As everyone knows by now, there are two types of “Westworld” watchers: those who watch “Westworld” and those who investigate “Westworld.” The watchers aren’t trying to get ahead of the narrative. They aren’t looking for literary references in the dialogue. They aren’t dissecting facial expressions, tone of voice or physical gestures in frame-by-frame detail. They aren’t spending hours on Reddit threads positing various “Westworld” theories or having in depth conversations with the show’s IRL bot, Aeden (more on that later). To them, the reveal — spoilers, here and throughout! — that Bernard was a replica of Arnold was mere confirmation of the long-held “Bernarnold” theory.
In a TV landscape post-“Lost” and -“Mr. Robot,” “Westworld” creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, along with producer J.J. Abrams, are actively encouraging this obsessive behavior with online supplements, like its functioning Westworld park website, and by creating intricate narratives with multiple timelines. But not everyone has hours per week to spend decoding the show. Sometimes, like the park’s guests, they’d prefer to just buckle up and enjoy the ride.
For those who would like to upgrade their experience from watcher to investigator just in time for this Sunday’s 90-minuite finale and its attendant viewing parties, here’s a handy and exhaustive “Westworld” user manual. If applied correctly, upon finishing you will go into the first season’s final act with just as much information as someone who has dedicated 40+ hours to unraveling the show (that’s me, by the way — I did the math). Your transformation will be as seamless as William’s transition from white hat to black hat. Let’s get started.
While you’ve probably recognized a modern song or two playing on the player piano in the Sweetwater saloon, “Westworld,” which comes off as blissfully pseudo-intellectual, embeds a ton of other musical, literary and art references you might have missed. Here a few of the most noteworthy influences.
The Bard: “These violent delights have violent ends.” First uttered to Dolores by her father, Peter Abernathy, the park’s most dangerous phrase seems to “wake up” the hosts, allowing them to recall moments from past lives and jumpstart their journey towards consciousness. The words are pulled from Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet, of course, uttered by the Friar as he’s secretly marrying the doomed lovers. It suggests that all the sex and murder that goes on in the Westworld park will eventually have dire, bloody consequences. There are plenty of other Shakespearean references in “Westworld,” culled from King Lear, Hamlet and Julius Caesar, to name but a few.
The Vitruvian Man: Leonardo da Vinci’s man of ideal proportions serves as the basis for both the show’s logo, continuously popping up whenever hosts-in-process are cast in that milky white liquid. It alludes to the fact that the hosts are becoming more and more human, as well as the fact that they are somehow, in their flawless construction, more than human.
Alice in Wonderland: Dolores has been on a journey down the rabbit hole since Episode 1, and it’s no coincidence that her pale blue dress and blonde locks evoke the famous literary heroine. Moreover, Bernard is oft seen reading the book to his son. It also popped up back in Episode 3, when Bernard has Dolores read aloud from the book: “Dear, dear, how queer everything is today. And yesterday, things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night.” Hey, wasn’t that the same quote that Jack read to Claire’s son in J.J. Abrams’s other hit show, “Lost”? You bet it is.
The Gunslinger: Older “Westworld” fans recognized a blurry Gunslinger (as portrayed by Yul Brynner) from the original 1956 film lurking in the background when Bernard was poking around the park’s old offices in Episode 6. Nolan described it as “a tip of the hat.”
BioShock: It’s no secret that “Westworld” draws heavily from open-world video games like Grand Theft Auto, but Nolan and Joy threw in a more overt nod to their other favorite gaming reference, BioShock. Ford has a creepy model of a head in his office that bares an uncanny resemblance to the BioShock character Sander Cohen, an “artist” who prefers severed body parts to more traditional sculpture materials. If you want to get deeper into “Westworld”‘s video game influences, here’s a breakdown of what Nolan and Joy had to say about it at New York Comic Con.
“Reverie”: Often when a host is experiencing a reverie — that is, a memory-like recall of a past event — you hear the same classical song in various iterations. That would be a 1890 composition by Claude Debussy called, you guessed it, “Reverie.”
As previously mentioned, the creators of “Westworld” go to great lengths to encourage and ignite the sort of forensic fandom that extends far beyond its one hour of weekly programming. The first clue dropped outside the show came in the form of a tweet posted by the show’s official account way back in September:
Months later, its meaning became clear when Redditors noticed that the Westworld logo goes back and forth between two distinct versions throughout the show; this was one of the earliest clues that supported the popular two-timeline theory. Which has now, of course, been expanded to the four-timeline theory, or the multiple-timeline theory. You can read all about it here.
That tweet was a nice way to whet our appetites, but it was nothing compared to the Westworld website. Not only is the site, which futurizes a travel bookings website, brilliantly designed, it’s also a treasure trove of information, particularly in the impressively detailed terms and conditions. But wait, there’s more! If you use the login “violentdelights” you can read a bunch of Westworld’s internal emails; it looks as though the workplace drama was bubbling up long before Bernard bludgeoned Theresa. Then, of course, there’s Aeden, an extremely helpful Siri-esque bot… until you trying asking it existential questions or bringing up Arnold. Oh, and do check out what happens when you hold down the shift key.
How big is Westworld and where is it located? This one is still up for debate. Jonathan Nolan told Entertainment Weekly that the park is “within 500 square miles”; he also noted that the park could easily fit in the Western United States, which doesn’t really narrow it down. But he doesn’t “think” that’s where the park is located — and, for the record, nor does anyone else. Why would the staff have to rotate home if they were already here in America?
And what if Westworld isn’t on some landmass on earth as we know it? Remember, this is the future, and there’s no telling what we’re dealing with in the world outside the park. The biggest hint comes via the park’s website, which states that at the conclusion of their visit, guests must stay at a luxurious “decompression chamber” called the Mesa Gold, where they’ll regain the social skills required to live in the real world (i.e., a world in which murdering or having sex with every being you come across is frowned upon). But, assuming that nothing is happenstance when it comes to Westworld, the word “decompression” suggests that the park is located somewhere that humans can’t naturally survive. That has led some to believe that the park is on the moon, on another planet or even, wait for it, underwater. (Herewith we coin the term Westwaterworld.)
At first glance, the notion that this monstrous amusement park, complete with a climate-controlled biodome so advanced that it can mimic the stars in the sky, exists at the bottom of the ocean sounds ludicrous. But there’s actually some evidence to this: for starters, the website also states that the park is “off the mainland,” suggesting either an island or underwater. Plus, what was with all that water leakage in the cold storage where they keep retired hosts? And the last, extra nerdy bit of support is that BioShock, that major Westworld video game influence the show has explicitly alluded to, also takes place in an underwater city.
What does it cost to visit? The one-of-a-kind Westworld immersive experience does not come cheap. Guests pay $40,000 a day for all that gratuitous sex and violence. That means that if a guest is enjoying the maximum 28-day stay, they’re dishing out a whopping $1,120,000. The math does add up, though. It doesn’t take an economist to recognize that building and maintaining Westworld would cost a fortune each day; even with the exorbitant price tag, the park remains in financial turmoil. Also worth noting is that Westworld exists somewhere in the near future, so inflation factors into that figure. In the original film Westworld, which came out in 1973, it cost a mere $1,000 a day to visit the park.
Where are the park facilities located? In short, inside a mountain. Here’s a handy map:
If Mesa Gold is located on the top of the mountain, how come none of the hosts have ever stumbled across it? They probably have, but to them it would look like a plain old mountaintop. Their natural, or rather programmed, reaction would be to ignore it and move on.
How do the weapons work? Aeden has us covered in terms of how the firearms work. When you ask the bot about guns, it states: “Westworld wouldn’t be as thrilling if the guns weren’t loaded. Humans can be shot, but you are under no serious risk of injury or death; our guns feature low-velocity technology, which feels closer to paintballs than bullets. You will either get better at ducking or grow accustomed to the impact.” Of course, that’s still not reassurance enough for some guests (i.e., the Man in Black).
And what about the other weapons? When things are running smoothly, hosts are programmed to never significantly harm the guests using knives or other tools. Some hosts can’t even pick up certain weapons — we learned this back in Episode 5 when the woodcutter went AWOL and none of his comrades could chop wood to make a fire. When a guest enters the park, the intake host does an assessment of how much physical violence they wish to endure during their stay. That’s why the hosts are rougher on black hat veterans like Logan and The Man in Black, and more docile when it comes to novices like William.
This user guide wasn’t enough for you? Here are some other resources.
Vanity Fair‘s recaps: Joanna Robinson does a stellar job of recapping each episode at VF.com and breaking down theories in a way that’s entertaining and easy to digest.
Decoding Westworld: SlashFilm is known for its great TV podcasts, and Decoding Westworld does not disappoint. David Chen and Joanna Robinson touch on just about everything in terms of plot, theories and references. As an added bonus, they occasionally have writers or producers come on as guests (unfortunately, they’re really adept at skirting pointed questions).
Watching Westworld: The Watching Westworld podcast really dives into every crackpot theory and untangles references in minute detail. It’s a great resource for the truly nerdy.
Reddit: This is where all those crackpot theories originate. Here you’ll find everything under the sun “Westworld”-related. Some of it is brilliant, some of it is nonsense and some of it is just diehard enthusiasts making jokes that only other diehard enthusiasts will find funny, if them at all. Still, it’s ground zero for television fandom.