Tony Black on why online theorising is a blessing rather than a curse…
So have you watched Westworld yet? Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil the season finale for you if you haven’t. Though to be honest it’s possible you may have already guessed one or two of the major reveals and twists within, if you’ve been reading articles online, dipping into fan websites or listening to podcasts analyzing the show (my personal choice is Beyond Westworld). A recent article by Todd van der Werff on Vox questioned whether such ancillary exploration of the most popular TV shows or movies was a good thing in this new Golden Age of entertainment, suggesting perhaps our enjoyment of such shows is being ruined by the constant, consistent decryption of every plot development and twist. His argument hinges around how by doing this we may be missing the point of what the creators of shows such as Westworld are looking to achieve. It’s a well-written argument that for many holds weight, but there is another angle to look at things.
If we’re talking Westworld, perhaps the parallel can be drawn with Ed Harris’ Man in Black. For much of the season, we’ve seen him as essentially a hardcore gamer in this advanced augmented reality park, someone who has effectively collected all the trophies, unlocked all the achievements and is now seeking a transcendence from the park and game he’s convinced exists. His end game is the ultimate ‘level up’. If you look at TV or movie theorists, can the same not be said in some respects for them?
Now I count myself as a theorist, someone who enjoys digging deep for answers and hidden meanings in entertainment and media. It’s why I love computer games such as Assassin’s Creed, a series which rewards deeper exploration of the game world to construct an overarching picture of a bigger narrative. It explains my deep love of The X-Files and its dense alien mythology, of Alias which contained the fascinating, central Rambaldi mythology despite the popcorn B-movie silliness of the storytelling, and latterly of Lost which perhaps remains the ultimate online reward for deep dive theory, remaining so even six years after it ended. These are worlds constructed to reward people who want to look beyond the surface.
Van der Werff’s argument partly revolves around the intentions of the creators. He cites Westworld as a show that was never meant to invoke such a deep level of theory and search for meaning, with Jonathan Nolan ultimately wanting to place us in the position of the Hosts understanding their situation. Whether or not that’s true, he fails to understand many viewers actually *want* to be the Man in Black, and see such a pursuit as something which vastly heightens the enjoyment of the series as a whole. As a listener to Beyond Westworld honestly, I’d heard a lot of the plot points and twists that season one delivered through that show. Not as spoilers, far from it, but rather the net result of piecing together information we already had, going right back to the pilot, and taking logical next steps.
When those theories paid off, rather than feel frustrated at knowing in advance or having an idea, personally I just punched the air in excitement – not for the fact I guessed correctly (any theory I held to wasn’t created by me), but simply because I was excited to see a plot development or character twist I thought would make for fantastic TV come to life. In terms of Westworld‘s season finale, it did. Some beats I saw coming, some I didn’t, and by the time of that marvelous cliffhanger, I was on the edge of my seat. Whether or not Nolan intended me to feel that way, whether he wanted us to approach the series more from a character perspective, I felt enriched by deep diving, exploring, playing the guessing game. Do I get that with, say, Luke Cage or Vikings?, both shows I like? Not even close.
Like most things in terms of online media, it comes down to personal preference. Some people want the experience of theorizing and exploring a show, some don’t. Some want to go in cold and let the surprises wave over them. That’s fine. That’s more than fine, to many that makes sense, and woe betide anyone who actively goes out of their way to ruin their enjoyment by happily spoiling plot or character twists on social media. Those people are as a big a barrel of dicks to me as they are to you, believe me. There’s just a major difference between spoiler trolls and the kind of people who want to chase those deeper secrets, those hidden meanings, those theories about plot beats or character moments.
As a theorist myself, I can honestly say it’s a blessing, not a curse. It’s not for everyone, but for some it can provide that level up for a TV show or movie which rewards such analysis. By the end of Westworld, I myself found like I’d reached the heart of the maze and, man, it felt so great.