This post contains spoilers for the most recent episode of Westworld.
For its first seven episodes, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) was the closest thing to an audience surrogate on Westworld—a troubled conscience stalking around in the lower decks of the vast virtual theme park he helps maintain. The head of Westworld’s programming department and the designer of the artificial consciousness that powers its android “hosts,” Bernard was the character who seemed most interested in exploring the blurry line between reality and fantasy within the show. So it’s hardly surprising that he turned out to be a robot himself—one entirely under the sway of the park’s increasingly terrifying creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) who’s been programmed to murder on command.
Many hardcore fans had guessed that Bernard could be a fake—a “host” unaware of his own artificiality—simply because the premise of the show demanded it. In a world where people and androids are functionally indistinguishable, what better twist than seeing how deep that rabbit hole can go? Beyond that, though, the idea that Bernard is as programmed as the Western characters he creates added a further layer to the show’s meta-text. If this is a show about the sameness of entertainment—the grim violence, and the sexual exploitation that so often seems to come hand-in-hand with it—then surely its creators should be part of the formula as well. To Westworld’s inhabitants, Bernard is like a god—but to the park’s real god, Robert Ford, Bernard is just another plaything following a script. Going forward, much of the show’s narrative tension will lie in whether Bernard can break free.
There were plenty of clues through the first seven episodes to help viewer guess at Bernard’s true nature. His tragic backstory felt almost perfunctory: He was haunted by the death of a child, whom viewers saw Bernard visiting at the hospital in suitably moving flashbacks. His interest in Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), one of the park’s oldest “hosts” and one showing the earliest signs of self-awareness, was almost pathological, a secret he kept from the other programmers. Most importantly, Bernard seemed trapped in the bowels of Westworld, constantly stalking its glass-lined office hallways, giving no hint of a life outside the park.
Bernard, it turns out, is a thrall of Ford’s, one whose reality can be as easily augmented as the characters he works on. When Westworld’s operations leader Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) shows him damning evidence of Ford’s hidden machinations, Bernard sees nothing at all—because he’s been programmed not to. His entire world is as curated as the one in the park, just in a more mundane, and thus more outwardly human way. Watching that dawn on Theresa (who later died at Bernard’s hands) was a brilliant, fourth-wall shattering moment, where Theresa suddenly saw the seams of Bernard’s experience and the external limits of his reality.
Ford has continued to argue that he’s simply fighting for creative freedom, to stop Westworld’s corporate owners from taking his technology and using it for more nefarious purposes (imagine the military applications of lifelike, flesh-and-blood constructs who can be made to look like anyone). Writing for The New York Times, Scott Tobias took the metaphor a step further and cast Ford as a maniacal Hollywood director, able to conjure his characters into reality and use them to violently battle studio interference. But it’s hard to believe that Ford is just interested in telling hackneyed Western tales. The sight of Bernard beating Theresa to death suggested something deeper, and darker, to be revealed in the last three episodes (though the show is coming back—HBO announced Monday that Westworld had been renewed for a second season).
This is the kind of twist a show can only pull off so often, since it disrupts the foundation of the show so extensively. While the humanity of the “hosts” is no longer up for debate, preserving their dynamic with “real” humans is crucial to Westworld. (Essentially, if everyone can be revealed to be a robot, then that fascinating tension between “hosts” and “guests” is lost.) Fortunately, the show plainly telegraphed the notion that something was different about Bernard—it helped earn the reveal, while suggesting it won’t happen again, since there’s no other obvious “artificial” candidate in the offices. It was also an extended version of the pilot episode’s “twist” about Teddy (James Marsden), who initially seemed like a human guest in the park but turned out to be a host. As Westworld nears its finale, there are plenty more prominent “fan theories” ready to be confirmed or knocked down, particularly concerning its overarching timeline, which has been kept vague.
But the show is the most thrilling when it’s concentrating on the fundamental humanity of its characters. Bernard’s reveal was shocking and memorable not only because of what it revealed about the show, but also because it left him with blood on his hands. Just like with the park’s other “hosts,” viewers know there are limits to Bernard’s programming, but also the potential for his mind to start expanding beyond them. His future as a “host,” and his chance for self-awareness, is much more compelling than his previous role as a befuddled naysayer within the programming department. Bernard’s soul, his morality, will be the real battleground for the next few weeks of Westworld, and it should make for a far more enthralling watch than a boardroom tussle or an Old West shootout.