You know those shows you watch, the ones with lots of big arcs and mysteries that make you wonder if it's all headed somewhere, or if the creators are just making it up seat-of-the-pants as they go along? Battlestar Galactica and Lost come to mind as examples -- stories that delve into the metaphysical and create uncertainty about the nature of the reality experienced by the characters.
Usually, at some point, they give away their hand. The time for payoff arrives -- maybe for a plot thread that's run through one season, maybe for the series as a whole -- and you realize that they've been winging it.
That's not Westworld.
As I watched the first season, I kept worrying that I'd traveled this path before. Apparent inconsistencies and odd bits of presentation made me think, "Yeah, these pieces aren't all fitting together smoothly," or, "Huh? That seems like a mistake."
Westworld is one of the most carefully constructed television shows I've ever seen -- to such an extent that it almost commands me to write about it.
So here's a start, a taste of Westworld's oceanic depth of thought and planning. I'll try to avoid spoilers, but some of this will make sense only if you've watched the show. If you haven't, I highly recommend you do so.
Let's begin with a partial list of characters from the show.
Dr. Robert Ford
Theodore "Teddy" Flood
William and Logan are visitors to the park. William is a thoughtful, sensitive fellow who's hesitant about the attractions of Westworld -- the carnality, the violence. He meets and quickly grows entranced with rancher's daughter Dolores Abernathy, a synthetic "host" within the park. Logan, meanwhile, is a shallow thrill-seeker intent on making the most of Westworld's unbounded opportunities for self-indulgence.
What does the name "William" mean? Resolute protector. And "Logan"? Hollow.
Maeve Millay is madam at the town brothel in Westworld's main village. She's played with deliriously entrancing verve by Thandie Newton, and both her beauty and her personality magnetize the susceptible whenever she's onscreen.
"Maeve" means "she who intoxicates." Millay could be a play on "milady" -- or it could be a licentious bit of punnery, since "mille" is one-thousandth and "lay" is pretty self-explanatory.
Next, we get a little deeper. Robert Ford serves as creative director of Westworld, having created it decades ago with his partner, Arnold. The two of them invented and programmed the hosts who form the main attraction of the park, and while Arnold died tragically before the place opened, Robert has carried on through a career of genius and fame. Fittingly, "Robert" means famed, bright, or shining.
And "Ford?" A ford is a river crossing, a place where a journey can proceed from one side of dividing waters to the other.
Why can a river be crossed at a ford? Because the water there is low.
Bernard Lowe serves as Ford's right hand. Almost everything Ford achieves, Bernard enables in some way, through his technical wizardry or his stout, quiet loyalty. Like Ford, he's brilliant -- but he's about the least flashy genius you could imagine -- quiet, calm, and humble. That is to say, he speaks in a low volume, his behavior is low-key, and his ambition is virtually non-existent. As the series progresses, we find out how much he has endured over the years and how difficult he is to cow. This is where "Bernard" comes in. It means, "hardy, strong, or brave as a bear."
Now, if low water permits a Ford to do its job, high water might be expected to prevent it. But Teddy Flood doesn't impede Dr. Ford in the least. He's a square-jawed, simplistic character who plays the noble, long-suffering Romeo to Dolores Abernathy's Juliet. As one of the park's artificial hosts, he's completely under Ford's control. "Teddy" might even imply that he's a toy. So what's the significance of "Flood?" Well, midway through the season, the villainous Man in Black (Ed Harris) has an encounter with Dr. Ford, and when he threatens the park's master, Teddy Flood stops him.
Of course, a flood will prevent you from crossing a ford.
As for "Theodore," it means, "God's gift." Possibly, it's sheer coincidence that Michaelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" has an important moment toward the end of the season. But I really don't think there's a lot of coincidence going on in this show.
Finally, there's Dolores Abernathy. "Dolores" is an easy one, even a bit heavy-handed. Plenty of people will already know that the name means, "sorrow." And Dolores more than almost any other character goes through all kinds of hell through the course of the story. But what about Abernathy? Seems like just a handy name for a ranch family, with a bit of a quaint or old-timey ring to it. Nothing watery or river-y about it, right? Actually, as it turns out Abernathy is a place name. It means, "mouth of the Nethy River." Okay, there's a river in there after all! And the mouth of a river is where it meets the sea, right? Dolores repeatedly brings up a dream image she has, of a place "where the mountains meet the sea." She feels this place calling to her -- it symbolizes home and safety and some ineffable goal she can't quite understand. Holy cow, does the Nethy River flow through mountains where they meet the sea?
A little geographic Internet searching provided me with the answer. Now, like I said, I'm trying to avoid spoilers. Dolores is on a journey, and wants to find a place where the mountains meet the sea. If "Abernathy" pinpoints a place where the river Nethy flows through mountains and reaches the sea, that might give something away. On the other hand, if it flows through mountains and doesn't reach the sea, that's kind of foreshadowing too, isn't it? So all I'll say is, the Nethy is a river in Scotland that flows through the Cairngorm mountains.
It gets at least pretty close to the sea.
Is all this just my obsessive imagination run wild? Maybe. One of my searches while writing this turned up a name-based analysis of the show with some completely different interpretations and references. It could just be a fluke that four of the main characters have names that are water- or river-related, and that those names are descriptive of their relative roles and actions in the show.
But perhaps a greater point is that the show supports this depth of thinking. There's a huge amount going on in every episode, including tiny details that mean nothing the first time you watch an episode, but make your eyes bug out when you re-watch with an understanding of the season finale.
If you like entertainment that expects you to think, and you haven't already done so, you should check it out.