The creators of HBO's Westworld likes screwing with the perception of reality. While fans of the original movie knew the plot hinged on the hosts going haywire, the main thrust of turning the story into a ten-hour affair for Season 1 hung on scrambling audience perceptions of time, space, and memory. These deceptions depended on the way hosts were programmed to remember things. Hosts don’t have partially faded human-style recollections of events, no misty water-colored memories here. They can remember it for you wholesale. So what is real here?
This is why some episodes, like the Westworld Season 2 premiere, seem to undergo the Zapruder treatment on Reddit, shot by shot, with debates if the smallest details are merely production errors or imbued with meaning. Fans can’t trust their perceptions, and they know it’s not their fault. Westworld is pulling a long con somewhere. It’s just a matter of finding it. The most obvious from the beginning of Season 2 was Bernard, and the “two weeks later” storyline. Exactly what’s wrong with the reality he perceives, and therefore viewers are being shown, is still a subject of debate.
But this week added two more perception contradictions to the pile, one of which is notable because it’s the first time viewers have been asked to question the perception of a human being.
Episode 8 of this season, “Kiksuya,” focused on the tale of Akecheta, from his host beginnings through the current moment. But tucked away, almost as a throwaway, was a huge clue our “Man In Black,” William, is completely untrustworthy in terms of his ability to tell what is Ford-controlled and what is accidental in the park. William has claimed from the beginning “The maze revealed itself to me” when he shot and killed Maeve and her daughter in their homestead scenario. But that’s not true. The maze was never for him. Akecheta actually drew it for Maeve every time he came through on his loop.
This clear misunderstanding raised a large red flag. This is someone who is so self-absorbed, he cannot comprehend every last thing he experiences in the park isn’t all about him, even when the park tells him at every turn he’s misread the situation. This came to a head when he shot dead not only an entire phalanx of humans from the lab but his own daughter, Emily. He murdered her in cold blood, believing she was a host, set up by Ford to screw with his head.
The actress who plays Emily, Katja Herbers, insists she was human and her character is really dead. (Happy Father’s Day everyone!) The lab techs scanned William and the shot clearly showed he came up human. But by the end of the episode, William clearly isn’t so sure. The last shot shows him stabbing himself in the arm, not to commit suicide, but digging around in his own flesh with a giant bowie knife in a desperate move to find a host port contained within, to prove none of this is real, and he is somewhere else altogether. Has he truly gone off the deep end? Or…was none of it real?
Our second moment of reality not adding up at least is more in the wheelhouse fans have come to expect, when Teddy commits suicide in front of Dolores at the close of the episode. Dolores regrets her decision to take away Teddy’s right to choose his own destiny, as well as the loss of the kind and gentle man she’d been programmed to love for all those years. But she’s told herself she did the right thing. Replacing him with a ruthless stranger with Teddy’s face was the only way they could survive what needs to be done.
But this week confirmed Teddy couldn’t live with it either. He has all his old memories of the better person he used to be, he knows what Dolores did to him. By changing him to suit her needs, she’s no better than the humans she’s claiming to want to take down. There are no winning sides here, but his programming means he doesn’t have it in him to leave her side. So he ends his programming for good.
But… did he?
When Teddy shoots himself in this episode, he and Dolores are still miles from the Valley Beyond. But the opening episode shows him floating in the water, along with many of Dolores’ other compatriots who are no longer by her side. How did they get there?
Moreover, the show made a big deal about showing Teddy’s lifeless body at the Valley Beyond, in close up shots at every turn. First, he is shown floating in the water. Then he’s shown again in close up in the underground labs at the Mesa, after the bodies are recovered. In fact, the close-up shot of his body lying at the top of the pile in the opening scene of episode 5 is so striking; it stuck out in my memory. So I went back and rewatched. Teddy doesn’t have a bullet hole on the side of his head. The scene deliberately has him lying so it’s the side of his head where he aimed the gun facing up too.
Could the big twist in Westworld be this season that none of this is real? And if it is, is that cheating? Other series have done this, like the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere, which famously ended by revealing that none of the show’s six seasons ever happened, but were simply a creation of the imagination of a little boy playing with a snow globe with a hospital inside. Star Trek’s Enterprise gave fans a finale which was actually a Next Generation episode where Commander Riker was studying their last mission, causing fans to ask if the entire four-year run was just a holodeck simulation.
But when series do this, it’s at the very end of their run, because it’s so controversial. Westworld is no stranger to controversy. Revealing major parts of the season were merely simulations the entire time would be a ballsy move, and guarantee this weekend’s finale to be HBO’s most talked about this year.