We're three episodes into HBO's Westworld, which means we should have a handle on this wacky Western theme park and the futuristic universe that surrounds it.
And yet ...
Just about every scene so far complicates rather than crystallises our understanding of the place, and the series is in no hurry to help us make sense of it all. You may find yourself with more questions than answers. To name a few: Who's the Man in Black and what's the maze? Who led Dolores to that gun and what's she supposed to do with it? What's the church that Dr. Ford wants to build? And who was that little boy he was talking to? Which of the supposedly human characters are really robots? Is Teddy the new Kenny?
On most shows, scenes fill in the blanks for us, painting a deeper, more intricate portrait of the world we're discovering. In Westworld, each revelation is more like a breadcrumb, leading us to a destination we can only guess at. And guess we do.
That's why Westworld is the ideal series for this moment, when speculation is becoming a national pasttime. Some viewers spend as much time on the internet theorising about shows as they do actually watching them. There are hypotheses even for series that don't intentionally foster speculation - that Don Draper is actually D.B. Cooper, for example, or that Gilligan's Island takes place in hell. Fans can start to sound like 9/11 truthers with their out-there ideas, but with Westworld, no conspiracy is too crazy. The show deliberately encourages wild flights of fancy.
That should come as no surprise. J.J. Abrams is an executive producer of the show, and one of his earliest claims to fame was Lost, which may have kicked off our modern obsession with theories. Meanwhile, co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan helped his brother Christopher hatch the ideas for mind-bending movies Memento and Interstellar. The show's creators have a keen sense for how much mystery a viewer can stand without losing interest.
is conspicuously enigmatic. A lot happened on Monday night's episode, but we don't yet have the context for any of it. We know that robots can injure humans, since one tried to take out Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) before violently self-destructing; we know that Westworld had a co-founder, who may be pulling strings from beyond the grave; we know Teddy's (James Marsden) new and improved backstory. But how these elements fit together and why the revelations matter remain mysteries.
Going into next week's episode, one of many popular theories was that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) is actually a robot. This week we saw him video chat with the mother of his dead son. Does that mean he's human? Or was his ex also a fabrication, created to fill in the gaps of his elaborate backstory? And if he's a robot, does that mean every "person" working at the park is a Dr. Ford creation? Each new morsel of information throws us deeper into the void.
There will no doubt at some point be a big twist. Television has become addicted to that trope recently, and not just on sci-fi shows like Mr. Robot. Even This Is Us, a network drama, can't help but throw in a few Sixth Sense moments.
Some viewers are getting critical of that practice, especially when there are too many curveballs. The end of the first season of Mr. Robot blew people's mind, but the second season twist was more of a yawn. Even a shocking revelation can be formulaic.
When the inevitable Westworld twist finally reveals itself, it may feel like a gimmick, too. But until then, it's all part of a game, and fans are more than happy to play.