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Are the Twists on ‘Westworld’ Still Twists If We Saw Them Coming?

On Sunday, the mystery show ran headlong into Reddit

(HBO)
(HBO)

This post contains a number of Westworld spoilers.

Cable drama viewers have learned to expect the guillotine drop during a show’s penultimate episode — that’s when the twists start unknotting and the bodies start dropping. It’s a structure that’s heightened on Game of Thrones, which killed off its protagonist in its first not-quite-finale and only escalated from there, but now common across prestige television: Episode 9 is where shit hits the fan, and Episode 10 is where the show starts to clean it up in time for next season. Naturally, that expectation carried over to Westworld, a show that’s torn open questions like a kid ripping through a pile of Christmas presents, and now has to start answering them. So: Did it? And did its answers shock us like they were supposed to?

Of course they did. But the answer to that last question is a qualified no. Westworld’s first eight episodes were essentially an open invitation to speculate — about motivations, about timelines, about who is or isn’t a robot. It’s a tradeoff, one that showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy seemed happy to make: the frenzy of internet detective work and the passion it signifies now in return for the near-certainty they won’t be impressed by the final result later, because they’ll already have figured it out. Or, even worse, that the fans will have come up with something even crazier. If True Detective Season 1 taught us anything, it’s that the scenarios we come up with from a given set of clues can be more satisfying than what’s eventually delivered on-screen. The most effective twists, after all, are answers to questions we hadn’t even thought to ask.

That proved to be the case two episodes ago, when Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard discovered he’s a host — weeks after the rest of us did — and it’s the case now, when he discovers he’s a host modeled after Westworld’s mysterious cofounder Arnold. Throughout Westworld, the most compelling characters have been the hosts slowly coming to terms with their own artificiality; before they could become fully human, they had to chafe at the limits of their inhumanity. Bernard was theoretically in a better position to go through that emotional wringer than any other host on the show: He’d helped design that inhumanity, then realized he was subject to it. But Bernard’s consciousness raising only started at the very end of Episode 7 — and now it’s over, just as we’d finally started to care about him in the same way we did about his unwitting compatriots.

Crucially, Bernard remained firmly under Ford’s thumb until the very end. Where Maeve has gone truly renegade and Dolores is still vision questing, Bernard’s awakening happened strictly under Ford’s supervision and could be shut off and restarted at any time. There’s something oddly repetitive about Bernard confronting Ford yet again about who he is, and Ford yet again indulging him before taking the reins once more: It’s the second time we’ve seen this conversation, and Ford casually implies it’s happened regularly in the past. The impact of Bernard once more coming to terms with his true nature is thus somewhat dulled, even if it’s done with slightly more detail and significantly more pathos this time around.

As hard as Westworld is trying to bring things to a head, the episode couldn’t help but deliver as much confusion as clarity. More than any episode of Westworld to date, "The Well-Tempered Clavier" is filled to the brim with cuckoo-bananas dream imagery, from Bernard’s lucid trip through his own child’s death to Dolores’s channel-flipping through Westworld’s history. And while all the time-traveling and spontaneous wardrobe changes look cool, they’re also deliberately confusing. Dolores appears to enter the church in one timeline (William’s), flash back to another (the park’s early days, complete with reverse-aged Ford and hosts driven mad), and possibly stays there for 30 years, until the Man in Black can barge in. Which means that whatever "Whoa!" we get from Dolores’s sit-down with Arnold is still buried under a thick layer of "Huh?"

Bernard’s plotline shows that saw-it-coming reveals don’t have to be without feeling. For every Bernard, though, there’s a William: We knew anyone on a prestige drama earnestly called a "poetic soul" would eventually break bad, but we still don’t know exactly what he’s up to as his older, balder self. Like Bernard, the Man in Black remained a deliberate blank until just last week. Unlike Bernard, what we have now is an information dump, not a fully realized character—and one solitary episode left to make that jump.

Of all the subplots in "The Well-Tempered Clavier" — the first to throw in every narrative the show’s introduced as Westworld attempts to weave them all together — the most effective, as it’s been for the past several weeks, was the one that didn’t try to offer any answers at all. Alone among Westworld’s characters, Maeve solved her main mysteries ("Who are these robot men?" "Do I have a kid?") long ago. She’s pivoted from seeking answers to applying them in a way that feels weeks ahead of everyone else on the show. It’s to the point where she’s kickstarting other people’s stories for them; it’s a debriefing session with her gone awry that sends Bernard to his final confrontation with Ford. And while her scenes this week ultimately prove that no character is immune from having hilariously campy, narratively unnecessary sex to prove they’re on HBO, Maeve is ultimately working to accomplish something for her benefit, not just lay out more information for ours. If Maeve really does lead a robot uprising, it won’t be a surprise. (She’s told us point-blank!) But it’ll be the most satisfying thing Westworld’s done yet.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.