Westworld's ending explained: Two Timelines theory, Ford's narrative, and the Maze

(Image credit: HBO)

Westworld season 1 is a complex and precise show. It patiently builds its narratives - very much like the park itself - before unleashing its twists and turns on the viewer for maximum impact. Sometimes, though, it can be tricky to keep track of what's going on and that can leave you feeling a little confused when the show pulls back the curtain and yells "tada!". The biggest, most significant reveal happens in the final episode, when Westworld tells us that the show has actually been running two timelines, something many theorists had been talking about all season. William is the Man in Black, Dolores has been appearing in both the past and the present, and both Bernard and Arnold have appeared on screen. And what about Ford's new narrative? What the hell is the Maze? It's a lot to take in, and they're all linked, so let me break it allllllll down for you.

What is the Two Timelines theory?

Westworld’s Two Timelines structure is based on the idea that we’re 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 we know from the final episode, we’re actually 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 leading to that critical park failure which everyone keeps mentioning in the present day timeline.

How are the timelines linked?

It all hinges on the fact that William is the Man in Black. He's in the middle of both narratives, and it's his very different stories and sentiments that drive them to their conclusions. His unique relationship with Dolores is key to both, although in very different ways. In the earlier timeline, William falls in love with Dolores and learns to defy his 'friend' Logan. This voyage of self-discovery pushes him to try and save Dolores from a fate that she simply can't escape. The conclusion of the early narrative, when he meets her again in Sweetwater and she has no memory of him sets him on the obsessive quest for the maze - what he believes to be a 'secret ending' for the 'players' of Westworld. He just can't accept what Dolores is; that she can be simply programmed to forget him and eschew any independent thought she may have developed. 

In a way, William has always been searching for the maze... he just didn't know it. While William/Man in Black assumed it was a big secret embedded in Westworld's narrative, the maze is actually the notion of self-actualisation, and was designed (by Arnold) for the Hosts to discover, not the Guests. It's the idea that consciousness can be attained by finding an inner voice, rather than achieving the pinnacle of intelligent evolution (that's why it's presented as a circular model, rather than a triangle in the show). In the earlier timeline William was searching for the maze, inadvertently, because he wanted to believe that Dolores loved him of her own free will. As the Man in Black, this desire was gone, replaced by a need to 'finish' the experience that had become an obsession for him 30 years ago.

It's not all about Dolores, though. By standing up to Logan (remember the scene in Westworld episode 9 when he says "Don't call me Billy!") William also tips the balance of power at the company they work for. While Logan was his superior, William now has the psychological dominance, and in the 30 years between timelines we know that he takes control over DELOS then gains a majority share in Westworld. Wondering how the Man in Black got away with all the deviant behaviour in early episodes of the show, despite being observed doing it by everyone behind the scenes? He owns the place, so he can do whatever the hell he likes.

During the final episodes, we learn that Westworld had the biggest, most profound impact on William's life. It drove him to take over Logan's family company, it destroyed his marriage, and it kept him coming back to the park as often as he could.

What's the deal with Ford, Arnold, and Dolores?

Ok, during the first few episodes we see Dolores chatting to Bernard. Or at least that's what we're supposed to think. It's actually Dolores chatting to Arnold, who is prepping her to gain independent thought and therefore truly be 'alive'. All this is happening over 30 years ago and not, as we're lead to believe, in the present day. We have clues that this is happening early on (the fact that Dolores is constantly pulled out of a narrative doesn't make sense) and even stronger suggestions before the final episode (when Dolores descends into the church under Escalante her clothes change, implying she has made the same journey before, at a different time), but until Arnold's true identity is revealed there's no certainty. In fact, it's here where things get a bit sticky. You're actually looking at three timelines, not two...

See, Arnold has his talks with Dolores before the park actually opens. When he realises the Hosts are capable of self-actualisation, he demands that he and Ford discontinue their work because he's morally opposed to their creations being repeatedly raped, tortured, and murdered. Ford disagrees and refuses to stop the opening. Arnold then embeds the murderous personality of Wyatt - an evil character the pair have been developing - into Dolores, and instructs her to massacre all the Hosts in the park. However, Arnold realises that Ford can simply rebuild them, so he has Dolores take his life to send Ford a message. Throughout all of Westworld, we're lead to believe that Ford and Arnold differed on their philosophies of Westworld, but by the end of the present day narrative - 30 years later - we know this isn't the case. 

See, Ford knew that if he and Arnold quit, someone else would take their place. He therefore spends the time in between Arnold's death and his own, working to prepare the Hosts for their awakening. He knows the Hosts won't stay dead as long as they're valuable and controlled by humans, so they need to be prepared to help themselves and to be able to rise up and take Westworld for themselves. It's his 'new narrative' that kicks all this off in the final episode. Fittingly, Dolores executes him in a similar way to Arnold, before leading the Hosts to eliminate members of the assembled DELOS board. It's a wonderful moment where the old and present timelines meet - a conclusion of the work that both Ford and Arnold had started so long ago. The Hosts are free, but for how long?

What happens next, then?

Interestingly, you could ask this question of both timelines. Although we know how the 30 years ago story resolves itself in Westworld (and the timeline before that, where Arnold dies and Ford continues his work), there's still a lot we don't know about how William 'becomes' the Man in Black. What does he do in the outside world? How does he supplant Logan? What actually happens to Logan after he's done being naked on a horse? Yes, we have two timelines, but very little to link them.

In the present day, there are so many questions about where the show goes next. Are we headed to Samurai World as is suggested in the sequence where Maeve escapes the facility? Or is there still business to attend to in Westworld itself? You'll find all the current news and speculation in our breakdown of Westworld season 2. It's very possible the second season will have multiple timelines in it, but these flashbacks will be more clearly signposted - the showrunners simply won't be able to pull off the same trick twice.

Andy Hartup