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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Death and explosions and self-flagellation on a disconnected Westworld

Illustration for article titled Death and explosions and self-flagellation on a disconnected iWestworld/i
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)
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If you watch Westworld for the set pieces, “Decoherence” has got some humdingers for you. There’s Maeve, killing time in Nazi Land by murdering a bunch of, well, you know; there’s Charlotte, making her play to escape from the Delos compound after Serac’s take-over bid succeeds, climaxing in her busting out one of those big ED-209-esque robots we saw a few weeks back; there’s Maeve, interrogating a naked Dolores in that very special Westworld room where Dolores and Bernard used to have their chats; and, perhaps most spectacularly, there’s William beating various versions of his former self to death in a virtual reality take on group therapy. All of this and half a dozen more besides. Caleb and the real Dolores are off for the week (although we do hear Dolores on the phone), but everyone else makes an appearance, including Bernard and Stubbs at the very end, in a twist that feels less like a twist and more the result of someone throwing a dart at a board full of names.

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But then, that’s how Westworld’s plotting always tends to feel as it heads into the end of a season. (Did you know there are only eight episodes in season three? I didn’t until I looked it up just now.) There’s a weird sexless porn vibe to the structure, as characters group together in increasingly random combinations, sometimes seemingly entirely due to the fact that it hasn’t happened before. “Decoherence” isn’t quite as messy as the show can sometimes get, and Bernard saving William from the asylum just as William decides he’s going to be “the good guy” has some charge to it, so long as you don’t dig too deep. It’s just, nifty as the set pieces are, that’s the problem with basically all of this. For a show that’s supposed to be intellectually challenging, it’s weird how much of its Achilles heel is “more than thirty seconds of consideration.”

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Take that William stuff. It’s visceral and upsetting on a surface level, as William sneers his way through his increasingly hellish time in a madhouse, watching his therapist kill herself after she gets her profile info (this is very well shot by the way), and then getting stuck talking to all the different iterations of the Man In Black to appear on the show, including a new one: little boy Billy, who had a Troubled Childhood. It’s neat to look at, but it still tells us absolutely nothing interesting or new about William, because there really isn’t anything interesting or new to tell about William. His speech about how humanity exists to destroy itself is supposed to be chilling (they even play scary music), but there’s no shock value in it. I’ve been hearing similar speeches from shitty villains in shitty genre movies for the past thirty years.

As for the virtual reality group therapy… Eh. It looks neat, and you can feel them straining to make it profound, but the point is, again, “William is basically kind of a shit.” There’s a feint towards giving him a past with an abusive father, only the show tries to subvert that by revealing that William was just a bad kid; he beat somebody up for insulting him. Even the subversion falls flat. There’s nothing to find in any of this, no revelation that’s going to make William actually worthy of the performance Ed Harris has been giving. Maybe him deciding to be a good guy will give him something to do, but the character should’ve died at the end of the first season. Bare minimum, he should’ve been gone after killing his own daughter in season 2.

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Westworld is stuck in the strange position of being simultaneously too short and too long. With more episodes to develop Serac’s world, and Dolores’s scheming, and Maeve’s efforts to play between them both, the story could’ve been richer, less a Cliff Notes version of itself. And if this had been trimmed into a three-episode arc, the writers would’ve been forced to edit out all the cul-de-sacs they wander into in order to keep things serialized and fill out a full (if shorter than usual) season. Compromising between the two, we’re stuck with arcs which are at once under-developed and belabored, sacrificing narrative momentum for slow, measured pacing, but without the depth or texture that slowness tends to bring. A lot happens in “Decoherence,” and some of it actually matters. But the pulpy rush of the first part of the season is muddled and intermittent now, firecrackers popping in a haze of smoke, illuminating everything in an instant even though there’s nothing to see.

Maeve was killed in the episode before last. Instead of just building her a new body and getting on with it, she has to meet with Serac again, where she demands helpers; then it’s back to Nazi World, which I guess is a staging ground for her consciousness while they rebuild her physical form. When Serac takes over Delos (all that time spent trying to stop him, and he just does it), he gets access to other host brains, so he gives Maeve Hector. But Charlotte kills Hector in the real world before he and Maeve can get new bodies, so what, exactly, was the point of any of this. Maeve does end the episode with someone to back her up—maybe faux Lee is getting a chance for his big break?

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The meat of the action is Charlotte (I’m just going to call her “Charlotte” now and assume you know what I mean; if the actual real Charlotte comes up again, I’ll mention it) trying to placate Serac just long enough for her to download the Delos host data and flee with her estranged lover and son. She almost makes it, only for a Serac thug to blow up her car with handsome man and innocent boy inside, roasting her a bit and, presumably, giving her a reason for vengeance.

It’s possible to pick out the actual meaningful story threads here, possible to imagine a version of this where it all works well. This Charlotte has potential as a character, Serac is a memorably ruthless villain, it’s cool to see robots fuck shit up. But over and over again, the show stutters and circles around its ideas, vamping for time while making it harder and harder to care what will happen next. Maeve has a conversation with Dolores, and nothing of particular interest is said. Bernard and Stubbs rescue William from the asylum, because… I honestly have no idea. Because it would have made even less sense if Caleb did it?

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Shows need to feel like they have a coherent world, because that coherence lets the viewer fill in the gaps (or just assume the gaps are filled). It’s not that writers need to explain everything; they need to artfully explain enough so that what we see gives us the impression that there’s a vast edifice behind all of it. They have to create the context their stories exist in, in order for those stories to be more than just a series of incidents that happen and then, eventually, stop. Westworld is hit or miss at all of this—more effective when it was stuck in Delos, even as it grew cramped and repetitive, but it still managed to work at the start of this season, as it leaned on momentum and our familiarity with certain tropes to carry itself forward. But now that it’s reached the point before the point where something actually happens, the momentum falls apart. It’ll play better in the binge watch, I’m sure. But lord help those of us stuck watching week to week.

Stray observations

  • William’s asylum is very weird. I guess it’s breaking down because the rest of the world is, but since we have no idea what it looks like when it’s actually working smoothly, I can’t tell if it’s a hellish prison for a society that doesn’t understand how to treat the mentally unwell, or a nice place that William is a jerk in. (When they’re installing the mouth guard that’s supposed to manage his AR treatment, there’s a bit on the computer about finding an “unknown protein” in his blood, which may come up later, unless I completely misinterpreted it.)
  • Serac realizing Charlotte is a fake because she’s too concerned with her son should be a great moment, but it’s like reading about a great reveal in an episode summary. I’m not sure why, exactly, although I would’ve liked more time seeing Charlotte struggling with her growing attachment to her “real” life.
  • Are all the profiles bad? Like… did no one get a “People like you, you’re doing okay, you’ll get that promotion, retire on time, probably die in your sleep.”
  • I really can’t get over how hilariously uninteresting William’s backstory is. Like… it would’ve been a cliche to find out his dad was openly abusive and hateful, but it at least would’ve had some emotional charge. Circling back for the umpteenth time to his obsession over his autonomy is just so, so silly.
  • “Seriously. This is what happens to me.” -wee William. (I laughed.)
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