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All the Headache-Inducing Questions Raised by the Two Timelines on ‘Westworld’

Starting with: What the hell is going on?

HBO
HBO

Westworld’s The Man in Black Is Old William Theory, henceforth known as TMIBIOWT, is not going away. As of this writing, it’s jumped from the underbelly of Reddit right into the biggest and most controversial "twist" the show might throw at us. Ed Harris’s scowling gunslinger and Jimmi Simpson’s naive first-time park visitor, the thinking goes, are not separate people on parallel journeys through Westworld. They are the same person — or rather, Ed Harris is an older (30 years older, to be precise), richer, and much scarier version of Jimmi Simpson who’s become schooled in the ways of shooting robots. Or even is becoming week by week, if TMIBIOWT is on the money and that’s the end point of William’s initial reluctance to take part in the grotesquerie.

The other conspiracy contenders have dropped off: Bernard is so obviously a robot no one’s even arguing that point anymore, and Westworld being in space would be cool, but honestly wouldn’t affect the plot much besides giving us a hint of where future technology is at. But TMIBIOWT? That would be an actual game changer, with a ripple effect that extends through the show. And there’s enough evidence for and against to generate real debate; "The Adversary" may have left out William for the week, but it did have the Man in Black stop by the very town his maybe-younger self spent all of last episode exploring.

So let’s take TMIBIOWT seriously. If it’s the real deal — and it feels increasingly like it might be just that — we have some questions. Here are the biggest ones:

When do the other story lines take place?

The starting point of TMIBIOWT is pretty simple: The Man in Black’s search for the maze takes place in the present; Logan and William’s visit takes place in the past. Except, just like the narratives in Westworld the park, the plots of Westworld the show are an intricate, entangled mess. That’s why Dr. Ford’s teardown job has been such a pain in everyone else’s ass: Messing with one strand means messing with them all.

Loosely, Westworld has four distinct stories. (I say loosely because, again, they’re all sorta connected!) These are, by my count: William and Logan’s Great Adventure; The Man in Black Don’t Give a Shit; Brothel Wars: Maeve Awakens; and Inside the Sex Robot Maintenance Studio, which encompasses goings-on as diverse as Bernard’s talks with Dolores, Ford’s update, Bernard sleeping with Theresa, and Elsie snooping around. TMIBIOWT tells us the first two are on separate timelines.

Where does that leave everything else?

We know that Ford and Ashley Stubbs, the hunky security guy, exist on the same timeline as the Man in Black — Ford had a Debussy-soundtracked drink with the man, and Stubbs is the reason we know he has carte blanche within the park. Maeve is almost certainly in the present, too, given that her memories of life with a young daughter are totally in line with the unintended side effects of Ford’s "reverie"-inducing software update. The wild card is the below-ground stuff, especially Ford’s and Bernard’s conversations with Dolores.

OK, let’s break it down. When do the William-Dolores scenes take place?

I’m guessing that, whatever the grand conclusion of the William-Logan-Dolores thing is, it’s meant to be the most recent "critical failure" referenced by Theresa, the one from 30 years ago — not quite as long ago as Arnold’s death (a little more than 34 years ago), but not long after, in keeping with Logan’s in-the-moment references to Arnold’s demise and the park’s financial struggles.

What about Dolores’s conversations with Bernard and Ford?

So these seem like they’re happening concurrently with Dolores and William’s travels in the past; it’s definitely the implication of Dolores passing out in Pariah during "Contrapasso" and speaking with Ford immediately after (unless it’s just a mildly misleading-slash-"dreamlike" cut from one timeline to another). But as we’ve already established, we know that at least some scenes with Bernard and Ford take place in the present — as in, three full decades after her travels with William. So, uh … did they just not age for 30 years? That’d make sense for Bernard, given that he’s totally a robot, but not for Ford, who is not just a human but a human we’ve already seen reverse-age-CGI’ed to the age he was 30 years ago. Which means …

The robots woke up … twice?

So maybe Dolores’s talks with a visibly-not-CGI’ed Ford take place in the present timeline? It’s certainly possible, if the cuts between scenes jump us in time, not place. But it also raises some thorny questions: If Dolores woke up to her own potential in William’s timeline and is also waking up in the present one, when she picks up the "virus" from her dad, passes it on to Maeve, and interacts with the Man in Black, why is she still around? If what happened then was so catastrophic it nearly brought the whole place down, why was she allowed to simply go back to her errand-runnin’, landscape-paintin’ ways? Isn’t the bar for incinerating these things way, way lower than that?

So what made Dolores wake up the first time around?

The present-timeline mayhem has a fairly concrete explanation: Ford introduced an update that, probably intentionally and for reasons no one can yet divine beyond "I was bored," kicked over the first domino in a chain leading to full-fledged robot revolt. (We’re all on Maeve’s side here, but don’t tell me the prospect of "superior processing power" unleashed doesn’t make you squirm, especially as an end-of-episode cliff-hanger.) There’s also the added complication of someone using that smuggled-in satellite transponder to transmit to the hosts the "voice" they hear in their heads, bicameral-mind style — the same system we learned, half a dozen Anthony Hopkins speeches ago, Arnold once used to try to jump-start the hosts’ consciousnesses. This answers some questions, such as "Who’s Dolores talking to?," and raises others, such as "Who’s Dolores talking to?" Fair enough; all’s Nolan that ends Nolan. Dolores waking up in the past, though, has no obvious cause beyond "she just … did" — and possibly because of her interactions with Arnold, but without an immediate starting point.

This brings us to the most important question of all:

Is this show just screwing with us?

The narrower my questions, the more convinced I am there are only two possible answers to my broader one, i.e., Is TMIBIOWT true? One is that it is, and just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The other is that it isn’t and the show is being deliberately misleading. Neither is particularly satisfying, and neither bodes well for Westworld.

There’s a reason TMIBIOWT is so popular. Westworld has established clear parallels between William and the Man in Black, starting with the elements that keep cropping up in both their story lines: Lawrence, Pariah, the maze, and most of all, Dolores. And there are the constant, cryptic references the Man in Black makes to his past as a wimpy pushover very much like … well, you know: the fact that the Man was "born here, in a sense"; the idea that someone could have done him dirty "maybe once." We haven’t even gotten to the much-ballyhooed train station, which looks noticeably newer when William arrives in Episode 2 than in the pilot. So why spread those just-vague-enough breadcrumbs? Is it to hint at some impossibly complicated answer that satisfies all the questions we already have? Or is it to send us on a wild web forum chase?

Now, I’m convinced the show is slipping us tidbits in the precise hope that we’ll draw the connection, albeit not in too much detail. Westworld wants the fan engagement that comes with suspense, but not necessarily the degree of attention that it brings. So it’s sending deliberately mixed signals to keep superfans on their toes and give both sides ammunition — except those signals are so mixed they’re starting to directly contradict each other.

Westworld’s themes show potential in a way the intricacies of its plot do not. Best-case scenario, it’s a sci-fi story with a few holes in it — quelle surprise. Worst-case scenario, it’s every J.J. Abrams fan’s deepest fear: the mystery box with nothing inside.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.