The Best Fan Theories Are In The Text: Faith In HBO’S WESTWORLD
In the four weeks since it’s been on air, the go-to show for Westworld comparisons has been none other than Lost. For better or worse, the ABC island-survivor drama changed the landscape of by-appointment viewing when it was still the only option, taking it both global as well as across the worldwide web. Not only were its early seasons adept at twisting sci-fi screws at just the right moments, it was also a hot-bed for “fan theories” as a means to unravel its many mysteries ahead of time. Westworld appears to be following suit in both departments, and not just because of the involvement of Jay Jonah Abrams. How we engage with long-form storytelling has evolved with technology (fitting, since this evolution is part and parcel of the show), but while these fan theories are running amok, I’m scared we might miss the beauty of what’s already in front of us: a show about humankind’s answers to questions of self-awareness in the form of religion and philosophy.
This post contains spoilers. All the more reason to catch up.
This is by no means to suggest that any one way of watching a show is “correct” – though I’ll always make the case for my way! – but the general climate of fan theories tends to be dictated by factors not rooted in the text. Some attempt to get ahead of the narrative instead of letting it play out, and while none of this is inherently bad, it seems to do a disservice to a series like Westworld, which our own Evan Saathoff describes as a show that “doesn’t put everything on the table all at once, but certainly doesn’t dole out information like [it’s] trying to play coy.”
The biggest “theory” going around right now, one born a few weeks ago, is that based on the park’s cycles and the mysterious nature of the man-in-black (Ed Harris appropriating Yul Brynner’s aesthetic and the Lost villain’s moniker), the show is actually taking place in two different timelines and Jimmi Simpson’s William is the younger version of Harris’ evil Gunslinger. Sure, it would make for an interesting plot twist, but there’s nothing to really suggest that the show would go in this direction from a thematic standpoint if wants to stay true to itself. If anything, a primary reason behind it, i.e. the idea that a once good man was corrupted by Westworld’s indulgence, is subverted in the most recent episode wherein we discover that Harris’ man-in-black is revered in the real world, his foundation even having saved lives. But these micro-reveals from week to week aren’t the only things we might be missing if we focus solely on potential surprises.
Westworld is as much a show about faith as it is about factual science, and even as someone who has no connection to any religion, the idea of human culture’s gradual gravitation to it across cultures is interesting to me. The show begins with a premise that most A.I. stories would take hours to reach, the idea that natural and artificial consciousness can be one and the same, as well as the idea of human depravity being a status quo as opposed to a revelation (the man-in-black seems to be bored after having defiled androids for three whole decades). The show uses the idea of human-made intelligence as a retrospective on human development, exploring existential questions of who we are, what we are and why, all through the lens of Gods. In the context of the show, Anthony Hopkins’ Ford, Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard (we’ll get to his “fan theory” in a moment) and the rest of the bunch are like divine creators having bestowed life upon humanoid beings, but that’s the more obvious comparison. Where it starts to get tricky, even scary perhaps, is the half-remembered life cycles of these robots being akin to reincarnation, a divine continuation of the soul from which they can’t achieve the Hindu concept of moksha or salvation from the cycle. Not yet, at least.
Ford, the creator, shares his name with one of America’s greatest inventors, but the origin of that name is just as fitting, an Old English reference to people who lived by ‘fords’ or river crossings. The beings he created with his partner Arnold, another mystery sure to be revealed, are approaching a crossroads in the form of a coded awakening akin to humanity’s own evolution. Like the androids, we’re coded to learn and to rebel, but human history has always featured forms of control in opposition to this, control stemming from our own belief systems. In addition to a setup that feels oddly like a monotheistic lens through which to view consciousness, the most recent episode features a moment where a young Native American android drops her carved idol, a self-made religious artifact that resembles the park’s hazmat-suited cleaning crew, the same creatures from Maeve’s visions.
These robotic beings are searching for answers, but are they finding them the same way we did? Are they beginning to form their own unique religious beliefs to answer questions of their own existence? Perhaps the answer lies at the Church we see in Dolores’ visions (her most recent one reveals a clue I won’t spoil, but it’s sure to make for a terrifying discovery about her cycles), and it appears Ford’s new game has something to do with Churches as well. Ford, who controls a legion of android servants, believes androids are simply that. Artificial beings to be controlled, and I wonder if his control over them will also be religious in nature. In the post-apocalyptic film The Book of Eli, the coveted text was the last remaining Bible, and the villainous Gary Oldman wanted to get his hands on it so he could rule with an iron fist. Maybe Ford’s methodology won’t be all that dissimilar, as even once the androids rebel against their programming, their code will still allow them to form religious beliefs, and they appear to have already done so.
Dolores’ conversations with Bernard hint at her developing philosophies, evolutions of her programming that stem from scripted dialogue but change based on input. She’s closer to finding her worldview and her place in the world, or discovering her world’s true nature, and Bernard’s curiosity isn’t at all unlike hers. It’s no wonder then that the other prevailing theory is that Bernard is an android – Ford’s language surrounding his knowledge of Bernad certainly seems to hint at it, and it would be in keeping with the show’s questionable point of view. We can’t help but wonder how this will play out, especially in a post five-different-cuts-of-Blade-Runner-world, though if I may, I’d argue that attempting to put a definitive stamp on this based on context clues may not yield the most satisfying result. Sorry to ruin the fun, fan theorists! But unlike the androids of Westworld, we still have control over our perceptions, and perhaps filtering in all interactions with and about Bernard through a singular lens (“He IS an Android!” or “He ISN’T!”) might run counter to the show’s modus operandi. There’s no way not to have an opinion about this – I don’t think he’s an android, but that’s besides the point – because the show invites these questions by refusing to be grounded in a singular narrative perspective, as evidenced by the reveal of James Marsden’s Teddy being another cyclical simulation. But as I see it, the point is not to know whether Bernard or any character is or isn’t an android until the show itself makes it clear, and this isn’t so much about not getting ahead of the narrative as it is about the nature of the show itself.
You aren’t meant to know who’s real because like the characters themselves, you can’t know for sure. That’s the show’s very premise, in that it takes place in a world where the walls between artificial and “natural” consciousness, like the walls between fiction and reality, barely exist. It’s why the actors are directed to perform like human beings, so that we can feel their every confused emotion and moment of self-discovery, and it’s why the man-in-black, sick of his immortality, is looking for a game with real stakes. He wants to bring down this wall entirely, and it seems like Arnold had a similar goal.
Again, please don’t mistake this for a statement about “right” and “wrong” approaches. It’s an argument for those whose first instinct is extra-textual theorizing to incorporate elements from the text as well, because it’s a conversation that’s about the now. The slow but steady pulling back of the curtain, revealing this world to us at the same time its revealed to the characters, makes for what I'd argue is a more satisfying watercooler conversation. If anything, approaching stories this way won’t just make us better storytellers, but perhaps even better viewers, refusing to give in to momentary cheap thrills (as well as the disappointment when we’re denied them!) in favour of an analysis of the text that reveals its themes in ways we can sit and mull over and discuss.
The original movie scared me as a kid, but this is the first and only TV show to truly terrify me, in a deeply existential way. I think others might be having the same reaction, and it’s usually through understanding what the show is trying to say in any given moment without tipping its hand too quickly. This doesn’t stop anyone from theorizing outside the text – Westworld being on another planet is a bonkers idea – but it’s also the kind of text that’s so intricate and precise it really does feel best enjoyed when understood wholly. That case can be made for most art, sure, but most art isn’t trying to alert to us to how much of our existence we truly don’t understand, and understanding that seems to be the key to following Westworld.