.
  • Achievers “regard points-gathering and rising in levels as their main goal, and all is ultimately subservient to this.” This is the Man in Black (Ed Harris).
  • Socializers “are interested in people, and what they have to say. The game is merely a backdrop, a common ground where things happen to players.” This currently describes William (Jimmi Simpson).
  • Explorers want to interact with the world, to find the beauty hidden inside the virtual state. “It’s the sense of wonder which the virtual world imbues that they crave for; other players add depth to the game, but they aren’t essential components of it, except perhaps as sources of new areas to visit.” This is Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins).

Theory II: Dolores began her journey to sentience some time ago. On some deep level, she’s aware of the changes occurring inside her. She’s been lying to Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) during her safe-mode reboot sessions to keep her expanding consciousness secret. She buried the gun and the photo. Which means that she’s slowly piecing herself together — after every wipe, she retains a little more of what she had previously — and she’s seeding these little things to awaken other robots. End-game: Dolores — the oldest host at the park — becomes a freedom fighter for the robots, and comes out guns blazing.

It’s a Bad Documentary

Sam Schube: Buried in The New Yorker’s profile of Silicon Valley wunderbro Sam Altman earlier this month was this choice nugget: “Many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis, the argument that what we experience as reality is in fact fabricated in a computer; two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.” Which is, of course, totally fucking insane. Unless, of course, it’s not. Keep up: These poor unnamed scientists will spend the next two or three youth-blood-powered lifetimes attempting to break us out of the simulation … by creating a fake universe full of, like, robots and cowboy hats and a bunch of flies, all to prove the primacy of human consciousness, or something. It’ll be Westworld. Which means that Westworld isn’t a contemporary fictional television show. It’s a terrible, terrifying documentary about (and beamed back from) our dystopian ruined-by-tech-oligarchs future. Burn San Francisco to the ground before it’s too late.

It’s About Ed Harris

Sam Donsky: Westworld is a biopic about the American actor Ed Harris. The film focuses on Harris’s later years, mostly spent shooting and fucking robots in a park. Some have criticized Westworld for feeling too wedded to the facts of Harris’s life — and for not standing enough on its own as cinema qua cinema. Cocreator Jonathan Nolan has gone on record as saying that he rejects this line of criticism. “Yeah, of course: first and foremost, we’re trying to make a movie,” he told the Times in June. “If it doesn’t work as a movie, then what’s the point? But at the same time, and call me old-fashioned — I do think we feel a certain duty here: to respect the fact that, you know, this isn’t just … some story we made up. This is really how it happened. He shot those robots. He fucked those robots. This is Ed Harris’s actual life.” [Editor’s note: Jonathan Nolan said none of these things.]

It’s About Love

David Shoemaker: My theory is that the show is secretly a jock-nerd romance between Luke Hemsworth and Shannon Woodward.

There Is No Spoon

Alison Herman: My craziest, most out-there Westworld theory is that … I refuse to have a Westworld theory. I do not believe there is anything to theorize about. What we see is genuinely what we get. Take that, Reddit!

Hear me out: Like so many lab rats, we’ve been trained to associate Nolan projects with batshit-crazy reveals. Add in J.J. “I Gave a TED Talk About How Much I Like Mysteries” Abrams and you’ve got a rock-solid case for the logic that most of the internet, including this question, is following, i.e., that something big is coming down the pipeline, and it’s our job to find out what it is. But what if Abrams and Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan are one step ahead of us? What if they’ve gone so far into twist territory that they’ve come out the other side? What if the twist is that there is no twist, and the most out-there speculation you can make is that there is no speculation to make?

I’ve probably gone too far down the rabbit hole. Time to close the tab.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.