December 5, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Westworld”


“Interactive TV” is a phrase that’s been used many times in many contexts over the years, and HBO’s WESTWORLD provided a new way to look at the concept.  The first season of Westworld was–more than Lost, more than Mr. Robot, even going back all the way to The Prisoner–an unprecedentedly elaborate series of puzzles.  The storytelling form chosen by series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, with its (sort of) invisibly intercut time periods and its characters who might or might not be acting out of free will, virtually excluded the possibility of emotional involvement, so the center of its own maze was the experience of mastering the show’s games.  But even that was seemingly compromised by the fact that the Internet almost instantly nailed the solutions.  With the answers readily available, one would have thought viewers would have quickly lost interest, but on the contrary, Westworld has mostly built its ratings week by week–despite going head to head with The Walking Dead–to become the network’s brightest star since Game of Thrones.  With little surprise to be had, there was still something about the confirmation of seeing one’s theories played out and proven correct that spoke to the audience, and that’s a new and interesting phenomenon.

Tonight’s 93-minute season finale (written by Nolan and Joy, and directed by Nolan), in fact, was constructed almost entirely of confirmations.  There were indeed three “timelines” (which usually connotes parallel existences rather than eras of the same story, but whatever).  In one, original host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) was examined by Arnold (the first incarnation of Jeffrey Wright) for signs of consciousness, and when he saw that she could be truly sentient, he transformed her into murderous “Wyatt” in an attempt to stop the park from opening and subjecting the hosts to endless torture, a strategy that included his own suicide-by-host, but it didn’t work.  In the second, a few years later and a short time into the park’s existence, Dolores and William (Jimmi Simpson) went on their adventure and to the extent their wiring permitted, they fell in love.  In the present, the behind-the-scenes park machinations involving Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) occurred, Maeve (Thandie Newton) gained sentience and plotted her insurrection, and Dolores went back on the road tormented by memories of past lives, while the Man In Black (Ed Harris) searched for the mysterious maze.  And yes, the Man In Black was William 34 years later, even if his story didn’t particularly track (he described his awakening as a monster as occurring after a recent visit, where he killed Maeve and her daughter, but he was already plenty bloodthirsty at the end of that first trip).  And yes, absolutely everything that happened was the result of programming, most of it by the omniscient Dr Ford (Anthony Hopkins), although there was the hint of another “Arnold” hand in the machinery.  (Oh, and we even confirmed that “Westworld” wasn’t the only robot theme park in the complex, with glimpses of what was apparently Samurai World based on the “SW” logo.)

The only mild surprise came at the end:  although it had been clear for a while that Ford’s new “narrative” was going to include Dolores/Wyatt slaughtering the park’s mutinous board of directors, it turned out that this was part of Ford’s larger realization that Arnold was right and the hosts did deserve their freedom (once they’d had enough suffering), and that rather than continuing to rule them, he followed in Arnold’s footsteps by having his assassin shoot him in the head.

As has been the case throughout Westworld‘s run, this was all impeccably performed and lavishly filmed.  But as with most of Westworld, it also felt emotionally sterile, especially with the reveal that even Maeve’s brutal escape had been part of her programming, and that she’d gone through these same paces before.  Whether or not it was an intentional choice to make the human characters as plastic as the robots, that was how their scenes played, and only Wood and Newton had the chance to give transformative performances.

In a sense, this entire season was a prologue to what’s going to happen next, which is basically in the territory of Michael Crichton’s original movie.  As we left Westworld, the hosts had something resembling free will, as well as the ability to harm humans.  Will that make Season 2 a more straightforward thriller?  Or will Nolan and Joy take viewers’ “yes” for an answer and keep building their cunning (but not unsolvable) puzzle boxes?  Because of the show’s giant logistics and cost, HBO has already said that we probably won’t see new episodes until 2018.  That’s plenty of time for the Internet to exercise its own cerebral machinery, both spoiling and whetting appetites at once.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."