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How ‘Westworld' used Shakespeare, O'Neill for your burning questions

Anthony Hopkins channels Shakespeare's Prospero in the

Anthony Hopkins channels Shakespeare's Prospero in the "Westworld" season finale. Credit: HBO / John P. Johnson

“None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.” — Eugene O’Neill


Because Sunday’s season finale of “Westworld” -- "The Bicameral Mind" --wanted to go on a long day’s journey into night, let’s all go there in this finale analysis, too, shall we? The quote above is Mary Tyrone, from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” who, in a fog of morphine, offered the one true thing she knows — that life’s tragic futility is about going around and around, until you stop to realize there’s no “you” anymore. You’ve become dehumanized, just part of a cycle, on endless repeat. Death is an escape from your personal tragedy — or our personal tragedy — because we all know that we are such stuff as dreams are made on, anyway, and that our little life is rounded with a sleep.

Sure, there are plenty of diversions that keep the horror of this core truth at bay — morphine for Mary, bourbon for the rest of the Tyrones. And for the “hosts” of Westworld, there’s a memory chip that resets every time they die. If they can’t remember anything, then they have no memory of their plight - or fate. And “die” they will because as Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) explains, “all these violent delights have violent ends.”

Phew, and . . . apologies. That was some kind of finale, no?

Stuffed with enough literary allusions to keep armchair lit sleuths busy until next season, two key plays shaped the finale, and — in a sense — the entire first season, too: “Long Day’s” and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Westworld’s creative overseer, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) — fully aware of the “Romeo and Juliet” cautionary line (see above) — has named his new narrative “Journey Into Night,” channeling his love of Eugene O’Neill and the futility of human life into his one final play, or “narrative.” Spoiler alert: He won’t live to see it unless he also turns out to be a cyborg.

His choice of title suggests, however, that its ending is not foretold, but open-ended, also bleak. By bestowing free will to the hosts (the cyborgs) in the new narrative, its outcome remains uncertain, or unknown. Robert may be suggesting that if the “hosts” are allowed to divine their own fate or write their own story, then this new narrative (the second season) may well become a long day’s journey into night. The bloodbath is just beginning. Even the walking dead can’t match an apocalypse of this potental magnitude.

If all this sounds ominous, or pretentious, then that was both the fault of the finale (“The Bicameral Mind”), and the virtue. Showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have deployed some big, interesting, intellectual ideas here. But fans were left wondering whether those will actually lead to something, or whether Nolan and Joy are just playing with those big interesting ideas — “playing” as opposed to actually enriching, or developing.

Based on the first-season wrap, an argument could be made for either. At an hour and a half, “The Bicameral Mind” was fully loaded to explore every idea from the first season, also to complete every plotline or to answer every hanging question. It was sprawling if not quite bloated — occasionally beautiful, like the scene when Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) speaks to her alter-ego, who represents her innermost consciousness, or improbably funny, like Charlotte Hale’s (Tessa Thompson) fine critical kiss-off at the end of the beach scene, which was also a promotional setup to next season’s narrative.

“That was sweet.”

Or: numbingly violent. Violence remains “Westworld’s” Achilles heel, and the best reason to turn away, or turn it off. There are endless cycles of violence, real blood, fake blood, real death, fake death. It’s all there and, like all televised violence, has become part of the scenery, without meaning or context. That’s part of the idea — violent delights lead to violent ends, after all — but it has also turned “Westworld” into that which it cautioned against. If an “entertainment” like a Western theme park is designed to exploit the customers’ basest instincts, then what does that make the TV show about the theme park? Same difference?

“Westworld” still managed a reasonably satisfying first season finale because “The Bicameral Mind” really did work through some major questions — Who is Delores, and “Arnold,” the Man in Black, or what is that much sought-after maze? — which turned out to be nothing much more than “Rosebud.”

Meanwhile, those big ideas floated past, occasionally threatening to turn all this into a seminar — or bowl of congealed oatmeal. But like any good “entertainment,” “Westworld” knew when to pull back the curtain at just the right time, or with just the right line. That scene on the beach was the best example (and also that best line). Delores to Teddy (James Marsden): “The beautiful trap is inside us.”

That was the cue to O’Neill — that life’s futility is born of each person’s fatal flaw, which is the unwillingness or inability to break ranks with the self. We’re all (or the Tyrones) a product of all the bad breaks, bad decisions, and bad genes, and bad booze that shaped all those parents and grandparents who came before.

Besides O’Neill, “Westworld’s” true bearing is Shakespeare, specifically “The Tempest” — which was, so to speak, Shakespeare’s last “narrative,” too. As we dimly recall from our high school English class, Prospero — Hopkins’ Robert Ford — was the rightful duke of Milan, until usurped by his greedy younger brother. But confined to a desert island, he assumes full control of his own world, and his own fate — in part by confining others, or enslaving others, or by using magic to determine the fate of others. However, Prospero’s island is to a certain extent a self-creation of Prospero’s, and also a prison of his own making. As you may also recall, he can’t escape it — or the play — until the audience literally frees him with applause.

That was essentially the fate of Robert Ford on Sunday.

Robert — you’ll recall — speaks of the permanence of art, and the innate human “desire to create something of lasting beauty.” It’s the gift of the gods, or God, he added, and its purpose is “something deeper, or hidden, perhaps a metaphor.”

Delores: “You mean a lie.”

Yes, Delores, exactly.

Along with humanity, Arnold (Wright) has conferred immortality on Delores, but with that comes its own curse — that endless repetition, also the endless cycle of suffering. Arnold, in losing the son he never really had, understood the true essence of the human torture rack — that to suffer is to be human, or more fully human. Thus, he gave Delores a game to play — the little handheld maze — that once solved would give her the gift of this bleak and terrible realization. She too would then become human and — like Frankenstein, or Prospero, if the audience neglects to applaud — also suffer forever.

Anyway, there’s your setup for the second season, which will either collapse of its own weight, or take us on enlightened excursions through other literary landmarks. Faulkner and Beckett sound like fun, no?

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