Westworld is very good at mood. I would go so far as to even say it’s the show’s single greatest strength; the pilot established an eerie, foreboding, mordantly funny and perpetually tragic world, and every episode since then has more or less stuck to that tone. There are moments in “Contrapasso” that suggest great depths and horrors just out of sight, mysteries incalculable, broken hearts and cold calculation with just enough romance to completely stave off despair. My problem with the episode, and my problem increasingly with the show as a whole, is that mood isn’t everything. Spending hours showing us a curtain might hold our attention, but sooner or later, you have to pull the curtain back. And the longer you wait, the greater the chance that perfect mood will start to sour.

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Tonight’s episode does offer some minor reveals. The discovery that Dolores was the last person Arnold spoke to before he died—and that she’s still in some way communicating with him (presumably through the programming Ford talked about a couple weeks back)—is pretty big, and one of the few twists in the hour that legitimately felt like stakes were being raised. The idea that Arnold’s real goal was to destroy the park he helped create is fascinating, and suggests Ford is an even more complicated figure than initially suspected. He might even turn out to be the show’s true villain, if such a thing exists.

But here’s where I’m struggling: there’s not enough of a base reality here for these twists to be as effective as they should be. Five episodes in, and Ford remained tantalizingly ill-defined. Hopkins does his Anthony Hopkins thing (quiet, amused and mournful at once, maybe a little bit menacing) and it’s terrific, but I couldn’t really tell you more about his character’s motivations than I could have at the pilot. Is he invested in making the park his own private world? Is he trying to make the robots more human to make his God complex more satisfying? I think both of those ideas are possible, but nothing really sticks to the man.

That wouldn’t be problem if the rest of the show was more concrete—it’s not a bad idea to keep at least one powerful figure with hidden motives on hand, just to make sure the narrative doesn’t go stale. But there isn’t a single character who isn’t a vague question mark. You can’t really describe any of these people beyond their job titles, and that makes them nearly impossible to invest in. I like Bernard because he’s slightly geeky and I like Jeffrey Wright a lot; but at the same time, apart from knowing he’s sleeping with Theresa and has a dead son, I’ve got no idea what his goals are. The only person with a clear and definite objective is the Man In Black, which at least gives his scenes a sense of immediacy. But the maze he’s hunting for is a concept, a symbol—it’s a philosophical pursuit, and those can be damnably difficult to dramatize.

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Really, the main issue here is that the show is so determined to play its cards close to the vest that it has yet to build up the necessary relationships and foundation to fill in the time we spend waiting for the big reveals. We don’t know Ford’s true intentions because that would be telling too much, too soon; but as a result, he’s just a collection of intriguing anecdotes rather than an actual human being. In a weird way, it’s like the story is suffering from the same confusion of identity as the robots are—an inability to build cohesion from the disparate fragments of high concept. And as the more time goes by, the more obvious that inability is going to become.

“Contrapasso” has Dolores making some decisions and having some memories; her arc is the closest the hour comes to actual meaningful change, but it’s still bogged down by entertaining but largely meaningless foreshadowing. There’s some tension in her kissing William, because it forces him to finally commit to a storyline (and also gives him the courage to turn his back on his asshole “friend”), and watching her gun down a bunch of dudes was moderately satisfying, At least there’s a feeling that things have changed to the point where they can’t go back to what they were. But having that damn “maze” image pop up everywhere isn’t a sufficient stand-in for actual story. The discovery about Arnold, her mildly antagonistic meeting with Ford (in her dreams or his)—those had weight. But there’s a frustrating sense that information is being parceled out at a slow drip, with nothing tangible to fill the empty spaces.

Like, say, the surgeon Felix, who keeps working on a robot bird, has an asshole partner, and eventually meets a wide-awake and apparently self-aware Maeve. (Also very naked. Thandie Newton spent all of her scenes this week lying naked on a gurney; after a while, it got hard to watch the scenes going on around her because I was too worried she’d catch a chill.) The final beat, with her addressing him by name, is very cool. But the scenes leading up to that beat are tedious at best, irritating at worst. Felix is a non-entity, the guy he works with is a jackass, and there’s no reason we want to be watching either of them unless there’s a twist at the end.

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The Man In Black’s reign of terror continues; he sacrifices Lawrence to save Teddy, which has a certain ghoulish charm to it. But he ends the episode no closer to his real goal. The meeting between him and Ford felt momentous, and the open hostility between the two men at least gave the actors something more concrete to work with. But again, there’s that obsession with dancing around actual information, turning a potentially crucial conversation into a lot of vague warnings and portents. Harris and Hopkins carry it off, but apart from the understanding that these men know each other, there’s no discovery here, no change in how we view either of them.

While it means a certain level of risk, the show really needs to stop goofing around and actually commit to something more tangible than foreshadowing. Until it does, everything that happens is going to feel more and more like a stall. Take the meat of the Dolores and William story: on Logan’s insistence (I guess Dolores just decided to go with it?), they head to Pariah, and get involved with a group of former Confederate soldiers. Logan wants to go to war, and William is just along for the ride. They steal some nitro, there’s a double-cross, a far better dressed Lawrence is their middle man—and they hang out a bit at an orgy party, those are always fun.

It’s fine enough, but it’s hard to know how much we’re supposed to be invested in any of it. The real story is Dolores’s growing self-awareness, not Logan’s weird itch for the really heavy shit he seems convinced lurks at the park’s edges. There’s momentum by the end, but it’s unfocused. And really, that’s why “Contrapasso” concerns me. The show is clearly going somewhere, but I’m starting to wonder if the destination is going to be worth it. A fireworks factory is a hell of a thing, but I’m not sure I’d take a ten hour drive to see one.

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Stray observations

  • Elsie discovering a “laser-based satellite uplink” in the arm of the host from “The Stray” could be interesting. Unfortunately she was also part of the episode’s worst scene, and the worst scene the show has offered so far. There’s something already loaded about a white human working on a black robot, but throwing a dick joke into the mix seems like an invitation to a dozen different thinkpieces, none of which I feel qualified to write. All I’ll say is that the bit had a racial subtext in ways that no one who worked on the episode apparently understood or cared to address, and the result is something tasteless and needlessly distracting.
  • The fact that Lawrence shows up in William and Logan’s storyline around the same time he’s being murdered in the Man In Black’s suggests that there are multiple models, or multiple timelines.
  • Just how rough can things get in the park? The Union soldier strangled the hell out of Logan, and the Confederados didn’t seem to be holding back when they were beating the crap out of him later. Is there a safe word to stop things from going too far?

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