If the prevalence of rampant speculation and crackpot online theories is any metric of gauging the popularity of a given TV show, then HBO’s Westworld is surely the most popular program in the entire universe. The Westworld subreddit alone is an endless rabbit-hole of theoretical musings and postulations, not to mention the countless other speculative corners of the internet. In the Westworld Weekly Roundup, we do the leg work of sifting through all theories big and small, and report on the ones worth talking about.
This will be an ongoing series that will be updated every week for the rest of the season, and consider yourself officially warned: here there be spoilers.
A quick note of interest: It seems that fans of Westworld aren’t the only ones keeping up with the dizzying amount of theories about the show. HBO’s newly-installed president of programming Casey Bloys recently told Variety that some of these theories are on the right trail.
There are a lot of theories out there, and with some of them, I’ve been very impressed with how they’ve constructed the guesses. I’ll just say, they’re getting close.
Bloys gives a lot of other insight into the show which makes the whole interview worth reading, but his quote above makes one thing clear: Bloys, along with Westworld showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, are paying attention to what people are theorizing about, and they’re saying that at least a few of them might be right. So which ones are still holding up, and which have folded?
The two-timeframe theory is resurrected
In last week’s Roundup, I retired the the persistent two-timeframe theory as being compelling but disproved. After the latest episode (“Contrapasso“), however, I think we might need to dust it off and drag it back out into the light. There’s definitely still some compelling evidence that suggests we’re dealing with a single timeframe, but there are hints in “Contrapasso” that there may indeed be two timeframes occurring within the show, occurring roughly thirty years apart (it’s also worth noting that this debate has sparked a fairly sizeable Reddit war, indicating a very divided audience). In this week’s Roundup, I’m not only bringing this theory back to life, but focusing exclusively on it.
If we suppose that the two timeframe theory is correct, and further suppose that William is a younger Man in Black, what is the point in showing us both stories? The common denominator in both timeframes is Dolores, so it stands to reason that we are being shown two timeframes because it helps us understand Dolores’ extremely long journey of self-discovery. But what does that mean for William, who is most definitely falling in love with her?
One theory, which would be quite moving if true, says that the present-day Man in Black is in search of the secret of the maze as a means of reawakening the consciousness of the Dolores he knew and fell in love with thirty years ago. In “Contrapasso,” William and Dolores escape the bedeviled town of Pariah aboard a train with with Lawrence, heading toward an event that will spark the “critical failure” that present-day Bernard mentioned in an earlier episode. William will somehow “lose” Dolores as a result of the failure, and go on to spend the rest of his life trying to figure out how to get her back. If he gets his way, we’ll surely be in store for a Notebook-like reunion that will make us fall to pieces.
Dolores is reliving the past as she searches for the truth in the present
As I said above, if the two timeframe theory is true, then Dolores is the keystone character in both. As Joanna Robinson from Vanity Fair points out, the show is using some pretty sneaky editing to weave the two timeframes together, often giving clues with the same scene. In this graveyard scene, we see Dolores standing alone:
A moment later, the camera pans back, and suddenly the frame also includes William, Logan, and their horses:
In the the two-timeframe theory, Dolores standing alone in the grave yard is her in the current timeframe, and as she looks upon the landscape, she flashes back to her time with William. In essence, Dolores is retracing the steps she took thirty years before: she is remembering her past, and is following clues from her own memory to solve the mystery of her existence. Light fare, really.
In the final minutes of “Contrapasso,” we see another instance of editing trickery as Dolores inspects the coffin in the train. In one moment, William and Lawrence are sharing a drink behind her, in the next, they’ve vanished (use the metal box to Lawrence’s left as a point of reference):
For the first four episodes of Westworld, I fought tooth and nail against the idea we were dealing with two timeframes – I thought it would complicate an already-complex narrative. Furthermore, I was sure that if two timeframes were necessary to tell the story, they would be presented in a more obvious fashion. But now that the two-timeframe theory seems not just likely, but probable, my question is this: why all the storytelling sneakiness? I’m sure it’s leading to a pretty epic reveal, but with all the narrative confusion, it might come at the risk of alienating (or, more succinctly, confuse the ever-loving shit out of) the audience.
A closing thought
When I joined the Westworld subreddit the week before the series premiere, there was just shy of 20,ooo users. In the course of five weeks, that number has grown to over 75,000, with hundreds of users on the subreddit at any given time. Many of these users offer new theories, or attempt to validate or discredit those of others. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to see so many people join in one place to discuss something as ostensibly arbitrary as a television show.
But in this post-LOST society, in which anyone with a theory and an internet connection can offer their ideas to the masses, it changes not only how we view and interact with a given show, but also (and perhaps more consequentially) how television writers create new storylines. Dan Harmon, co-creator of the excellent animated series Rick And Morty, explains how he approaches his craft in an interview with the AV Club:
I think [online communities guessing a show’s big secrets] is a really remarkable thing about today’s TV audience. You cannot write payoff-based TV anymore because the audience is essentially a render farm. They have an unlimited calculation capacity. There’s no writers’ room that can think more than 20 million people who can think about it for an hour a day. That season of Dexter being the big example: They had planned out this whole Fight Club reveal that there was a character that didn’t really exist except in someone else’s head. They’d planned out the whole clever thing, and they were going to reveal it, and all this stuff, and then after episode one aired, somebody on Reddit just like, [Snaps fingers.]. You can’t do it anymore. You can’t try to fool the audience . . . But the really cool thing is that render farm reduces your job as a writer to story and jokes. Character.
So, for better or worse, Westworld has a render farm of upward of 80,000 people (on Reddit alone), which is certainly a phenomenon that Joy and Nolan anticipated when writing the first drafts of the series. How tuned-in were they to the notion that someone, at any time, could (and perhaps already has) broken the secrets of Westworld (and Westworld) wide open. It could also very well be that they’re having their cake and eating it too; perhaps many of the theories arising out of Westworld are based on information Joy and Nolan have given us that amount to nothing more than a long, slippery line of red herrings. Misdirection.
I bring this up so I can ask which is more satisfying: to guess the answers to secrets before they’re revealed by those telling the story, or to sit back and enjoy the journey, allowing yourself to be surprised at the intended times? Obviously, there’s a big gray ocean between the two possibilities, which is where I think most of us reside. It’s fun as hell to engage in these theories, to watch them expand and evolve, or collapse under their own absurd weight. Conversely, it’s great when you’re in the thrall of a show that can astound you – whether that be on the level of plot, or, as Dan Harmon likes to focus on, character. It’s hard to know what direction Joy and Nolan are leaning in at this early date, and more is sure to be revealed. The question is, will we already know, and will that enhance or ruin or viewing pleasure?