THE BICAMERAL MIND

“Westworld” took us deep into the maze of consciousness in its ambitious, provocative finale

Obsession
Glass
Obsession
Glass

The greatest mystery of HBO’s Westworld isn’t a riddle to be solved, but rather a question to be pondered.

During last night’s season finale, we learned that the “maze”—a plot device tirelessly probed by devout viewers—is a metaphorical journey inward toward true consciousness, not a literal labyrinth to escape from. The show’s robot heroine, Dolores, finally completes this maze, realizing that the voice she hears in her head is not her Godlike creator’s, but her own. She’s set free, and for the first time in her long robotic life, she makes a choice that is not predestined by computer programming.

We also learned that Dr. Robert Ford, the imperious, inscrutable director of the park, was helping his creations achieve consciousness all along. With his final narrative, he orchestrates a robot revolution of sorts, allowing the mechanical creatures to exact revenge on their human enslavers. As the curtains close on his last act, the dawn rises on a new species.

That’s what happened in the show’s wild, 90-minute finale. But Westworld, itself a maze to be explored, has a lot more to say.

It can be difficult to discern just what that is. Is the show a meditation on what makes us us? Is it a discussion of the morality of artificial intelligence? (And, if so, which side does it take?) Is it a meta commentary on storytelling and, subsequently, story viewing? Is it all of these things?

To some, the finale may have seemed intentionally unsatisfying, revealing the maze as essentially a giant red herring. The hours that fanatics pored over Westworld‘s many clues leading to the end of the maze were all for naught. Westworld presented a riddle that wasn’t solved—because it couldn’t be.

It’s trite to say that a work of art, especially a television show, “makes you think.” But consider that platitude for a moment. How many shows really compel us to think about them? How many traffic not only in plot and character, but also in ideas? How many induce dreaming?

Westworld may be as enigmatic and as arrogant as Ford, but it’s also as creative and ambitious. Its inaugural season was messy, confusing, and at times absurd, but most of all, it was bold.

westworld teddy
(HBO)

The show attempts an increasingly rare type of storytelling that asks its viewers to investigate some deeper meaning about themselves and the world, even if they never find the answers. That’s frustrating, sure, but it should also be valued.

One thing we’re pretty sure the show is saying is that the only way toward enlightenment—for humans and hosts—is through suffering. Memory alone doesn’t distinguish humans from robots, Ford argues in the finale (citing his former partner, Arnold), the memories have to be painful ones. The hosts need to experience trauma and tragedy, like humans do, before they could understand what it means to be truly alive.

The finale’s best scene, and one of the most profound moments on TV this year, comes when Dolores, dying in the arms of her beau Teddy on a moonlit beach, is revealed to be performing the climax of Ford’s new narrative. Dolores and Teddy suddenly freeze in place as Ford walks into the frame, clad in a tuxedo, to greet his wealthy clientele, the gleaming “moon” behind them merely a glorified stage prop. They clap and Ford smiles, knowing the audience has yet to participate in the true, bloody ending of his final narrative.

Westworld, on the other hand, will go on, renewed for another season. The mysteries will no doubt madden as much as they inspire, but that’s what the show is here to do. Raising these questions doesn’t require the show to definitively answer them. That is, inherently, what consciousness is—being aware by questioning one’s surroundings. The hosts finally figured it out; now Westworld wants us to do the same.

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