Westworld finale recap: The two Robert Fords

The season finale provides frustratingly few answers to a very long list of questions

Westworld is built on loops. The series is explicitly about repetition and the breakdowns repetitions eventually bring about — especially if you pay close enough attention — so it's fitting that its first season ended with a spectacular reenactment. Ford has made the biggest loop of all. The church we've seen in flashbacks has been rebuilt, the town around it has been unearthed and restored. The first and biggest surprise is that Ford's long-awaited "new" narrative, titled "Journey Into Night" — a narrative we've watched him plan with his younger self with apparent excitement — begins with Ford's death at Dolores' hands.

This is an apparent reprise of his partner Arnold's death over three decades earlier. "That is the gun you used to kill Arnold," Ford tells Dolores before going out to address the guests at the gala. "You were always drawn to it, so I had Bernard leave it somewhere where you might find it." It's less a command than a suggestion, and that's supposed to be the point. This is Dolores' opportunity to develop free will. "Journey Into Night" begins, Ford tells his audience, "in a time of war, with a villain named Wyatt. And a killing, this time by choice." The show has been shot through with allusions to gods and "blood sacrifice." This is a historical reenactment, and to hear Ford tell it, it's an intensification of the original. Arnold killed himself through Dolores — or so Ford thought at the time. This time, the blood to be spilled is Ford's, and Dolores will pull the trigger because she chooses to. And she does!

It's a stunning development, no question. We've spent so much time watching Maeve and Dolores gearing up for a revolution — and fearing that it would somehow be scripted and neutered out of significance when it came — that it's both rewarding and gutting to have something with permanent stakes take place. The Man in Black (aka William) agrees. He's long wished that the hosts could fight back, and Ed Harris looks positively tickled when the army of decommissioned robots show up like Birnam Wood and shoot him in the shoulder. We've all, it seems, been aching for consequences.

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But as satisfying as this all is, much of the finale gave the impression of conclusiveness, of questions answered, without actually offering much in the way of persuasive detail. Listening to Ford's latest monologue, I kept thinking of the inadequacy of Logan's "visceral demonstration" of Dolores' essence when he cut her open. Logan intended to prove to William that Dolores was fake. Technically, he did. But Billy remained unconvinced because exposing Dolores' mechanical guts was a) a fantastically violent answer to a question no one was asking and b) a disappointingly literal approach to a philosophical problem. There's a mismatch between the truth test Logan came up with and the truth it was testing.

The finale suffers from a similar problem. What does it really mean, for instance, that Arnold merged Dolores with the Wyatt character? This is supposed to explain something, and yes, we do indeed see Arnold upload this storyline into Dolores. This proves, I guess, that her murder spree was scripted and therefore not the ideal rise to consciousness we've been waiting for. But what happens when two characters are merged in this way? Why did the Wyatt script go dormant for so long? Why is it back?

If the answer to all these things is, one way or another, "Ford," that's more than disappointing. For one thing, it muddies which parts of Dolores' rise were programmed storylines and which parts were genuine maze-solving breakthroughs. Was her sudden aggression toward the Man in Black, for example, just a sneak peek of Wyatt's return, as programmed by Ford? Or was it a hint of her "true" aggression, generated by her suffering in that moment as she realizes who he is? Similarly, does her rise to self-awareness, her interview with herself, mean she's managed to override Ford's Wyatt programming even though Wyatt is also back? Or is Dolores consciously adapting Wyatt's aggression — an available script — for her own ends (just as she adapted that speech about pain in a conversation with Arnold)? Dolores' development is one of the things we care most about in this show, but for all the time we've spent with her and with theories of consciousness, the mechanism driving it is still way too fuzzy. Do Dolores' breakthroughs change her programming? What explains her final climb to consciousness? The repetitions? The suffering? Wyatt? Arnold? William? Ford?

We could ask similar questions of Maeve. We know, thanks to Bernard, that her apparent leap into a sentient fugitive was, as we feared, scripted. But what does this mean? Whose storyline is this? Yes, there's code that looks like it was modified by "Arnold," but we still have no idea what that means in the most literal terms. Has Ford been somehow coding as Arnold? If so, why? If not, then the fact that other hosts have been talking to "Arnold" too means that something is afoot and we should really know what that is by now. And how much of the story of Maeve's awakening do we lose by the revelation that it was programmed all along? Were the drawings she made and hid for herself to find scripted? We kind of need to know whether Maeve was part of Ford's new storyline all along, or whether she was manifesting someone else's plans, and whether any part of what happened was hers alone in order to understand what her journey in the finale means.

We also don't know what her break from the storyline means philosophically for the story — or if it was a break at all. Maeve's code showed she had an ESCAPE storyline, but that script assumed she'd reach the mainland. Does her decision to turn back mean that she's achieved free will? Has she broken with her own scripts? Or is this just another instance of the million ways the park is designed to keep her there, as Sylvester suggested?

The lack of clarity on any of these points robs them of resonance.

Westworld's real problem, though — the source of this uncertainty — might be a lack of definition when it comes to Robert Ford himself. Ford is both the ultimate arbiter of reality in the park while also being its most unreliable narrator. Instead of developing as a character, Ford has spent the season personality- and conviction-hopping. (It's a testament to Hopkins' acting that he makes these gaps in characterization seem nonexistent.) I said last week that the version of Ford we saw in Episode 9 seemed puzzlingly omnipotent compared to former iterations, which seemed powerful but capable of doubt (remember when he caught a glimpse of the maze on the domino table and went running to his office to consult Arnold's notebooks? Why, given how perfectly he seems to understand the maze in the finale, was he so concerned?)

This week, he's leveled up and become Savior Ford, a Christ figure willing to die for beliefs we've never seen him espouse either publicly or privately. Ford's speech and his actions retcon him into a noble figure when most of what we've seen him do suggests the contrary. We've seen Ford brag about his godlike achievements, ambition, and willingness to sacrifice others. Only two episodes ago, he said "one life is a small price to pay for the dominion I shall acquire." This is a man with big plans; this is not a man with a death wish. This is a guy who channels his childhood disappointments into a hunger for power: "My father told me to be satisfied with my lot in life. That the world owed me nothing. And so I made my own world. Tell me Dolores: Do you remember the man I used to be?" (What does this mean? What man did he used to be?)

It could be argued that because both the foregoing statements were delivered to hosts, they're intrinsically untrustworthy. Maybe Ford's trying to shock them into consciousness by showing them how awful humans are. Maybe, like the Man in Black, he performs cruelty to torture them into sentience. (I confess this strategy never made much sense to me — the guests of Westworld seem perfectly capable of causing the hosts massive suffering without Ford or William's help. That seemed to be the whole problem.)

So let's look instead at a speech Ford delivers to a human being. Remember how Not-Savior Ford explained his understanding of consciousness to Theresa before killing her? The whole dramatic point of a typical villain's monologue — a confession delivered safe in the knowledge that the recipient will soon be dead — is that it's honest because it has no reason not to be. It's as good a test of Ford's real feelings as we're likely to find in a show this cagey. "I read the theory once that the human intellect was like peacock feathers, just an extravagant display intended to attract a mate," Ford says.

All of art, literature, William Shakespeare and Michelangelo and the Empire State Building, just an elaborate mating ritual. Maybe it doesn't matter that we've accomplished so much for the basest of reasons, but of course the peacock can barely fly. It lives in the dirt, pecking insects out of the muck, consoling itself with its great beauty. I have come to think of so much of consciousness as a burden, a weight, and we have spared them that. Anxiety, self-loathing, guilt. The hosts are the ones who are free. Free here, under my control. "

This is not a definition of freedom that squares easily with Ford's new account of himself in the finale as a broken man completing his 30-year quest to fix his mistake and free the hosts. (Nor, despite explicitly mentioning Michelangelo, is it a vision of art that maps on particularly well to his fascinating take on The Creation of Adam in the finale.) Ford just doesn't make very much sense: The man tells Theresa he's "not the sentimental type," but he keeps a robot version of his family in the woods, builds himself an Arnold-clone, and claims the grief he felt at his partner's passing led him to understand the link between suffering and sentience and free his creation.

One way to reconcile Hero Ford with Villain Ford is to conclude that the power-hungry version was real. Maybe Villain Ford printed a host version of himself in that lab where he killed Theresa, and maybe Dolores killed that instead of the human version. Or maybe Ford hopes to dispense with his human form and live forever as a host (therefore becoming the music, as he says Mozart and Beethoven did in his final speech.) Maybe he was a host all along. What a disappointment all three solutions would be, though. Any of these would rob the finale of its most arresting, most astonishing moment.

The risk of a show as intricately composed as Westworld is that it invites you to read its loops through a loupe yourself. By inviting the viewer to look for inconsistencies at a resolution so fine you sometimes need to analyze screenshots to tell time periods apart, it accepts that it needs to nail every detail perfectly. This is a series with exceptional acting, freakishly gorgeous cinematography, mind-bending ideas, and beautiful speeches, but as long as it kept us in suspense as to what was really happening, its handling of character development was hard to judge. Now we can, and it's somewhat ironic that the hosts — Bernard, Maeve, Dolores, even Lawrence — are much more fleshed out as characters than the human beings whose histories we've been trying to piece together all season. William's arc — which was finally joined to the Man in Black's — was almost as underwhelming as Ford's (and not just because Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris deliver very different performances). Defined more by narrative back stories explaining how they've changed than by observable arcs, the Man in Black and Robert Ford are the least believable inhabitants of the world they own and created, respectively. Here's hoping Season 2 leaves their mysteries behind.

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Lili Loofbourow

Lili Loofbourow is the culture critic at TheWeek.com. She's also a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books and an editor for Beyond Criticism, a Bloomsbury Academic series dedicated to formally experimental criticism. Her writing has appeared in a variety of venues including The Guardian, Salon, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Slate.