Thandie Newton
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)

“Phase Space” isn’t a terrible episode. It’s also not a particularly great one. There are sublime moments here, exchanges of unexpected emotional depth and texture, and one not-hugely-surprising-but-still-pretty-nice twist. There’s also some of that time-jumping obfuscation that plagued us in the first season; yes, it gives us some sense of how the hosts perceive the world, but as a narrative device, it’s long ago lost its charm. My biggest problem with this entry is that I’m pretty sure it’ll play just fine once the whole season is out and I have cause to re-watch all of it in short order. The hour doesn’t work hard to establish its own identity, but that sort of thing works just fine when you aren’t judging episodes week-by-week.

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Unfortunately, unless HBO wants to just hand me the rest of the season at once or someone invents a time machine with a very narrow use, we’re pretty much stuck watching the show as it airs for now. Which means I have to judge it without knowing everything else that comes after; I have to look at its particular structure, try and see how it fits in with previous episodes this season, and think about what it implies for the future. And I also have to admit to being frustrated at an entry where a bunch of stuff happens, but very little of it connects, outside from the obvious “here is what’s going on with these regular characters in Westworld.”

What makes it so damn frustrating is that a little more focus and this could work so much better on an hour-by-hour basis. I understand that some viewers are bored with Maeve’s storyline, but it’s working well for me; and watching her finally find her way back to what she thinks of as “home,” only to discover that her “daughter” has been re-assigned to a new “mother” is pretty devastating. But then the Ghost Nation shows up and everything goes back to being random as hell. Maybe the Ghost Nation plot is going to go somewhere—hell, it almost certainly is—but while having the tribe show up at a moment of extreme vulnerability for Maeve, and then having that arrival turn into a conflict that probably didn’t actually need to happen, muddies the waters substantially.

I suppose I’m not being clear here, and this is an odd thing to point out, especially since most of Maeve’s time in the episode is spent tying off threads in Shogun World; and that has its own problems to deal with. Namely it’s that, in the end, Shogun World was a TV-show friendly idea in the way that Westworld seems otherwise intent on avoiding—a closed off narrative loop that offered some variety to a scenario, but didn’t offer up much in the way of fundamental change. Sure, Maeve discovered her mind control powers in a moment of high distress, but that could’ve happened anywhere, and spending so much screentime simply to remind us of how much her connection to her daughter has affected her by showing that connection through mirrored relationship seems unnecessary.

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But it might have worked if we hadn’t spent so much time on it. Or if the show was just better structured narratively, so that so much of it didn’t just seem like people (or hosts) bopping about and running into each other over and over until it’s finally time for something to actually happen. That’s why all this stuff about “episodic cohesion” is so important. Even if your show really is mostly just people bopping about etc, it works so much better if you can make sure each part of it feels like its telling a small but coherent piece of the whole. That’s why Lost’s flashbacks worked so well—it told viewers who each episode was “about,” so even if they were a bunch of scenes dealing with other characters that simply existed to make sure everything was in place for later developments, there was still at least the illusion that we were seeing one story about Jack or Locke or Charlie.

That’s doesn’t happen in “Phase Space.” The sudden arrival of Ghost Nation prevents Maeve’s story from any sort of catharsis or resolution, interrupting her in her moment of greatest distress in way that feels anticlimactic even though it’s visually exciting. If this had been a Maeve episode, wouldn’t it have worked better to pull out the credits when her former daughter greeted her new mom? While the end of the Shogun World story feels a bit like a shrug, it at least offers the kind of emotional momentum needed to push Maeve onward, and to see her reach her destination, only to be thwarted at the last moment—that’s good stuff. And it’s not completely ruined by the ending, either. It’s just not played for maximum impact, because, well, nothing inth episode is.

Not that everything needed to be. Seeing that Teddy didn’t get his brain erased so much as just… edited a bit? Felt like an interesting twist that will have more of a payoff down the line. The Dolores scenes, as well as the Stubbs scenes at the Mesa, exist large to remind us where these characters are, presumably because they’re going to come into direct contact next week when Dolores arrives to take her father back. And that’s fine. Having yet another tough-talking Delos security person show up doing the hyper-masculine shtick (at one point he even mocks Stubb’s first name, Ashley) is kind of uninspired, but hey, maybe that’s the point.

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We also got to see our first open conversation between William and his daughter, and it’s almost shockingly good; the two actors play off each other well, and it’s a pleasant surprise to suddenly have a relationship between humans actually be something worth caring about. (Unless someone wants to go to bat for Stubbs and Elsie, I guess.) It’s a relief to have someone call William on his shit, and Grace comes off as a worthwhile foil, setting up a conflict and a goal that will help drive both characters forward—something that William, who mostly seemed stuck in the same mode as last season, desperately needed. Then he ditches his daughter and his group gets suddenly attacked, because why not.

The other major storyline, and the one that gives the episode it’s legitimately strong cliffhanger—the sort of cliffhanger that will always pull me back in no matter how annoyed I get—has Bernard and Elsie going down to the Cradle, a storage system that Ford’s been using to hold off all of QA’s efforts to get the park back under control. Bernard has Elsie put him directly into the system itself, and it’s a little disappointing that the episode doesn’t try and make any more of this. He just rides the train back into Sweetwater, sees Dolores going through her usual routine, and goes into the saloon to find Ford himself playing the piano.

And that’s great! The more we learned this season, the more obvious it became that some version of Ford was going to pop up again, and I’m already looking forward to their conversation next week. There’s still a terrific story being told in the middle of all of this, and it’ll be exciting once the season is done to revisit and see where everything was going all along. But it’s immensely frustrating at times to watch something that is so clearly not designed to be viewed like this. Other episodes this season have at least tried to make some concession to how TV shows work. Could we get more of that, please?

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Stray observations

  • There was also the first scene, which initially appeared to be Arnold and Dolores having one of their conversations, before revealing that it was actually Bernard, and that Dolores was testing him for “fidelity” in much the same way William did with the Jim copies in “Riddle Of The Sphinx.” (Shout out to the subtitles here that spoiled Bernard’s identity immediately.)
  • The duel was as much fun as a sword fight to the death between two characters we barely know can be.
  • “Pain’s just a program.” The “brain” the Cradle takes out of Bernard’s head looks a lot like the device we saw him 3-D printing in his memory. I think it looks different than the usual host brains, but I could very easily be wrong.
  • “That’s the last of my mercy. Better use it fast.” Well, Teddy has definitely taken a turn.

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