Now that “Westworld” has completed its first season, we can all take a break from debating the meaning behind countless theories and story twists to discuss what really matters: The music.
Obviously, we’re all big music fans, and the usage of modern tunes in an Old West setting was a fantastic tonal and stylistic flourish that spoke to all three levels of the show — us as viewers, the guests as near-future modern people, and the world itself — at once. In the moment, this Jonathan Nolan idea keeps you pinned to your seat and the scene in a way not even the best orchestral score (which this show also has, thanks to Ramin Djawadi) can. But as the episode develops, we also see thematic and often wry reasons those particular songs were pulled — often at costs ranging from $15-55 grand!
It is very fun, and increasingly a trend in television shows. Smart teen shows like “Reign” and “The Vampire Diaries” — going back as far as the 2008 appearance of alt-rockers Muse during a Yale function in “Gossip Girl,” below — were originators of the time-bending musical trick. It’s powerful because putting pop into other contexts creates an atmosphere of “everything all of the time,” a palimpsest of meanings with, when it comes to orchestral arrangements, a decidedly old-world feel.
Think of it like Instagram filters: Nobody is going to be tricked into thinking your sepia-toned selfie with sushi actually took place in the Roaring Twenties — but anyone who sees it will understand, on a gut level, that you are providing emotional context: Nostalgia, a sense of legacy or history, and a general indication of your mental state at the time of the photo.
The player-piano covers in “Westworld” tell us that the guests in the park are basically just like us — choosing between white and black hats every minute but open to fantasy, wanting to be a hero, serving our id; most importantly, from our general time zone — while it also puts us into a guest-like role in comparison to the hosts: Those robots don’t know who Radiohead or Soundgarden are. We’re smarter than them, more aware of them — we’re conscious actors, and they’re just playing along like it’s no big deal. It implicates us in the central nasty questions of the series, from the first time we hear it, and it never stops.
Consider the easy imagery of the show’s opening, all leading up to a pale horse of the Apocalypse — and the only other repeated motif or arc in the sequence is that player-piano, which turns out to have been playing itself the whole time.
Those useless skeletal hands didn’t belong to a partially built host, as the other images in the sequence would suggest — they were ours, all along.
Episode 1, ‘The Original’
Tracks featured: “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden & “Paint It, Black” by The Rolling Stones
When we are first introduced to Dr. Ford’s vast park, we are taken from the train station to Maeve’s Mariposa Saloon, which seems like the first stop for both new and returning guests.
The first trick the series played on the audience was leaving us believing that Teddy wasn’t a host — like the rest of the highly privileged crowd that flocks to the grounds, we thought he too was looking to enjoy some lavish sex and violence, all in the name of escapism.
With the concept of escapism in mind, what better way to kick things off than to have the saloon’s piano play Soundgarden’s 1994 hit, “Black Hole Sun?” The track explores one man’s wish to be taken away into a dreamscape away from the harsh realities of everyday life:
Steal the warm wind, tired friend
Times are gone for honest men
And sometimes far too long for snakes
In my shoes, a walking sleep
And my youth I pray to keep…
And then, when Hector and his henchmen arrive in Sweetwater on their violent heist loop, the audience is invited to witness firsthand just how dark and brutal this world can get. In a literal and figurative sense, his posse comes in and paints the town:
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black…
Episode 2, ‘Chestnut’
Track featured: “No Surprises” by Radiohead
It’s probably worth noting now that Jonathan Nolan — co-creator of the series and again, the mind behind these little musical reveries — is a huge Radiohead fan. You’ll notice a multitude of the band’s tracks featured here– including the finale’s blockbuster, probably our favorite and most poignant of the lot.
“No Surprises” is the first track we hear, and it pops up in Episode 2 right at the beginning of Maeve’s storyline. She goes through a huge arc throughout Season 1, but in “Chestnut,” the host follows her narrative almost to a tee…
A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired, unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us…
I’ll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide
With no alarms and no surprises
That is, until she is hit with a remnant from her previous narrative and a memory involving her daughter’s murder quickly floods her mind. No surprises? How about one surprise, that changes everything — and the heartbreaking relevance of this song, Maeve’s theme in every sense of the word, as it tells us from the beginning the whole story: Maeve’s past(s), her present… And a very dark future.
Episode 4, ‘Dissonance Theory’
Track featured: “A Forest” by The Cure
Maeve’s previous narrative continues haunting her and with some newfound sketches she found — her own drawings of the Delos techs, in full hazmat gear — finds her questioning her surroundings, her life, her overall reality.
It’s the perfect scene for The Cure’s “A Forest” to be playing in the background. In the track, Robert Smith sings of a reality that may or may not be his own, and certainly describes Maeve (who gets more of these than anybody else; who, like the soundtrack itself, is a destructive blend of old and new, banal and unimaginable, eternity and eschatology, sacred and profane):
Find the girl, if you can
Come closer and see
See into the dark…
…I hear her voice and start to run
Into the trees, into the trees
Suddenly I stop, but I know it’s too late
I’m lost in a forest, all alone
The girl was never there
It’s always the same
I’m running towards nothing
Again and again and again and again
Maeve isn’t running through a forest, but from the start she’s running towards nothing… Again and again and again.
Episode 5, ‘Contrapasso’
Track featured: “Something I Can Never Have” by Nine Inch Nails
When William, Dolores and Logan found themselves in the town of Pariah, “Westworld” presented its much talked about orgy scene. But while the three dealt with their own separate issues, while also facing their own collective struggle, Nine Inch Nails’ track “Something I Can Never Have” played in the background.
Talk about irony: With a large amount of nudity, and various sexual acts transpiring around every corner, we’re shown a scene where William has trouble connecting with Dolores and his surroundings, Dolores clamoring to find her true identity — and Logan desperate to get William on his level.
You always were the one to show me how
Back then I couldn’t do the things that I can do now
This thing is slowly taking me apart
Gray would be the color — if I had a heart
And while the desperate couplings of those guests certainly evoke a sad association — Pariah is a higher-level game area; these people who spend millions to fill holes in themselves just by coming to the park still aren’t satisfied, and won’t be satisfied by a Pariah orgy either — there’s also something incredibly sad about those lyrics when we consider the story in its entirety.
We may have our issues with implications of Dolores’s journey and the origin story of The Man In Black — but from this angle, the foreshadowing itself is more heartbreaking than any amount of his tantrums moving forward.
Episode 6, ‘The Adversary’
Track featured: “Fake Plastic Trees” & “Motion Picture Soundtrack” by Radiohead
At this point in the series, it’s safe to say that Maeve has awoken and realized the state of her surroundings and the bigger picture at hand. “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead is the perfect accompaniment to the goings-on in her life. The track leads us into a scene which finds the host coercing a guest into a rough sexual encounter that leaves her dead… Again.
The lyrics are a metaphor in the song, but in the show? Not so much: “She looks like the real thing, tastes like the real thing: My fake plastic love” is pretty specific. But really, the whole song is another ode to Maeve: From the repeated refrain, “It wears her out,” to the “broken” and “cracked polystyrene man, who just crumbles and burns,” which applies equally to every character, human and otherwise — and of course the gorgeous falsetto on the song’s best moment: “Gravity always wins.”
In the song it’s a reference to the futility of surgical attempts to retain beauty — but when applied to Maeve and her narrative, it’s a much harsher truth still. No matter how high she flies, how far into her own maze she rises, how much of the bicameral mind she has conquered… In the end, gravity will win. At least for now.
After forcing Felix’s hand, Maeve is taken on a tour of the facility to witness first-hand how the sausage is made. A firm confirmation that her entire life has been a lie and her existence has been one really long movie narrative come to life for the sake of shallow amusement… Her barely recovered memories, the source and confirmation of her actual soul, are projected onto Delos’s walls as crass advertisements. Everything, not just the player-piano covers, are a motion picture soundtrack, because she is paper-thin:
Help me get back to your arms
Cheap sex and sad films
Help me get where I belong…
…It’s not like the movies
They fed us on little white lies
I think you’re crazy, maybe
I think you’re crazy, maybe
I will see you in the next life
It’s an emotionally jarring scene to watch — and “Motion Picture Soundtrack” by Radiohead acts as a nice companion piece to the images she takes in on-screen, and what we now know will be her next twist: Into the next life, and the one after that and the one after that… Until she dies enough so she can finally kill the Gods.
Episode 8, ‘Trace Decay’
Tracks featured: “The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals & “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse
There’s no turning back from where Maeve has been — and Episode 8 finds her back in the park with updated coding and a newly empowered perspective and plan. Clementine’s replacement only helps to fuel her vengeance — and as she puts the parts in place to lead an uprising out of the park, “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals plays.
The song’s lyrics, a lament for a wasted life of sin, are very on point, as is the textual connection back to “Black Hole Sun.” But there is an apocalypse hiding behind its complaints — “the ruin of many a poor boy” is exactly what Maeve aims to be — and a wry joke the show may not be making, at its own expense:
The song’s also the whinefest of a man who blames hookers for his personality defects, which we eventually learned was the plot of the season.
It takes some time for Maeve to regain her comfort in this new skin, but the power and majesty of her new code and abilities are made clear almost immediately. “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse hearkens back again to “Paint It, Black,” and brings in references to heartbreak, a woman bent on self-destruction, and animal yearning to replace something you didn’t know you were losing: “We only said goodbye with words, I died a hundred times” is beautiful wordplay on its own — and as ultimately concrete and literal as it is here, we’re left feeling along with Maeve the exhaustion and emptiness of Winehouse’s upfront description of a real and immediate pain.
She’s not going “back” anywhere — just resetting to her seat and mode of power; note how the music responds to her whims, just like everything else; just like Dr. Ford (Sir Anthony Hopkins) — and if you buy the show’s assumption that Maeve’s quest is ultimately a bad thing, you have the connotation there too: She’s going black, going dark. Taking us all down, driving us before her on a pale horse.
But if you, like we, see Maeve more here as finding power in the stark Desert of the Real — seeing through the lie of her surroundings with a philosopher’s ache, and all the power that results from that alchemy — then “Back to Black” is the only place she ever needed to go.
Episode 10, ‘The Bicameral Mind’
Track featured: “Exit Music (For a Film)” by Radiohead
Part of the final tableau, which nails every single character to the wall in a neverending flood of menace — and sometimes literally! — is watching Dr. Ford, the preeminent storyteller, present a farewell to everything he created, with the melodramatic and monomanaical flair we’ve come to expect. This literally is “exit music for a film,” of course.
But this particular Radiohead track was written for, and didn’t make it into, Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” — written after viewing the last 30 minutes of the film, and inspired by either the final double-suicide (spoiler!) or, we believe, this slightly earlier scene:
Dolores spends the first season with that gun to her head, often literally, and in the end she chooses to do something different with it. (“Chooses,” perhaps, being a loose term — Dolores and Maeve both have big question marks over their self-determination by season’s end, another disappointing but easily redeemed ambiguity.) Dolores is caught between two houses and the two loves that perfectly typify them — the host Teddy, and on a simultaneously brighter and vastly darker level, the human William.
But the “R+J” connection is, while interesting, beside the point. “Exit Music” may well have dictated the finale by its inspiration, so closely does the action, again, follow its lyrics:
Wake from your sleep
The drying of your tears
Today: we escape, we escape
Pack and get dressed
Before your father hears us
Before all hell breaks loose
Breathe — keep breathing
Don’t lose your nerve
Breathe — keep breathing
I can’t do this alone
Those are the happy parts: Maeve’s triumphant escape, Hector Escaton’s — note, again, the name — sweetness, Teddy’s relief that he isn’t the bad guy after all. Even the sickly nihilistic smiles of William and the more abused hosts, as the see the end of the world approach.
Sing us a song
A song to keep us warm
There’s such a chill, such a chill
You can laugh a spineless laugh
We hope your rules and wisdom choke you
Okay, sure. We get that.
Now we are one
In everlasting peace
We hope that you choke
That you choke…
…And there it is.
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, and every violent delight comes from, and leads to, violent ends. And as much as the show seemed to walk the line between glorying in its icky excesses, wagging the finger at base desire, and genuinely trying to tell a story with spiritual significance beyond the tricks and treats and ’90s meta-mindbenders, we can at least say this: The final song nails it, on every level.
It is both, just like the song, because every story is always both: This is a story of the oppressed uprising, and it is also a story of mass slaughter, and the end of the western world. It’s the story of abuse and its consequences and it is also the story of the destruction inherent to naiveté.
Change feels like dying because it is. Every revolution feels like terrorism when it starts, because the status quo protects itself with everything it’s got, including our bodies and our minds. And just like the song, and just like the show: We root for the new world, and mourn for what we’ve lost, every time things change — because that’s the only option we’ve ever had.
“Westworld” returns in 2018.