In its first episode, Westworld spent the majority of its time focused on the inner workings of the amusement park that gives the show its name. What time we spent with guests outside of Ed Harris’s Man in Black was minimal, and the Man in Black is such a curious figure that he hardly counts as representatives of the park’s regular clientele. “Chestnut” follows several of the characters we met last week, teasing out certain storylines and introducing others, and it also spends a decent chunk of its running time on a pair of outsiders: William and his asshole co-worker. The asshole co-worker has a name, but the guy is such a blatant stand-in for “Generic Alpha Male Type” that I’m not sure he deserves one.
William (Jimmi Simpson) is slightly more compelling, if only because at this point, it’s still unsure if he’s going to be the fundamentally decent guy struggling in a world of temptation, or a nebbish who uses forced decency as a shield to cover for his own darker desires. He spends most of his on-screen time being fascinated but slightly confused by everything, and more than a little embarrassed whenever the park makes one of its attempts at seduction. Those attempts aren’t particularly subtle, but that’s reasonable; when people pay money for fantasy, they usually expect the fantasy to come to them.
It’s arguably necessary to spend some time with the guests; at the very least, not doing so would be leaving a huge narrative well untapped. And it’s not as though William and his asshole co-worker’s plot is terrible. It’s just blandly functional in a way the other storylines have managed to avoid. There are elements of cliche in all of this, of course. It’d be pretty hard to do a TV show about robots slowly developing a consciousness without checking a few familiar boxes, and for all its charms, Westworld hasn’t shown much interest in being completely original. It is, after all, a remake. But that’s one of the reasons it’s so entertaining to watch, at least for folks (myself included) who have a soft spot for this sort of narrative. Asking questions about what makes us human while slowly building towards terrifying chaos? Yes, please.
There’s something satisfying in watching such an obvious In The Company Of Men routine play out. (Plus, if you’re familiar with the original film, this is like a meaner take on the relationship between Richard Benjamin and James Brolin’s characters.) It’s useful to get a clearer sense of how Westworld actually works for the paying customers, showing us how people are brought into the park, and then suggesting how various hosts offer them potential storylines as they wander through town. But the asshole co-worker is that dullest of frat boy types, and his repeated assurances that William is going to find things beyond his wildest dreams in what is, essentially, Dress Up Like A Cowboy Land nods at one of the show’s potential flaws: namely a desire to promise more wonder and mystery and astonishment than it can actually deliver. Those promises work well enough now because there’s no need actually see them through just yet. But there’s only so much the show can actually do to make those promises real. No matter how much mysticism and magic they hint at, this is still a story where the limits are more or less built in, and the guest storyline in “Chestnut” is a good reminder of how that could ultimately be a problem.
Still, it wasn’t a chore to watch, and thankfully the other storylines were more promising. It’s useful to get to know the other hosts a little better, and Thandie Newton is too good an actress to be stuck as a side character. This week, a passing comment from Dolores (quoting her father) sends Maeve (Newton) into a tailspin, having bad “dreams” about her past—a past which, like all the robots prior memories, should have been erased but is now available for her to access thanks to Ford’s tinkering. Maeve’s confusion over that past makes it harder for her to do her job, and she’s nearly decommissioned before one of the programmers makes some necessary changes; even then, she wakes up during a routine surgical procedure and gets a glimpse of the park’s terrifying inner-workings. The arc is familiar (I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of “robots gradually realizing their world is a lie” in the weeks ahead), but small touches help it stand out, like the discovery that Maeve was once a pioneer woman with a daughter—or, most surprisingly of all, that she’s had her own run in with the Man in Black.
There’s a level meta-textuality here that offers a lot to chew on even past the obvious emotional cues, and that’s even more obvious in the Man in Black’s plot, which sees him murdering his way one step closer to the “maze,” and whatever it is that’s waiting inside. But is it murder? He shoots a whole bunch of people, including a sobbing, desperate woman, and it’s thrilling and terrifying by turns, but he spend the time in between killing reminding us, with a certain amount of affection, that none of this is precisely real. The charge between watching the slaughter play out, and then recognizing that none of this will have any lasting meaning—that the dead machines will be cleaned, repaired, and put back into service without any clear memory of what they’ve been through—makes that charge more complicated than simple voyeurism. Intentionally or not, we’re encouraged to wonder what it is about stories that can inspire such a response in us even when we know full well that none of it is actually real. The Man in Black, for all the mystery of his motives, is arguably the closest thing the show has given us to an identification figure; his self-awareness is nearly that of our own, and the pull between reflexively despising his “villainy” while simultaneously questioning the true nature of that villainy, is thrilling stuff.
It’s also worth noting that this week gives us our first clear sign that the people running the park are well aware of the Man in Black’s actions and have given him blanket approval to do pretty much anything; it suggests that, far from being a disruptive figure, he’s actually an expression of the privilege of the guests at its absolute zenith, playing some deeper game created to specifically satisfy a long-term, loyal customer.
That’s an idea Ford has clearly invested some time in. His presence in the pilot had him relegated to foreshadowing, but here, we get to see him in action—or as close to action as the older man gets. He dismisses Lee’s (hilariously overblown) plans for a new park narrative, and, more intriguingly, indicates he has plans for his own. It’s a small thing, but it serves as a kind of response to critics who would mock yet another science fiction story about man’s hubris exceeding his grasp. The original movie was a parable about man’s arrogance, but while there’s plenty of that going on here, the idea that Ford is purposefully digging for something deeper—that the machines’ developing consciousness is, in his design, a feature not a bug—helps to keep this from being overly schematic or stale.
“Chestnut” isn’t as effective a mood piece as “The Original;” its functional in necessary ways, settling down to the business of being an actual TV show and not just an evocative one hour film. But while that functionality isn’t as exciting, it still works well enough, laying the groundwork for what’s ahead, and working in the depth that the pilot could only suggest. If the series can maintain this level of quality of better as the season goes on, we should be in for quite a ride.
- The asshole co-worker’s name is Logan.
- When William’s trying to figure out who’s real and who isn’t, Logan offers to shoot someone to find out—guns only work against the hosts, as was established last week. Later, Logan stabs a robot in the hand for pissing him off, thus demonstrating what a charming person Logan is. But it also suggests certain liability concerns; you can’t shoot other guests, but when a fight breaks out, you could sure as hell punch, stab, or throw them off a cliff. The liability insurance for this place must be through the roof.
- “Small fear of clowns. Joking.”
- “Are you real?” “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?” Thesis statement! Thesis statement!
- Bernard has been talking with Dolores on the sly, presumably because he shares Ford’s deeper interest in the machine consciousness. Bernard is also having an affair with Ashley. Bernard has a lot going on.
- “It means when you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real.” Second thesis statement! Or maybe it’s a corollary of the first. Anyway, it’s neat.