This Westworld review contains spoilers.
Westworld Episode 2
Like a bath of milk congealing around a mechanical exoskeleton, the plot of Westworld thickened in all the right places tonight, giving definition to what very well could be HBO’s best new show in years. However, for all the gunfire and other sensual distractions, there were two scenes in particular that stood out about what makes Westwold as a TV series work so much better than, say, Westworld the movie.
The first occurs early during a conversation between two new major characters, William and Logan. Both are newcomers this week, but for William that is quite literal since he’s never been to Westworld. For Logan, it’s all old hat to his returning eyes, which hunger for the many lurid spectacles of the park. As he more or less implies, it’s the happiest place on earth for anyone with a murder fetish.
They are, for all intents and purposes, the Richard Benjamin and James Brolin characters from Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie. However, before they even truly step foot into this world, they’re already delving more deeply into why such a heady concept as an animatronic Western theme park could propel a TV series for seasons.
“This place is the answer to that question that you’ve been asking yourself,” Logan smirks to his excessively buttoned up pal. “Who you really are? And I can’t fucking wait to meet that guy.”
Essentially, this crystallizes the thesis of the series in a sentence, at least for the “upstairs” portion of the Westworld park that the guests all adore. Unlike the dinosaurs of Crichton’s later Jurassic Park, the robots in Westworld won’t eat you unless you’re into that sort of thing. Otherwise, they’re here to let you be yourself, and for a format like television, where characters and characterization are king, that is a tantalizing proposition.
Such is the case with William, a man who seems to be less the good guy in the white hat than the one who chooses to wear that hue because he’s supposed to. When we’re first introduced to him and Logan, he is the only one who keeps his hosting consort at more than an arm’s length while arriving at the resort. In this case, she is played by the ever lovely Talulah Riley, whom I always associate as Mary Bennet, although here she seems more to be reprising her role from another Nolan brother project, that of the alluring, icy blonde in Inception.
As with that movie, she is a mirage created to seduce, which unto itself manifests new interesting questions since her host seems acutely aware of the fact that she is an android, yet she has no issue with being used as a gift-wrapped package for tourists. William, for now, thwarts her advances, but he seems no sincerer while doing so than when he’ll later turn down the courtesan Clementine. He claims he has someone waiting at home, but that seems as plausible as when he looks longingly at the black hats that Riley offers him to wear before selecting a dull and uncomfortable white alternative.
Presumably, he is on this trip, because Logan either convinced him as a co-worker (they apparently share the same office) or perhaps as a boss. There is a very possible scenario where this is a twisted form of an HR review, in which case the more uptight William appears, the worse off he’ll be when he gets home. But I don’t think we have to worry about that for long. Soon, he spots Dolores, the proverbial cowgirl next door. And even though she is every bit as artificial as Clementine, I won’t be half-surprised if he tries to fill in for Teddy as a prospective suitor in a future episode. And if that doesn’t work, we all know how Ed Harris’ Gunslinger likes to play with Dolores’ mission.
Speaking of Harris, he was the character with the other quite telling line of the night. Unlike William, Harris’ character—who you just know is probably some disgruntled CEO that’s thrice divorced and is a monster to his employees during the other 11 months of the year he’s not in Westworld—is indulging in everything he really wants to be… which for the time being is a black hat-wearing monster who murders women and children, and takes far too much pleasure in shootouts when he already knows he’s essentially on “invincible mode.”
However, his most curious moment is when he’s talking with Lawrence (the always welcome Clifton Collins Jr.) about why he keeps coming back to Westworld 30 years on: “You know why this beats the real world? The real world is just chaos; it’s an accident. But here, every details adds up to something.”
This line may very well be the other pole of the series, one in which Westworld can dig into the heady and deafeningly cynical ideas that Michael Crichton explored in his novel Jurassic Park with far more nuance than the original western-robo movie, or in the actual Steven Spielberg film about dinosaurs run amok. It is also alluded to when Dr. Ford tells Bernard Lowe earlier in the episode that what they do is akin to magic.
“We practice witchcraft,” Ford says with that perpetual Anthony Hopkins twinkle in his eye. “We speak the right words and we create life itself out of chaos.”
Like John Hammond from the island of lost dinosaurs, Ford has a serious God Complex, assured in his absolute authority over nature. However, unlike his amber-obsessed proxy, Ford seems to embrace the nature of humanity inside his artificially intelligent creations. He considers them to be alive, even though when they display any genuine sense of awareness, he immediately puts them in cold storage and essentially kills them for good—albeit conveniently in a place where they can all rise up in an inevitable robo-apocalypse down the road.
His quest to make them genuinely human like is also why he makes it incredibly difficult to turn them off, a feat which Bernard grumbles about in the same scene. It also is why the first episode introduced “reveries,” or muscle memories, which has spread like a virus a sense of self-consciousness among multiple models.
Still, maybe, this Westworld has lasted so much longer than Jurassic Park (by roughly 30 to 40 years), because they embrace the “chaos” of life. It’s why, as Bernard later explains to Theresa, they allow the robots to carry on conversations when nobody is watching: in addition to creating a potential scene if a guest happens to wander by, it gives the robots more practice to study and learn human behavior. It’s also why Ford will later dismiss Lee Sizemore’s cheesy pseudo-epic storyline “Odyssey on Red River” in favor for something far more intimate and authentic. He doesn’t want to offer adventure; he yearns to share the illusion of life as real, but intelligently designed—it is, after all, why keeps Ed Harris’ Gunslinger coming back.
As a park, it is not supposed to show you who you really are; it is a fallacy where you can project yourself to be an all-black wearing tough guy with a knife.
Still, the closer you get to reality, inevitably the sooner you hasten life’s actual bitterness.
Take for instance, Harris’ full-scene with Lawrence. Intriguingly, there is another much smaller town at least a full day’s ride from Sweetwater. Earlier, Talulah Riley’s host told William that Sweetwater is the safest place in the park, and that things get more intense the further out you venture. Yet, Harris’ Gunslinger has seen it all before, so he remains unimpressed when Lawrence’s cousins come to his defense. He kills them all too easily, like a guy playing Grand Theft Auto with the cheat codes on. He then torments Lawrence to discover the location of a hidden map that’ll supposedly lead to a maze. This is deep game-within-the-game nerdiness here, like the kid on the playground obsessed with discovering the hidden location of Mew in Pokémon Blue.
So to get his information, Harris’ Gunslinger shoots Lawrence’s wife dead and threatens to kill his daughter next. If all these robots are basically NPCs from any other video game, it shouldn’t matter how cruel he is to them. Yet, as Harris’ cowboy points out, he’s been coming here for decades and never knew Lawrence (who he has fought with in other storyline missions as partners) had a family that he’d been keeping secret. Protecting.
These details make it real, but so does Ford’s insistence that they all have the sincere conscious ability to know their surroundings, and to have conversations (in other words, lives) even while there are no human beings present. At a certain point, if they interact like living humans, and feel like living humans, is this not just a form of legitimate murder to shoot Lawrence’s wife? She might come back to life later, but it doesn’t change the cruelty in Harris’ eyes.
Then again, the murder prompts Lawrence’s daughter to awaken a piece of information in her programming that would seem to lead Harris’ Gunslinger to the hidden maze he covets. Whether he finds it or not, however, I am calling it now that Harris’ Gunslinger does not survive the season. While Westworld season 2 is likely a definite, this character is only the badass because he knows he’s in no danger from the robots. As soon as the androids actually disobey programming to not hurt guests, I suspect he’ll crumple and beg as pitifully as that poor bastard he scalped for his own amusement last week. Heck, it might even be James Marsden’s Teddy Floods who puts him in the ground. After all, Teddy at some point is going to get sick of being shot down, right?
These ideas of the robots having an inner-life is spelled out more explicitly as Thandie Newton’s Maeve Millay is developed in ways that her human creators likely never intended. Her programming has her play a worldly Madame that traveled all the way from Europe to the New World (an odd choice for a person of color given that this is apparently set during the Civil War, as indicated by an amusing optional story mission that allows guests to join the Union and fight in Western territories). She came West to seek her freedom, and she enjoys it by convincing tourists that liberty means paying her to spend the night with one of her girls.
However, she is short-circuiting, because this life of prostitution causes even androids to get bored…. Or is it because Dolores quoted the Shakespeare prose heard from her father to Maeve, “These violent delights have violent ends?” Is the Bard so poetic that his words trigger awareness like a cough spreading a cold?
In any case, her overlords, including Luke Hemsworth’s Stubbs, almost write it off as a meta-textual reading of sexism and ageism: Thandie Newton, as graceful as she was 20 years ago, is now the “older model,” and they are ready to throw her on the scrap heap and replace her with the younger thing embodied by Clementine. They even gaudily try to make her more sexually appealing to guests by dialing up her aggression (which in itself is reminiscent of how Cooper controlled TARS’ sense of humor in Interstellar, which Jonathan Nolan also co-wrote).
Luckily, this is not what’s needed, and eventually Maeve proves herself to be just as seductive as ever. Nevertheless, her earlier conversation with Clementine is not something that Ford would have ever programmed, nor would the sleazy Sizemore ever dream about writing such dialogue as Maeve telling Clementine how to wake herself from a nightmare by counting backwards from three. In essence, within their unmonitored discussions allowed to happen amongst themselves—so as to allow them practice at “being human”—they are developing genuinely human traits, including nightmares and their own self-made remedies for them.
This comes to ahead when Maeve then has a nightmare of what is most undoubtedly a memory from a previous storyline she was a member of; one where she was the mother of a family moving west that got attacked like they’re Natalie Wood’s parents in The Searchers. As a Native American comes to scalp her, she wakes up and finds herself being operated on by the Westworld’s maintenance crew in a basement. The effect is not so different from imagining yourself awakening in a spaceship surrounded by aliens with an anal probe in tow.
She gets a glimpse as to her real purpose as a pile of “dead” robots wait to be repaired in the back by the Westworld assembly line. Subsequently, she is turned off while in utter anguish, and the thick skulls who were working on her write it off to their own incompetence. However, she is feeling and remembering her past lives… and at a certain point, she’ll remember she is a toy who has long outgrown her human playthings.
Such novelties also persist in another new plot thread: is there an industrial espionage mole inside of Westworld? And if so, is it Bernard Lowe? The whole idea of a spy being responsible for Westworld’s recent string of robotic malfunctions, including the very lucid Peter Abernathy in the series premiere, would be the simplest and most comforting notion, as Bernard himself tells his mentor, Dr. Ford. It’d also continue a direct mirror from Jurassic Park with Lowe potentially being this series’ Dennis Nedry.
Additionally, we glimpse Lowe tinkering with Dolores on the side, testing her self-consciousness in sessions that he deliberately has her erase from her “event log” after the fact. However, I believe this to be a deliberate red herring, especially this early. If there is an actual mole inside of Westworld, I highly doubt that they’d reveal who it is so soon. Plus, it is Bernard who first floats the idea to Ford. Rather, I think this is wholly misdirection, and their problem is much more dangerous and fundamental than sabotage. Spielberg reduced Jurassic Park’s problems to being that of a disgruntled employee; Crichton believed that dino park was doomed from the word go because of a myriad of failures within the scientific community. Likewise, I sense that is where Nolan and co-creator Lisa Joy want to go with this series.
Personally, I take Bernard Lowe at his word when he tells Dolores that he finds her “fascinating, but others might disagree.” She is the oldest, in-commission robot in the park. As a result, she has had the fewest problems, but perhaps that is because she was already the most lifelike from the very beginning. We already know that whatever programming issues that her proverbial father had in the first episode have carried over to her in subtle ways. Last week, she ended the hour by killing a fly, something no other robot did, and thus proving Stubbs wrong when he said “she couldn’t harm any living thing.”
Now, she had a brief vision of a street strewn with dead bodies and a wolf prowling around their remains. If she is indeed as old a model as Stubbs suggests, perhaps she was there 30 years ago when the park last had a breakdown. And she remembers exactly where these “violent delights” end. More likely, Bernard is studying her programming since she might be the most sentient model in the park, but unbeknownst to him, he is also making it more likely that she’ll become aware of her purpose in this world. And who is to say the guns she remembered to dig up at the end of the hour did not belong also to that uprising from 30 years ago… meaning they could actually kill guests?
Hence why Ford should be wary as he goes out to build his new storyline attraction. Having dismissed Sizemore out of hand, he takes Bernard out into the desert where he seems to have built an android version of himself at 10-years-old, quite literally to help a young version of himself realize that their father is a monster. But it is also here where he envisions a new town, a new Westworld community, and a chance to create even more authentic life out of chaos.
He might want to be careful, though. If he listens to another character borne from Crichton, trying to create order from chaos is akin to a rape of the natural world. And for once, it might not be the human guests who come out on top.