'Westworld' unlocks more mysteries in season finale

Review: 'Westworld' keeps your interest
Review: 'Westworld' keeps your interest

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Review: 'Westworld' keeps your interest 01:55

(CNN)This review contains spoilers from Sunday's "Westworld" season finale.

"Westworld," appropriately, had a maze at the center of its story, since its arcane and elaborate plot often resembled one. Yet while the HBO series departed from its source movie -- in ways both ambitious and occasionally frustrating -- the 90-minute finale seemingly circled back to it.
Showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (who wrote Sunday's episode, with Nolan directing) have incorporated callbacks to Michael Crichton's 1973 film during the 10-chapter run. In some respects, though, this "Westworld" came to owe as much of a debt to "Inception," the movie by Nolan's brother Christopher, as it probed ever deeper into levels of consciousness, and at what point the realistic robots (or "hosts") in the show's space-age amusement park achieve true sentience and life.
For committed fans, the show presented a kind of puzzle, with many of their theories explicitly validated by the exposition-heavy finale. That included the fact that the mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris) and the vulnerable park newcomer William (Jimmi Simpson) were the same person, several decades apart; and that the much-abused robot Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) had killed Arnold (Jeffrey Wright), the park's co-founder, who was plagued by doubts about the morality of what he and his partner were doing.
    By inviting those guessing games -- and actually building toward them in a way that at least partially rewarded amateur sleuths -- "Westworld" has picked up a proud tradition established by "Lost," another series that counted J.J. Abrams among its producers.
    Like that show, however, every mystery the finale unlocked left behind another unresolved one, and even opened up a few more. That includes the fate of Maeve (Thandie Newton), the host who began to lead a bloody revolt against servitude -- like the robots in the movie -- as she sought to escape into the real world.
    The closing moments, meanwhile, with the park overseer, Ford (Anthony Hopkins), essentially committing suicide by Delores in front of the board of directors, was emblematic of "Westworld's" willingness to take chances -- but also reinforced why its longterm viability is so clouded. What happens now, after all, if those slain people don't return to their privileged lives, unless the plan is to replace them with robot copies -- which, incidentally, was the plot of the original movie's sequel, "Futureworld."
    "In order to escape this place you will need to suffer more," Ford told Arnold's mechanical clone, Bernard. That promises a lot more violence, but doesn't offer much of a clue as to what comes next -- or instill confidence that "Westworld" won't write itself into a creative corner from which there's no satisfying reboot.
    Those misgivings, frankly, have somewhat undermined, or at least cast a shadow over, the show's considerable accomplishments. For starters, the cast was simply extraordinary, even more so considering the central premise -- that many of them were machines, who could simply be reset -- significantly blunted the drama, especially in the early stages.
    Similarly, the musings about how humans interact with artificial intelligence were surely provocative, but at times felt half-baked. The most interesting conceit remains how the writers flipped the whole idea on its head -- exploring how when freed of consequences, it's people (OK, extraordinarily wealthy people able to afford a ticket to the park) who become the monsters, not the machines.
    That "Westworld" invited all these questions explains why it's become perhaps the buzziest drama HBO has offered since "Game of Thrones," if not one apt to grow much beyond its dedicated core. (Like CNN, HBO is a unit of Time Warner.)
    Credit Nolan, Ray and company with refashioning an old title into something that felt both new and timely -- no small feat in an age of abundant revivals; still, the finale reinforced a sense that the program wasn't free of glitches -- or, necessarily, built to last.