Everything you need to know about Westworld's Two Timelines theory

You know a TV show has made it big when everyone’s talking about the fan theories surrounding it. In work, on the bus, in the supermarket - people are desperate to tell anyone who’ll listen what they think is going on. Westworld hit that milestone a while ago, but there’s one big theory in particular which is so shocking, so imaginative, so juicy… that it deserves its own article. Yes, the Two Timelines theory is Westworld’s Cleganebowl, and here’s everything you need to know about it.

What is the Two Timelines theory?

Westworld’s Two Timelines Theory is based on the idea that we’re actually seeing two stories, 30 years apart, playing out on screen. Obviously, with the way the series has been edited and presented (at least to begin with) we’re supposed to think it’s all happening at the same time. But as the show nears its season finale, more and more clues and hints have been popping up that... this simply isn’t the case. It’s very, very likely that we’re seeing two separate timelines. These are:

‘Present day’ timeline: This is the timeline in which we meet most of the main human characters - Theresa, Sizemore, and the Man in Black. Ford’s reveries are causing disquiet with the QA team, his partner Arnold is long dead, and he’s working on a new storyline that the board is not keen on. Also, sentient Hosts (Abernathy, Maeve...) are popping up making everyone nervous about the possibility of another critical park failure.

30 years ago timeline: This is the timeline where we see William and Logan first come to Westworld. The park is in it’s early stages of development and he meets Dolores who is already questioning her existence. Thanks to some encouragement from Arnold, Dolores is searching for the maze and William joins her in her quest. Teddy is causing mayhem at Escalante, and it’s all supposedly leading to that critical park failure which everyone keeps mentioning in the present day timeline.

Oh, and did I mentioned that the Man in Black in the present day timeline is meant to be William from the 30 years ago timeline, all grown old? Yeah. If you’re thinking that all sounds pretty interesting, but you need proof before you’re on board, read on...

As we know from Westworld episode 9, Bernard is a Host created in the image of Arnold. Ford specifically made him, and inserted what he refers to as “homages” to Arnold’s real life, like the death of his ‘son’ Charlie. The photo that Bernard looked at in episode 3? That shows Ford, Arnold, and the Host designed to look like Ford’s father standing in the middle of one of the park’s towns. When the big ‘Bernard is Arnold’ reveal happens, we get a whole host (pun intended) of suggestions that the season has been running more than one timeline. As Dolores explores the behind-the-scenes area beneath Escalante’s church, we see her clothing change as she walks through, implying that she has done this same walk before. The visions she sees of murdered Hosts and techs are disguised as a flashback, but we’re actually seeing her walking through the corridor for both the first and latest times. I say ‘latest’ because, well, it’s possible there are actually three timelines here. Or more.

You said 'possibly three timelines'...

Here’s the interesting bit. Bernard is a recreation of Arnold, brought to life by Ford, sharing his mind and personality traits, along with his appearance… But what if the early discussions we see between Dolores and Bernard (which take place in the same cell as Dolores rediscovers in episode 9, underneath Escalante church) are actually between Dolores and Arnold himself? The real thing. We know from Ford that Dolores is the oldest Host in the park, so she will have spoken to Arnold many times. We also now know that Dolores is the one who killed Arnold, as is revealed in episode 9. So, it’s very possible we’re seeing the story of Arnold’s death, which could exist as a third timeline that pre-dates the 30 years ago narrative. You keeping up?

So, why do you think William is the Man in Black?

Well, first off, the Man in Black and William have never appeared together at the same time. That’s a big clue, but TV editing as it is, this is far from conclusive. There are plenty of other characters that haven’t shared screentime, I know, but the reason this is particularly significant is because the Westworld we see William inhabit differs ever so slightly from the one we’ve seen the Man in Black traverse.

“There’s an awful lot about [the Man in Black] I’ve been asked not to discuss,” showrunner Jonathan Nolan has said, which - naturally - only makes us more curious. “You learn about who he is in the outside world, his past, why he is here and who exactly he is. He’s been coming here for 30 years. When he first came, he was not the man in black. This is a character he has assumed and developed over the many years he’s been coming to this place.”

While Bil... sorry, William, knows no-one and nothing about the park (prospective brother-in-law, Logan, has to babystep him through his induction), the MiB seems to know everyone and everything. He’s even on the board of Delos, the company that owns Westworld. In episode 8 he describes himself as a titan of industry, and talks about his marriage - a relationship that was severely damaged by his frequent trips to the park. We know William is engaged to Logan’s sister, and that this has significantly improved his standing in Logan’s company. It seems hugely likely that William’s growing infatuation with Dolores, and his dangerous obsession with the park - something that becomes very apparent in episode 9 - would lead him to use his business position to somehow own and control Westworld… which is exactly what the Man in Black does.

There’s another whopping clue in episode 9 that eagle-eyed fans will have spotted. The picture that Logan pulls out of his jacket, which shows his sister (William is engaged to her), is the exact same image that causes Abernathy and then Dolores to break their programming in episode 1. It’s very likely that the photo triggered a powerful reverie in Dolores, and that begins her next awakening.

Some fans even believe that think William’s actor, Jimmi Simpson, and MiB’s Ed Harris’s physical similarities are not accidental. Well, probably not.

Is there more?

Of course - but other differences are so small it’s easy to miss them at first. The best example of this is logo detailing: it varies enough to make us wonder if we’re looking at different times of the park’s history.

If you watch the first ‘young Ford’ flashback, you clearly see a different Westworld logo to the one in other episodes. Same when William and Logan first enter the park. Then there are the guns... Remember when William is hit by a bullet early in the season? He’s wounded enough to stagger and fall. When Teddy tries to take out the Man in Black in the opening episode, however, the shots don’t leave a scratch. Strange that weapons operating in the same park could have such vastly different outcomes, right? Unless it’s at different times in the park’s history, of course, when the gunplay has been revised and refined over the years. 

And when Logan slices Dolores open in episode 9. Yes, we know she’s an old Host, so her parts are mechanical, rather than synthetic… but when William massacres the soldiers later in the episode we see that they’re mechanical too. Given the aggressive redeployment of Hosts (for ever more realistic models) it just makes sense that we’re seeing an earlier version of the park, before the modern synths were created.

Next up, Talulah Riley’s character(s), who plays a big part in the Wyatt ‘end-game’ plot. We’ve seen her appear as three distinctly different characters in the show (thanks, Redditor shine_o), and in episode 8, the Man in Black states his surprise that management hadn’t “retired [her] by now.” Her first appearance is when she introduces William to Westworld, as he steps off the shuttle.

That could be one Host playing the same character over a matter of days, surely?

I see your point - it’s possible, I guess -  but I think you’re stretching. In Dolores’ flashback in episode 8, we see her recall a scene wherein Hosts were taught how to dance and move authentically, and that character was there, too. That suggests she’s been around for quite some time, and we know Hosts usually inhabit their narrative characters for longer than a day or two at a time.

And what about Lawrence? One minute he’s a family man being tortured by the MiB, the next he’s El Lazo, leader of a posse fighting the Federation army. While the stark difference in his portrayal of Lawrence and El Lazo could be attributed to changing host roles (after all, we know that Maeve has played several roles before ending up as the madam of Mariposa), how could a man who had literally been bled dry be so quickly repurposed as El Lazo? Surely we’re seeing the same host portrayed over different timelines courtesy of some crafty editing?

Whatever’s going on here, we’re hearing references to ‘30 years ago’ a hell of a lot. The MiB’s visits are 30 years old, Dolores is 30 years old, Arnold - Robert Ford’s original partner - died 30 years ago. Plus Bernard boasts that the park hasn’t experienced a “critical failure” for 30 years… Coincidence? Come on! Eh, guess we’ll find out on Sunday!


Part of GR+'s news crew, Vikki is a (jumpy) survival horror survivalist with a penchant for sci-fi, shooters, thrillers, and a strong cup of Yorkshire tea. A committed Guardian and Spartan, she's terrible at FPSs, but loves 'em all the same.
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