Three shows that have occupied a disproportionate share of my TV thinking this year—Netflix’s Lady Dynamite, USA’s Mr. Robot and TBS’s People of Earth—are built around unreliable narrators who operate in not-quite-real worlds. They are unreliable for varying reasons and to varying degrees, but they aren’t trying to fool you.
The unreliability on HBO’s Westworld is a lot more complicated, and it’s the source of my uncertainty about whether the show has been worth the investment. I don’t mean that as soft-peddled criticism; this is the morning after the first season finale of a series that’s not like anything I’ve ever seen, and I’m genuinely not sure what to make of it yet. (Spoilers ahead.)
Westworld is populated almost entirely by unreliable characters, and they are unreliable in almost every imaginable way. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) isn’t reliably human. Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) isn’t reliably living in a single timeline. William (Jimmi Simpson) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) turn out to be the same person. Maeve (Thandie Newton) is acting out a part, even when she thought she had taken control of her own actions.
There have been very good shows that disappointed me for failing to stick the landing (ABC’s Lost, both seasons of HBO’s True Detective) or where the sum of the parts was greater than the whole (NBC’s This Is Us, Showtime’s The Affair). But I can’t think of another show that so perfectly executed a specific vision to such intentionally confounding effect. Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy may be our first unreliable showrunners.
I’m not even sure how to frame the question of whether Westworld has been worth our time, but here’s a start:
- If the series ripens into a masterpiece only upon the second—or third or tenth—viewing that it takes to make sense of the narrative trickery, is it worth that much investment?
- Is a disorienting structure that smooths itself over time the best delivery vehicle for a series about the awakening of consciousness?
Whatever the question, the best answer I have right now is that Sunday night’s 90-minute finale was Westworld at its cumulative best. The show had placed great weight on the significance of the maze, and making it a heuristic for the consciousness of the hosts rather than a quest for guests to complete was a brilliant and satisfying turn. Maeve’s awakening consciousness parallelled the Man in Black’s growing sense of danger, fulfilling season-long arcs for both. The finale went far deeper into telegraphing Season 2 than anyone could have expected.
Westworld has provoked on important topics like empathy, representation, privacy, freedom of thought, artificial intelligence, the limitations of technology and, perhaps most important, the power of an accepted narrative. They’re topics that we should be talking about right now—topics that we should have been focusing on this whole lost year, as we elected our unreliable narrator-in-chief.
Editor’s note: If you, too, are reeling from the season finale, perhaps these Westworld-inspired cocktail recipies will help.