Westworld seems to be falling into one of my least favorite forms of modern television: the “let’s have a bunch of storylines we follow each week that don’t precisely connect or tell a closed narrative, but do presumably set up information which, I guess, will eventually be relevant.” The Binge Model in other words, or Lo, What Serialization Has Brought Down Upon Us All. Fortunately “The Stray” is nowhere near as splintered as, say, Game Of Thrones at its most chaotic. Dolores gets a decent arc, we learn some important backstory about the park, and we get a better understanding of Robert Ford in a way I wasn’t expecting. Oh, and Teddy gets to do more than look handsome and die tragically, although he does do both those things.
So this is far from a bad episode, and I found myself engaged while watching it. It’s just that certain nagging doubts can’t entirely be put away; not doubts about the nature of the show’s fiction, but of its design. All the mysticism and discussion of consciousness is well and good (and largely entertaining), but is each week going to break down to “Let’s see which robot is going crazy now?” The problem with heavy serialization is that it teaches us to expect constant change, new discoveries that push the story forward. For most of its running time, “The Stray” is content to fill in and meander through the status quo, with the biggest moments (apart from Dolores and that gun, which we’ll get to) not going forward so much as finding new ways to stand still.
Take the thread that gives the episode its title. A host goes off routine in the park, and snarky programmer Elsie and studly security man Stubbs go off on a trip to find him. Their walk gives us ample time for sarcasm (flirting), and also gives a creepy, fascinating glimpse into what can happen to the machines when something goes wrong: the group the stray is a part of is sitting around waiting for a campfire, but since the stray is the only one allowed to lift an ax, the others are stuck in a loop they can’t break out of. Which is neat, and it’s suitably unsettling when Elsie and Stubbs find the stray. For the first time we’ve seen, a robot fights back against the humans (mid-decapitation, even), and when the poor ‘bot bashes in its own head with a large rock, it certainly feels like something is going on.
But is it? The wood-carvings with the constellation of Orion on them are suggestive, but those are just clues, without any immediate meaning in and of themselves. The stray fought Stubbs because it wanted to destroy itself, not out of any real menace, and while it suggests a certain line may be crossed, that’s not a line crossing in and of itself. This is essentially foreshadowing, and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with foreshadowing, the problem is that this is foreshadowing towards an ending we all know is coming, and the story of the stray is kind of boilerplate “oooo, robots can be crazy!” stuff. I don’t object to crazy robots, but the pilot suggested something more complicated than that, and this arc fails to deliver.
Thankfully it’s not the only arc in the hour, and the others are more promising. Dolores continues to be the show’s most intriguing character (and its nominal lead) due in no small part to Evan Rachel Wood’s performance; she’s asked to do the nearly impossible, suggesting an internal life in a character where any clear confirmation of said life would actually unbalance a considerable part of the show’s tension. (In other words, while we suspect Dolores is more than just a series of programmed responses, the longer we don’t know she is, the more thrilling it will be when she comes into her own.)
Her conversations with Bernard offer both her and Jeffrey Wright time to shine, and they rise to the occasion admirably. This, at least, feels somewhat unexpected: a man struggling to deal with grief by reaching out to what might be a new form of life, without fully grasping the consequences of his actions; and that new life slowly coming into focus. The scenes work well because we’re invested in both sides of the conversation. Unlike the stray’s storyline, where the title character was simply an object to be investigated, Dolores and Bernard talking reveals something fascinating about them both.
I’m less enthused about Dolores shooting someone. Conceptually, this makes sense. One of the most powerful moments of the pilot is that final beat where she slaps a fly on her neck, demonstrating in an instant that her programmers don’t know everything, and that she can, and will, be dangerous one day. By comparison, the “I can’t fire this gun/I can fire this gun!” dynamic feels a lot less subtle, and a lot more schematic. And it happens quickly, too, in a way that robs a transitional beat of a large part of its power. Teddy takes Dolores practice shooting, and she discovers she can’t actually pull (squeeze) the trigger. Then later, the attack on her house plays out, and the bad guy pulls her off into a barn, bringing back memories of the Man In Black and whatever horrors he wrought. After some light suspense, she manages to shoot her attacker, and flee.
This should be satisfying, and it sort of is (I was definitely grateful at not having to watch a rape scene), but there’s no real shock in it. The fly slap was subtle—I didn’t see it coming until the last possible second, and I was very, very happy when it happened. This is not subtle. It’s weirdly like a superhero origin story, but without much in the way of triumph; our protagonist believes herself incapable of a certain action, but when the situation forces her to it, she rises to the occasion. And then runs off and collapses into some dude’s arms. (Ah, William, still trembling at the cusp of relevancy.) It’s fine, and it gets the job done—Dolores is one step closer to understanding her situation, and maybe leading a robot revolution—but there’s no particular surprise or hook to it. It simply happens.
Which may sound like an odd criticism to make—“genre show performs its function, film at 11”—and it was probably inevitable that there be some minor fall from grace after the pilot. The show is still introducing interesting ideas. In the closest we get to the meta-commentary of last week’s episode (no Man In Black to be found this week, outside of flashbacks), Ford finally gives Teddy a backstory. It’s a cute riff on the usual structuring of television shows: introduce characters and tease that they have some sort of dark and memorable past, then use that past to shore up the plot further down the road.
That’s essentially what happens, as Ford gives Teddy a new storyline and a new history, including a psychotic former commanding officer and his gang of creepily masked murderers. Teddy (after Dolores begs him to leave town with her) gets pulled back into this new past, and “dies” for it. The strange nature of the storyline once again makes it unclear just how much we can invest it in, if at all. Wyatt, Teddy’s former commanding officer, isn’t a figure that’s been hiding in the background these past few weeks. He’s an entirely new creation, as is his and Teddy’s relationship. In a way, this plays out like a riff on the sort of clumsily introduced exposition writers introduce when they need to fill time, and yet the very consciousness of this fact makes it compelling. The thread gets most of its power from that curious uncertainty, with Teddy taking everything with deadly seriousness, even as we know it’s a ruse. (It’s especially fun watching the guests get pulled along, sometimes more than they’re comfortable with.)
Then there’s the discovery that Ford once had a partner who died in the park under mysterious circumstances. Bernard has noticed that a couple of the malfunctioning hosts appear to having “conversations” with someone named “Arnold,” which leads him to ask Ford for more information. Ford explains a bit of park history, including how Arnold, who worked with him at the beginning, was obsessed with giving the machines consciousness by making their programming sound like the Voice of God in their heads. But then Arnold died, leaving Ford in full control. This week, Ford stresses that the hosts are simply objects, and that to confuse them for sentient beings is a horrible mistake.
It’s one of the few times we’ve seen Ford act more than just wistful and melancholy, and it suggests something about his relationship with Arnold, and about his future plans for the park. What it suggests I’m not sure about. “The Stray” offers some potentially intriguing set-up, but that set-up isn’t worth much if it doesn’t go anywhere worthwhile. We’ll just have to wait and see.
- So what are the odds that the Man In Black is Arnold? Ford’s story is oblique enough that it could be a lie. (Or maybe this version of Arnold is actually a machine built to mimic him after his death? The show hasn’t gotten into the potential for duplicates yet, but it might be biding its time.) And it would certainly explain some things: It seemed suspicious that we didn’t see Arnold in any of Ford’s flashbacks, although we did see a CGI version of young Anthony Hopkins that sort of worked.
- William has an adventure with some bad guys. It’s entirely predictable, but that’s pretty much the point. (And I’m still not entirely clear how the guns work.)
- Bernard is married to Gina Torres. This almost makes up for the dead son.
- I appreciate how the show isn’t making any special effort at pointing out who the guests are. Makes the group scenes more interesting.