SPOILERS FOR WESTWORLD SEASON 2
(Vague Spoilers for Game of Thrones) I’ll never forget one specific thing that occurred while watching the seventh season of Game of Thrones with a friend. This involves one scene where a magic, all-knowing character speaking to a backstabbing villain who has many secrets. The villain says something about how the world is full of chaos, to which the magic/all-knowing character says, “Chaos is a ladder.”
My friend didn’t say anything, but I immediately perked up. “OH!” I exclaimed, “[The villain] said that in a private conversation way back in Season 3.” And that was a moment when I realized there was something in between fan-service and simple well-crafted dialogue. Namely, call-backs. And this seems to be something HBO shows love doing, because their other flagship program, Westworld, is absolutely rife with it. In this post, I will be discussing a handful of examples where Westworld‘s backward-referential dialogue pays off tremendously.
There’s one example of this I truly adore which involves the premieres of the first and second season. In the first episode of Westworld, head of security Ashley Stubbs and head of programming Bernard Lowe are investigating something in the depths of the corporate headquarters only to find a mysterious android in a room by himself. When Stubbs draws his gun, Bernard brings his attention to the fact that their boss, Robert Ford, is in the room with the android. He tells Stubbs: “Stop – unless you want to decomission the boss.” It’s a useful moment in the show’s pilot episode to indicate character – Stubbs is the loose cannon who thinks with his gun and Bernard is the level-headed bookish guy who takes a second to think about what’s happening.
Fast forward to the second season opener, and we watch as Bernard is confronted by a Westworld Corporate employee with a gun. And who intervenes? Stubbs, who rebukes the employee, saying “You gonna shoot the boss?” while referring to Bernard. It’s a neat moment. Stubbs is a character who doesn’t get a crazy amount of screentime or development, so this a nice, subtle way to show that he’s changed since everything started happening.
Additionally, Season 2 has a scene in the Shogun World section of the park where bandits rob a geisha house while a classical Asian composition of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” plays in the background. If you’re a frequent watcher of the show, this will no doubt feel familiar to you as it deliberately calls back to when Hector and his bandits robbed the Mariposa brothel in Season 1. This fills the (repeat) viewer with a sense of Deja vu – as though they’ve seen this kind of thing before. Which is pointed out by the characters involved in the scene.
Critic Sage Hyden (of the YouTube channel Just Write) suggests that this similarity from episode to episode is actually a meta-commentary on the loops that the androids live through. This puts the viewer in the hosts’ perspective.
And this phenomena works going backwards, too. After rewatching the second season, there are more lines that read an entirely different way. During a tense meeting, Ford tells Quality-Assurance-Theresa: “We know everything about our guests, just as we know everything about our employees,” which, when I first heard it, I read as a suggestion that Westworld Corporate does their research and background checks on everyone. But once you see the second season, you know that that’s a sly reference to the fact that Westworld has an extensive surveillance program. That one line becomes much more unsettling with time.
Dialogue is important, but so is cinematography. A viewer can see similar callbacks in this way. The first episode opens with the below shot of Dolores, which we are reminded of a few episodes later, when an episode profiling Maeve opens with a similar shot.
One very cool aspect is that the second season has the subtitle “The Door” – just as the first season has the subtitle “The Maze.” The final shot of the second season is Bernard walking through a door, which is symbolic of him going out into the wider world, reaching consciousness, and making his own decisions. (Big fans of the show probably know where I’m going with this.)
Bernard’s most shocking moment of the first season comes in episode 7 where he (and the audience) discover(s) that Bernard is an android. He and Theresa are investigating an abandoned building at the edge of the park, and he mentions that it’s not on the park’s map because the hosts (who are programmed to ignore the building) are the ones who map the park; they wouldn’t’ve noticed it because they’re programmed not to. Theresa then says, “I wonder what’s behind this door?” To which Bernard famously responds, “What door?” In that scene, Bernard can’t see the door because he’s an android without consciousness, and in the final scene of Season 2, he walks through the door because he has consciousness. What an awesome moment!
I could go on and on. Westworld is not a perfect show, but it becomes more and more apparent that the dialogue is impeccably-written and distinctly forward-thinking. Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, and the other screenwriters don’t just write the dialogue, they meticulously construct it. There are probably ten or fifteen more examples of some seemingly minute dialogue (from these first two seasons alone) that was echoed later on, or foreshadowed something else. And I’m sure as Westworld goes on and on, there will only be more such moments. But I’d like to conclude with what is perhaps my favorite.
It involves Lee Sizemore, who for about 15 of the 20 episodes was one of my least favorite characters on the show. He was rude, whiney, and entirely irredeemable. Until he wasn’t.
In the second half of Season 2, he becomes more and more interesting as he helps Maeve and others get to the Valley Beyond.
During the first season, he works as an employee in the Narrative department, writing dialogue and patching holes in the story. In this pilot episode, he has been working hard to fix a gap in the story. The scene he has written involves Hector’s group of bandits (the same ones mentioned above) robbing a brothel and fighting off the local law enforcement. Watching the situation unfold from corporate headquarters, Lee informs his co-workers that he’s really punched up Hector’s speech – but Hector is killed before he can give the speech, much to Lee’s disappointment.
In Season 2, when Lee is traveling with Maeve, Hector, and the others to get to the Valley Beyond, they find themselves in a firefight with Westworld Corporate employees. Hector is about to sacrifice himself to save the others, and he begins the speech, but then, Lee stops him, takes his gun, and marches towards the employees while giving the speech that he wrote for Hector:
“You wanted me? Well, let this be a lesson! And the lesson is; if you’re looking for a reckoning, a reckoning is what you’ll find. If you’re looking for a villain, then I’m your man. But look at yourselves! This world you built is bound by villainy. You sleep on the broken bodies of the people who were here before you. Warm yourselves with their embers. Plow your bones into your fields. You paid them for this land with lead, and I’ll pay you back in full! You wanted me? Well all I can say to that is here I fucking am!”
Wow. What a badass. This is such a cool moment – it’s a payoff from the first episode, and also a milestone for the character. Lee started off as an annoying, irritating, whiny brat of a character, but by the Season 2 finale, he has grown into an interesting and self-sacrificing character who gives badass monologues as he gets gunned down. This amazing moment is made even better by the way it mirrors the first episode.
Luckily for Westworld, they might have the most devoted fanbase in the world. While the first season was ongoing – during a brief ten weeks – the fans watched and rewatched and rewatched and rewatched the episodes as they happened, and quickly formulated an elaborate fan theory that the show was telling two chronologically separate stories and that William and the Man in Black were the same person WHICH TURNED OUT TO BE RIGHT?! Are you kidding? That’s amazing!
While I definitely think that it’s important to be watching media you haven’t seen before, rewatching one show, over and over, can often enrich the experience. This is especially true on a show like Westworld, where the creators are keeping these kind of attentive-and-repeat viewers in mind. And in that way, Westworld is the perfect show for the age of binge-watching and internet speculation. Westworld may or may not age well with time; but one thing that becomes abundantly clear is that it is most definitely the show for this cultural moment.