Has HBO Forgotten The Art Of The Finale? ‘Westworld’ Underwhelms

By December 5, 2016


I probably don’t have to say this, but what you’re about to read contains major spoilers not just for the Westworld season finale, but the entire series so far. It’s also my opinion, so don’t go blaming anyone but me. And if you would rather read something else, help us try to figure out why Aquaman is coming out in the beginning of October.

I stayed up really late Sunday night to watch what I expected to be the biggest season finale in my household since Game of Thrones.

westworld-inset120516Westworld was wrapping its first season. And showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy promised some of the many questions posed throughout the season would be answered, so I knew this would be 90 minutes I didn’t want to miss.

But as the finale came together on my television screen, something really nagged at me: I probably could have missed this. And when the ending credits rolled, I not only felt underwhelmed – I was disappointed.

And it made me realize that HBO, which has been excellent with finales in the past, seems to have lost the touch somewhere along the way. Don’t get me wrong, Game of Thrones still has it, but that’s also from some solid source material. But no, I’m struggling to see it elsewhere.

Like Vinyl, the ambitious 1970s recording industry series starring Bobby Cannavale. I know many of my friends who were bored in the first episode, but I liked it. I was enjoying the characters, and it actually was what pulled me away from Empire on Fox, because it kind of exposed that show as nothing but a primetime soap opera to me.

Yet, we get to the finale, and I’m like, “What? That’s it? What the hell just happened?” In Vinyl‘s case, it was like they forgot they were at the end of the season. For Westworld, it’s like they knew they were, and they better throw everything at us, hoping something would stick.

memento-inset120516Like the twists. It wasn’t long ago that Nolan – the man who brought us the amazing Memento in 2000 – said he wants to be fair with audiences by dropping breadcrumbs. But I’m struggling to find anywhere Nolan has done that right since Memento.

Only two other projects involving Nolan come immediately to mind that involved some sort of twist, and both struggled for different reasons.

In the battling magician story The Prestige in 2006, Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier is trying to one-up his rival, Christian Bale’s Alfred Borden. So he seeks out Nikola Tesla in Colorado, and Tesla makes him a machine that can duplicate things.

Suddenly, Angier has this amazing trick where he not only has to escape from a tank of water, but then he shows up seconds later in the most unlikely of places in the theater, wowing everyone. And I guess Nolan thought the audience would scratch their head at the end trying to figure out how he did it – even showing a dramatic reveal of Angier clones drowned in a number of tanks of water stored in the basement.

But we didn’t need the dramatic reveal. David Bowie’s Tesla already showed us what the machine could do, and it was a pretty easy connection to figure out Angier was simply duplicating himself and probably killing the clone.

interstellar-inset120516Then there’s Interstellar in 2014 – the paradox time-travel-like film that was beautiful to look at, but severely lacking in a solid story experience. The twist here (sorry, about to give spoilers for Interstellar) is that Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper finds a way between dimensions or something like that, and is able to send the very message that starts this whole adventure in the first place.

But you see the paradox (aka plot hole) here, right? If future Cooper has to send a message to past Cooper in how to get going in the story – how did future Cooper get to where he was to send the message to past Cooper? Inquiring minds want to know.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like Nolan. I love a lot of his work, with Inception immediately coming to mind. And the first nine episodes of Westworld were truly extraordinary, in my view.

Yet, it seemed all the twists were predictable. People guessed early on that Bernard was a host, and then that he was a copy of Arnold – the co-founder of the theme park. People guessed the maze was a journey for the hosts, and had nothing to do with the guests. People guessed almost immediately that Jimmi Simpson’s William and Ed Harris’ the Man-in-Black were the same person. And everyone knew there would be plenty of gratuitous nudity.

Each of these were unveiled dramatically with the expectation that we would be surprised. But I wasn’t. And I’m betting you weren’t either.

So what went wrong? Very simply, Nolan missed a key art of writing a good twist: make sure there are solid misdirects in place. Meaning, lead the viewer down one path thinking that something is going to happen, but then throw a curve ball using the breadcrumbs the viewer just skipped over in their brain.

The best redirect that I can ever think of was in 1999’s American Beauty. We were convinced that Chris Cooper’s Col. Fitts was going to put Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham out of his misery after seeing what he thought was Lester and Fitts’ son Ricky (Wes Bentley) having sex in Burnham’s garage (they were only rolling and smoking joints).

The scene was set up perfectly. Lester opens the garage door to the dark stormy night, and there’s Col. Fitts. All wet, and totally pissed. Lester has no idea what Fitts had seen, and is totally unassuming. It was the perfect moment to off a character we’re told in the very beginning of the film gets offed.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, Fitts surprises us with a kiss. Lester is like, “I’m sorry. You’ve got the wrong idea.” And Fitts leaves, rejected. Then later, when we’re trying to figure out who shot Lester in the head, we’re considering all the characters – except Fitts. Why? Because we thought Fitts was going to do it, and then he didn’t, and what he did was so shocking, we totally removed him from the picture.

There were no misdirects here. Hell, I was waiting for Harris to pop colored contacts out of his eyes and say, “I ain’t William … I’m actually Logan! And you thought you had it all figured out!” But nope, he was William, and we indeed had it all figured out.

The finale wasn’t all disappointing however. There was one moment – and it was just a moment – that truly wowed me. When Thandie Newton’s Maeve repairs and reactivates Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard, he does a system scan of Maeve and finds out that her revolt is not something she developed herself. It was all part of a storyline someone programmed into her.

To me, that was the best twist of the night. That while we believed Maeve had found true consciousness, she was actually following a program, while everyone else like Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores were actually finding the center of the maze.

westworld2-inset120516I’m not disappointed in the series, and I certainly will watch when Season 2 debuts in late 2017 or early 2018. But I hope Nolan and Joy use that time to not only put in great twists, but put them in properly.

Audiences are continuously becoming more and more savvy. And having social media tools to help us discuss plot points and potential twists with a mass discussion group doesn’t help much easier. But the burden to stay ahead of that is on the writers, and seeing all the great work both Nolan and Joy have done in the past – including in the first season of Westworld – I’m confident they’ll get it together to give us an even more powerful Season 2.

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Michael Hinman

Michael Hinman

Managing Editor at GeekNation
Michael began what has become nearly 19 years of entertainment reporting as the founder of SyFy Portal, which would become Airlock Alpha after he sold the SyFy brand to NBC Universal. He's based out of New York City where he is the editor of a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper in the Bronx.