The reveal of Teddy’s true nature in Westworld’s first episode did two things. First, and most obviously, it forced us to question our assumptions about what it meant to be a “host” and what it meant to be a “guest.” Teddy and Dolores’ slow, tentative courtship was undoubtedly programmed into them, a core part of their loop for reasons only Ford and his minions could understand; and yet, believing at least one of them to be real the first time we saw it, it became difficult to entirely discount the authenticity of their emotions. Seeing Teddy’s first death had us firmly on the side of the machines without even realizing it, and by using him as an identification figure, it was clear that this wasn’t just going to be a simple story about humans and the robots who murder them.
The other thing the Teddy twist did was more subtle, and maybe only obvious in retrospect: It opened the possibility that the people we thought were people might not be. Seven episodes in and Westworld finally delivers both its first human death, and its first truly shocking surprise: poor, mournful Bernard, with his dead son and his estranged wife, is not the man we thought he was. He’s not a man at all, in fact, as Theresa learns to her regret. Before this moment, while there has been a certain degree of ambiguity between host and guest in the park itself, there’s been no serious foreshadowing that anyone in the administration building might not be human. There didn’t need to be, though. This was the other shoe (one of several, actually) that’s been waiting to drop from the beginning.
Much of the storyline that ends in Theresa’s brutal death has to do with the possibility of non-park related robots, albeit in a gratifyingly subtle way. Charlotte, the visiting board member, calls Theresa in for a meeting, and we learn (after some amusement at the discovery of Charlotte’s fuck-bot) why Charlotte was sending information from the robots outside of the park. The board’s interest in Westworld has nothing to do with fantasy role-playing and narrative fulfilment. They want the data that’s been accumulating over the past 35 years, data that Ford could wipe away in an instant if he wanted to. So while he’s still in a position to do so, Delos has been using Theresa to protect their investment.
Just what plans they have for that investment isn’t clear, but I’m doubting it’s for the betterment of humanity. Creating robots indistinguishable from human beings opens up a lot of possibilities, and it’s doubtful that a multi-billion dollar corporation (which I assume Delos must be in order to keep Westworld running) is going to be looking at non-profit-related ones. If the show decides to take a cue from the original movie’s sequel, Futureworld, we might be looking at a high-tech version of body snatching. For right now, though, Charlotte’s aggressiveness and willingness to lie and manipulate to achieve her ends aren’t building a lot of trust for the group she represents.
Although to be fair, by the end of the hour, none of the humans (outside of William) are looking particularly good. Theresa and Charlotte team-up to reprogram Clementine, for a supposed demonstration of the damage that Ford’s reveries have done to the hosts at large. It’s a brutal scene, as Clementine first gets beaten by another host and then, after being allowed to fight back, is shot for her troubles. (And that’s not the end of her suffering, either.) This is the first time we’ve seen Ford directly threatened, although it’s Bernard who seems to pay the price. Charlotte tells him he’s fired, presumably because she can’t take on Ford directly just yet. It’s a blunt, unsettling power play that echoes the threat from the original Westworld in practice if not in specifics. The nightmare Charlotte and her team offer up is one of robots with grudges, snapping their chains and killing anyone who gets in their way.
The reality of the situation is considerably more complicated, as we see in the episode’s final scene. Charlotte’s efforts work largely to put us in Ford’s camp—sure, he’s mysterious and has a god complex, and doesn’t really see the robots as anything more than objects, but at least his control over the park hasn’t led to the sort of mass destruction the Delos people are threatening. The natural impulse is to want to see him get the better of his corporate overlords somehow, prove that he’s not at the mercy of such cheap theatrics. Hopkins plays the scene beautifully as well; there’s an expression on his face that seems halfway frozen between malevolence and emptiness, as though carefully constructed to be both inoffensive and threatening.
All of which pays off beautifully in the end, when the ground is pulled out from under us. Of the non-guest humans, Bernard is the closest thing to an identification figure the show has offered, with Jeffrey Wright’s quiet, mournful dignity suggesting a level of empathy and compassion most of the other humans lack. But he’s an act, a routine, an illusion, although probably not one we can discount entirely. The discovery that he was built in the park by Ford renders Bernard into a tool, but whether or not his true nature completely invalidates the investment he’s previously earned remains to be seen.
Theresa’s gone for good, though—at least the human iteration is. I’m wondering if Ford doesn’t have a back-up lying around, partly because it would be a good, unsettling way to cover his tracks, and partly because Sidse Babette Knudsen Wood does such a fine job of conveying considerable depth here with just a handful of lines that I’d hate to lose her completely. Whether or not we see her again, though, the game (or our understanding of it) has once again changed. Ford’s megalomaniacal nature, apparently abetted by the company that pretends to keep him in check (it remains to be seen just how much of his dismissal of Delos’s influence here is accurate, and how much just his ego), has finally come into focus. His talk of godhood earlier wasn’t the playful maneuvering of a puckish mind. He’s a monster who exists in a place which offers no way to control or repudiate his actions.
Which makes his war with the long dead (but still felt) Arnold all the more intriguing. Much as the young CGI-ed Hopkins made me cringe, it’d be nice to get some more substantial flashbacks soon, if only to have a clearer sense of what the two men brought to this project, and what Arnold’s continued influence means for the future. Until then, we have to look to the present (or what seems to be the present) for characters to root for. Not every story needs a hero, but in a narrative as complex and multifaceted as this one, it’s useful to have someone with a clear journey to hold onto.
Given Evan Rachel Wood’s prominence in the opening credits, Dolores seems like the likeliest pick; “Trompe L’Oeil” picks up with her and William still traveling towards the edges of the map, escalating their relationship and bringing them one step closer to their goal, even as that goal remains frustratingly elusive to both them and the audience. There are some good character beats here, as William finally reveals himself as a self-identified Marty Sue type, a guy who loves stories (and the inherent thematic and structural tidiness stories have to offer) so much that he’s apparently willing to give up everything for the sake of living inside of one. Him hooking up with Dolores was probably inevitable, despite his protestations of a fiancee to the contrary, but, as with so much of what happens inside the park, there’s a certain detachment to the proceedings—it’s romance, but it’s built on shaky grounds, and it’s hard to know if William’s new found identity is something that will last, or will simply evaporate once the situation progresses far enough along to start making him uncomfortable.
As for Dolores, she remains a fascinating enigma. Between her and Maeve (on whom more in a moment), the show has its main rooting interest, showing two sides to the same self-realization-pursuing coin. Where Maeve is all pragmatism and manipulation, Dolores is more idealistic and confused as to her own needs, but still determined to satisfy those needs whatever they might prove to be. We see her spine continuing to develop this week—she wants William around, for whatever reason, but she also won’t accept his speeches about wanting to be part of a story. It’s that short-sightedness that will most likely doom him and save her; the presumption that what’s going on still, in some way, revolves him and his needs, even as he follows her further into the park.
What’s curious about William is that in many ways, he should be an audience identification figure, and yet I still find it difficult to care that much about him. The performance is fine, but like nearly everything else on the show, his actions and intent comes at a remove. There’s something Kubrickian about Westworld’s design—it’s not as chill and composed as the director’s work was, but that feeling of a nature documentary rather than a deeply felt fiction persists. (Actually, I think all of Kubrick’s work was deeply felt, and the clinical style that holds his movies together is his expression of that feeling. With this show, it seems like so much of what we see is happening in theory, rather than in practice. Which may be the point!) As such, even at its most visceral, it’s rare to be swept up in the action. Events are intriguing, fascinating, and frequently compelling, but (shocking deaths aside) there’s no immediacy to anything.
The one possible exception is Maeve, who, even more than Dolores, is providing us with an emotional center. Last week, she discovered her gods were bland, functional, and cowardly; this week, she gets to see them at their most monstrous, watching from a distance as Sylvester lobotomizes an obedient Clementine. Maeve doesn’t even know that poor Clem was just a pawn in a deeper game, but the sight itself is enough to give her a goal: get out of the park. It’s the most sensible suggestion anyone has made yet.
The problem with it is also the only real problem I have with the hour as a whole. The show is slowly knitting itself together as it heads into the final weeks of the first season, and that’s a good thing; and the detachment I discussed above isn’t necessarily a flaw. But what’s frustrating is how little connection there is right now between all the various threads. Maeve wanting to leave Westworld makes perfect sense for her as a character, but there’s no obvious way to tie it into, say, Ford’s plans, or this maze Dolores and the Man In Black are both hunting for; instead, it seems to introduce a number of new potential variables, ones that expand the show’s focus without making it immediately clear how that expansion fits in with the overall design.
I’m not saying I don’t believe this will all tie together in the end. I’m sure it will—hell, maybe Maeve ends up in the maze herself, or maybe Ford’s new storyline is actually what’s driving her to act in the first place. But while I’m looking forward to those revelations, understanding on an intellectual level that a plot is going to work out eventually isn’t the same as being emotionally invested to it as it unfolds. Right now, at its worst, this is a very well-made, very elegant seven-hour exposition dump. It’s possible the final three hours will redeem what came before them. (And I’m not even sure a word like “redeem” is really necessary.) Westworld is still far from failure, and tonight’s episode was a strong indicator of just how effective it can be when it reveals even a piece of its intentions. But it would’ve been nice for those revelations to be parceled out with a little more regularity, and some more engaging texture. When it comes to magic, distraction is an art in and of itself.
- So, who else do we think is a robot?
- Bernard having memories feels very Blade Runner; I’m curious if there ever was a real Bernard. We saw him having a video chat with his wife, but that could’ve been a dream or a hallucination at some point. The idea of an actual Bernard rotting away somewhere is creepy and sad, but so is the thought that Ford gave a completely new creation a dead child to mourn. (I do love how this reveal recontextualizes Bernard’s obsession with surface gestures. It’s how he processes the world.)
- Maeve’s enhanced abilities allow her to resist the commands of the technicians.
- Elsie remains missing. Not sure what to make of that; I’m assuming she’s still alive somewhere, but I wouldn’t be shocked if someone stumbles over her corpse next week.
- The fact that Bernard is a machine throws his secret meetings with Dolores into even further question. Was he acting on Ford’s interests, or some strange impulse of his own? It would be extremely useful to know just how far Ford’s reach extends, so we can figure out what parts are going according to his plan, and what parts are actual anomalies. I understand why the show is being cagey about this, but I’m hoping the end of tonight’s episode suggests things are finally ramping up.