The nudity on Westworld is beginning to make me uncomfortable. Thandie Newton spends a few scenes in tonight’s episode in the altogether, and I kept wondering how the actress felt, being naked for so long. I understand the intent behind it; by having the machines nude when the tech people work on them, the show is making sure we understand the power relationship between the two groups, which helps to reinforce the sense of building conflict. The humans do their best to “dehumanize” the robots, but it’s an effort that can never be entirely successful—when you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re working on an object, not a person, the battle is already half lost.
So there’s tension that Newton and other actor’s bare asses (and other bits) helps to encourage. And yet knowing HBO’s history with on-screen nudity puts us as viewers in a weirdly similar place to those technicians—I know intellectually that the actors pretending to be robots are nude because it fits in with the show’s world, but I also know that these are real people with their clothes off, and it’s hard to know where the intention ends and the exploitation begins, if it begins at all. There’s a certain level of trust needed for a show as formally ambitious as this one; we have to faith not only in the idea that the writers are working towards a goal, but also that the texture of the reality they’ve created is precisely controlled. Nothing happens by chance. No effect is unexpected.
Which is, of course, impossible—no show (or movie or book, etc.) is entirely one hundred percent perfect. But when a show is working, it creates the illusion that even the mistakes are generated by some invisible artistic field. That’s what people mean when they say “greater than the sum of its parts:” that, when the pieces are working, the whole seems to transcend the limitations of its inherently flawed creators. I’m not sure Westworld has quite earned that distinction yet, but “The Adversary” goes a long way towards rebuilding the faith I lost in previous weeks. And it does this by focusing on character need as much as on mystery.
Take Maeve. Last week teased her making contact with Felix; this week works to build a relationship between the two, as it has Maeve intentionally getting herself killed (she encourages a guest to strangle her during sex) so she can return to the surgeon’s table. There’s no way of knowing how many times she’s done this, which is a little frustrating, but the payoff of watching her interactions with Felix more than makes up for this. It’s a bit like watching a reverse Turing Test, in which a man desperately tries to prove to himself that the thing he’s talking to isn’t human—while at the same time being unable to avoid treating her as though she was completely and utterly real.
And she is real, of course. This is a large part of what the show sold us in the pilot, that well-trod but still perpetually fascinating study of the limits of sentience, and how consciousness comes into existence—and watching Maeve slowly figure out where she is and what that means is remarkable because you’re never entirely sure how much she’s capable of understanding. This is the best kind of dramatic ambiguity, because it allows for uncertainty without ever diminishing the impact of events on screen. Watching Maeve wander the various floors of the complex, seeing familiar aspects of her life in horrifying new contexts, is thrilling, especially the note it ends on: her discovery that her “dreams” are part of the park’s sizzle reel to bring in new customers. Instead of teasing us with mystery, Maeve’s journey shows actual concrete change, and when she blackmails the techs (including the incredibly odious Sylvester) into upgrading her stats, it feels as though forward progress has been made.
This is less true of Teddy and the Man In Black’s storyline, but their thread is nearly as effective because it gives us a chance to see how Ford’s new backstory has changed Teddy’s personality. The two men get captured by a group of Union soldiers who recognize Teddy from his time with Wyatt. (It’s interesting how this and Dolores’s storyline from last week both show the games of the park getting more “difficult” as patrons work their way towards the edges.) Teddy manages to brute force an escape, but when the Man In Black suggests they run without fighting, Teddy moves the entire platoon down with a machine gun. Absurd violence is nothing new on the show, but it’s a shock coming from someone we’ve been led to believe is decent—or programmed that way, at least. The result doesn’t change much in the Man In Black’s maze hunt; he doesn’t find Wyatt, and he doesn’t learn anything new. But it still a shift has taken place, which helps maintain the episode’s momentum.
The other major plot of the hour has Bernard and Elsie digging into park mysteries, with predictable (but intriguingly) disastrous results. Well, disastrous for Elsie, at least; she makes the classic heroine mistake of hunting down dark secrets in a spooky house at night, and, in the end, gets grabbed by someone we can’t see. So dumb, but it’s slightly easier to excuse her behavior because it speaks to a certain unearned arrogance shared by all the humans on the show. To us, this is a thriller that will inevitably lead to murder and chaos—to them, it’s working backstage at a complex but essentially toothless Disney Sex-And-Guns World. Their blithe assumption of invulnerability makes them considerably more open to attack, which is a necessary device to make them sitting ducks for what comes next. Still, the fact that she hangs out in the scary dark place even after discovering just how deep the mystery goes is stretching things a bit.
Bernard’s discovery of Ford’s robot family helps us get a greater insight into Ford’s character while also serving as an effective short narrative in its own right. The idea that Arnold presented Ford with the machines as a gift (after Ford told him of his one happy memory from childhood) helps to fill in the relationship between the two men, and the fact that Ford “adjusted” the father robot to make him even more of a dick makes a great deal of sense; he is a man intent on seeing the world as he believes it is, rather than someone who sees it as what it could be. (Presumably the big difference between him and Arnold.) The discovery at the end that Ford’s robot boy self killed his robot dog because Arnold’s voice told him to is more proof of the central conflict that’s driving the series towards whatever happens next: Ford’s grim pragmatism against Arnold’s romantic pessimism. The fact that Arnold is dead hasn’t apparently impeded his efforts in the slightest.
The only real dull note in “The Adversary” is watching Sizemore get drunk, complain about everything, and then hit on his boss. Sizemore remains the least interesting character on the show, flat and cartoonish without being particularly entertaining, and while there’s presumably some intentional self-parody in the antics of an angry, ineffectual creative type, he has yet to justify his existence beyond some half-hearted meta humor. It’s hard to say who the first human to die will be (my money was on the Man In Black, but Elsie has definitely jumped to the head of the line), but if Sizemore ends up at the bottom of a ditch at some point, my heart won’t break over it.
- No Dolores this week. Didn’t miss her or William that much.
- Bernard is still opaque, and I can’t decide if we’re building to a reveal (when Elsie said that Theresa was responsible for stealing park data, presumably for the Dellos high command, I half expected Bernard to get murdered, or else confess he was in on the whole scheme) or if he’s going to be a sort of human control group for when the shit goes down—someone we care about because he’s nice and quiet and a little sad. Jeffrey Wright is a terrific actor, but I hope he gets a little more to do than just react soon.
- Teddy also tells the Man In Black a bit more about the maze. Sounds like Arnold, or whatever Arnold left behind, is waiting in the center of it.
- The scene of Maeve studying her vocal protocols and locking up when she can’t find a way to get past the system was great. It’s thrilling to see the show engage more directly with its own mechanics.
- So, the adversary has to be Arnold, right?