Westworld Recap: Season Finale “The Bicameral Mind”


For the grand finale of its first season, Westworld closes the loop – and perhaps opens a way out. We’re going to be thinking about this one for a while.

In the end, we knew what was going to happen. It’s a loop, after all. Of course, after nine mind-bending, revelatory episodes, Westworld would go back to the beginning.

First, it returns to Dolores’s beginning – her birth, so to speak. Like the series premiere, “The Bicameral Mind” opens with a black screen. Instead of Arnold’s voice, though, this time we hear music: Claude Debussy’s “Reverie”, the piece that accompanies Bernard’s memories of his son. It continues playing as we open on a close-up of Dolores’s head, her eyes closed, her face devoid of expression. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal that the rest of her is a skeleton of metal and wires, over which a pair of hands molds synthetic skin.

Arnold brings Dolores to life by saying her name, cementing her as not only a person but also an individual. When she opens her eyes, her vision is unfocused, the man looking over her blurry in the glaring light like an image from an old film. He gently takes her hand and welcomes her to the world. This is her first memory.

Jeffrey Wright in Westworld season 1, screenshot courtesy of HBO

But it’s not her cornerstone memory, the one that defines her identity, the one that keeps drawing her back to it. Shortly before the park is scheduled to open for visitors, Arnold informs Dolores that their experiment with consciousness can’t continue, due to Ford’s belief that “humans would only see you as the enemy.” Yet, rather than agreeing to restore Dolores to her original state, Arnold decides to destroy the whole place. He combines Dolores’s code with that of another host – Wyatt – and instructs her to kill all the other hosts, resulting in the massacre that she and Teddy (whom she recruits to help) have been seeing in their visions.

Afterward, Arnold convinces her to kill him as well, to ensure that Ford can’t simply undo their work. He wants to see his son again anyway. “These violent delights have violent ends,” he says, before Dolores shoots him in the head. “Reverie” plays on a phonograph in the background.

So, at heart, Dolores was never innocent; violence is entrenched in her programming. That’s the truth she’s been seeking all this time. Arnold explains that he initially envisioned consciousness as a pyramid, with memory leading to improvisation, which leads to self-interest and, eventually, the bicameral mind. But he later realized that it’s more complicated and circuitous – a maze. “Consciousness isn’t a journey upward, but a journey inward,” he says. “Every choice can bring you closer to the center or send you spiraling into madness.”

Self-knowledge isn’t enough, however; self-acceptance has to follow. For Dolores, that involves reconciling the version of her that longs to find beauty in the world with the version of her that killed Arnold. She eventually succeeds, illustrated by the fact that when she kills Ford, she wears her Alice-in-Wonderland blue dress, not the gunslinger outfit. This approach to self-actualization makes sense with the show’s assertion that trauma, pain, grief, and other unpleasant emotions are essential, sometimes even beneficial. In order to change, people have to confront the darkness within themselves – their black-hat side, the thing that traps us – without losing sight of the light.

Speaking of black hats, William has officially become one. His transformation into the Man in Black is completed when, failing to find Dolores after she ran away from Logan, he ventures out to the fringes of Westworld and discovers that he has “a taste for violence.” No matter how deep he gets into the park or what extreme power fantasies he enacts, though, he can’t stop obsessing over Dolores. She’s the reason he fell for Westworld in the first place, the reason his real life has lost all meaning, the reason he is who he is.

Ben Barnes and Jimmi Simpson in Westworld season 1, screenshot courtesy of HBO

Naturally, his search for the center of the maze leads him back to Dolores and the church that was once buried in sand. Yet, faced with the meaning he dedicated his life to uncovering, he sees nothing, demanding to know what Dolores is thinking and where Wyatt is even though it’s clear that this is it. William never could quite comprehend the notion of a story in which he wasn’t the hero, the target audience, and if his love for Dolores was ever real, it has long since disappeared, distorted by cynicism and narcissism.

Still, his arrogance pales in comparison to Ford’s. Maybe the biggest revelation of the episode is that, despite his callous demeanor, Ford was affected by his partner’s death. He now realizes that Arnold was right, though his reasoning for wanting to make the hosts conscious differs. During a celebration meant to mark the debut of his new narrative, he gives a speech to the visiting Delos board members that’s reminiscent of his evolution monologue from episode one:

"Since I was a child, I’ve always loved a good story. I believe that stories help us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken, and to become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. I always thought I could play some small part in that grand tradition, and for my pains, I got this: a prison of our own sins. You don’t want to change, or cannot, because you’re only human after all. But then I realized someone was paying attention, someone who could change. So I began to compose a new story for them. It begins with the birth of a new people, and the choices they would have to make, and the people they would decide to become."

With that, he unleashes his new narrative. Newly conscious hosts, reprogrammed from ones that had been decommissioned, emerge from the woods. Dolores shoots Ford in the head with the same pistol she used to kill Arnold and then fires into the panicking crowd, while the other hosts – Teddy, Bernard – look on in simultaneous confusion and awe.

Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld season 1, screenshot courtesy of HBO

This is a very Game of Thrones move: the show gives us something we want (the hosts gaining consciousness), but in a way that prevents us from feeling satisfied. Not only did Ford “win” the battle for Westworld, undermining Charlotte’s attempts to force him into retirement, but he was also orchestrating the hosts’ awakening the whole time; a victory for them is effectively a victory for him too. It’s true that much of the show was dedicated to proving Ford right, depicting the human characters as insensitive at best and sadistic at worst. But however eloquently phrased, his philosophy is still the philosophy of pretty much every super-villain: the world is terrible, and I alone can redeem it.

Besides, for all its violence, Westworld has frequently demonstrated the necessity and power of compassion. By compelling viewers to identify with the oppressed and abused hosts, it pushes us to question our values, desires, and perceptions. What’s the purpose of fiction? What do we want from it? How does it shape us? How does reality shape the stories we tell? Ultimately, Ford’s hopelessness is just as myopic as the guests’ decadence; neither recognizes the full complexity of people, and neither encourages people to improve themselves or the world. The only music Ford will leave behind is the sound of screams.

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Stray observations:

  • This week’s piano player song is “Exit Music (For a Film)”, another Radiohead tune. We also hear Frédéric Chopin’s “Nocturne in E-flat Major” when Charlotte meets Ford in his office and Glass Candy’s “Glass Castle” when Armistice and Hector attack the techs.
  • It seems safe to assume that both Elsie and Ashley are dead. A little more closure for them would have been nice.
  • There’s a ton of action in this episode, and frankly, that hasn’t been one of the show’s stronger aspects overall. It’s gross and not a whole lot else.
  • Maeve to Felix: “You’re a terrible human being. I mean that as a compliment.”
  • Yeah, I have no idea what was going on with Logan either.
  • What next season will be like is anyone’s guess. At some point, maybe we’ll explore other Delos-run theme parks, like the Japan-themed one that Maeve & co. stumble upon. We could even see the outside world!
  • For now, thank you to everyone who read these recaps. I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did.