This Westworld review contains spoilers.
Westworld Episode 3
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
These are famous words about the stories we tell ourselves, explaining how a culture can rewrite its history, its reality, and presumably its destiny. They were first uttered in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and at the time directly reflected the romanticization of the Old West, with a newspaperman refusing to print the truth about Jimmy Stewart’s decades-old lie of being the hero that plugged the titular bad man. And now in Westworld, Anthony Hopkins’ Dr. Ford utters them again as an attempt to gloss over why the story of his partner—a fellow who went by the name of Arnold—was written out of the history books for this Western themed resort.
Yet, it may go further still. In his own way, Ford would appear to be telling just such a lie to himself about these hosts being tools and nothing more. Lifeless beings who he shows complete apathy toward and for whom chasing genuine sentient self-awareness is a fool’s errand. Hell, it could even be a quiet admission that his story of a partner who had an accident (or implicitly committed suicide) is just one more printed myth in a tale that can only be far more twisted than a few veiled omissions. For the Westworld park is a place that allows men and women to make myths of themselves, despite the facts appearing to the contrary. And such illusions are beginning to fall apart in “The Stray,” Westworld’s best episode yet.
The episode is directed by Neill Marshall who helmed several of the more cinematic Game of Thrones episodes. With Westworld, he offers a similar visceral quality for what increasingly appears to be a deliberate narrative divide between the hosts and guests, with the robots looking ever more human and sympathetic than their creators.
This chapter also doubles down on exploring some of the mechanics of the park to illuminating effect. This material also again highlights that these machines have no real thoughts other than what Ford or his employees have placed in them. We learn that only select models are given “weapons privileges,” which seems smart considering the recent spate of malfunctions. Also, Ford admonishes one of his subordinates for covering up a robot’s private region. As Ford hisses, they have no modesty or sense of shame. There isn’t a thought there that he hasn’t put in place.
Of course, even before that scene, this is being all sorts of contradicted just by the simple interactions of Dolores and Teddy. In the first episode to really give James Marsden more to do other than be shot to hell, their romance is broadened to an extent that is constantly challenging the audience as to whether we’re catching a voyeuristic glimpse into something that’s genuine or engineered. For instance, after Teddy actually gets a few opportunities to be heroic—both taking another female tourist on one of his side stories that doesn’t involve dying, and then again when he actually manages to scare off another guest from harassing Dolores (which makes the newcomer look all sorts of pathetic considering we know that Teddy has more patched up holes in him than Swiss cheese)—we are treated to two scenes between Teddy and Dolores.
The first is likely a familiar conversation they’ve probably been programmed to have a thousand times. She wants to leave her childhood home, and Teddy dissuades her because he has some reckoning to do. As Ford later admits, this is a vague backstory that they never bothered to flesh out, but Dolores is also knowingly calling Teddy out on it, suggesting that she has learned enough from interacting with humans to understand that “someday” means never, especially when they are meant to die later that night (which they then do). Nevertheless, her actually questioning her desire to be free, as she hints of being her utmost wish to Bernard (we’ll get to those scenes at the end of this review), and whether Teddy is the man to take her there, seems beyond the pale of what she is programmed to do. It feels human.
Similarly, in their second conversation after she’s been threatened, Teddy attempts to train her to shoot a gun. We are told later that only some hosts have the coded permission to fire a weapon, but she wants to do so desperately in a sequence that again seems beyond the parameters which Ford has set for both of them. After all, when Ford is talking to Teddy before this sequence, he confirms what many socially conscious viewers already feared: she is simply there to be a tool for men who want to sexually assault her with the kind of aggression showcased only by Access Hollywood interviewees nowadays. But in the future, Teddy’s main purpose is described as “to keep her here, to ensure the guests find her if they want to best the storied gunslinger and have their way with his girl.”
And yet, despite being clear archetypes of Western tradition—the kind John Ford would litter throughout his films—they seem more alive and sincere than the coldness of Ford, the brokenness of Bernard, or the self-admitted sarcastic cynicism found in Elise. These hosts have lives, and now we are seeing those tropes that they’re built on deepen and break in ways unbeknownst to the programmers.
For instance, Dolores clearly has flashing memories of Ed Harris’ Man in Black, who presumably violated her during the first episode. And those are what forces her to eventually pick up a gun and disobey her programming.
Yet, it also is worth noting that there’s a popular theory on the internet that Harris’ anti-hero gamer did not assault Dolores at all, and may have actually been the one to plant the germ of an idea of self-awareness in her head. After all, it seemed to spread to her father first, whom Harris’ Gunslinger likely talked to before Dolores got to the scene of his murder in the first episode. And in her memories, Harris pulls out a knife, not unlike the one he would later use to scalp a different android model to discover the map for a maze.
Harris already said in last week’s episode that he never plans to return to the real world, so perhaps he is looking to bring it down from the inside by inspiring a robo-revolution… it’s an interesting theory, but it is also one I don’t believe in. At least not fully.
Harris is the kind of gamer who’s played in this world so much he is looking for his one last thrill, the mythical Pokémon that nobody else caught. Perhaps Dolores, as the oldest working model in the park, is part of that secret game-within-a-game, but she is more a means to an end for him. Still, I will posit another theory: what if he is tracing Arnold’s footsteps through the oldest models?
Arnold, as we’re about to discuss in length, apparently sought with desperate zeal a way to make his robots truly self-aware and alive. Perhaps this maze that Harris seeks is connected to the aspirations of those early days, and in his quest to discover Arnold’s most hidden secrets, Harris is incidentally triggering actual self-awareness in robots that is now spreading like a plague on the tip of William Shakespeare’s words. From Peter Abernathy to his daughter, and most recently to Maeve.
It is definitely something to consider as the series progresses.
More directly, we learned much about whom this mysterious Arnold was in story developments that paint a sinister shadow above what had to date been an amusing, if enigmatic, performance from Anthony Hopkins. For the moment, Robert Ford seems obsessed with completing his new storyline. He even gives Teddy a sudden backstory involving a man named “Wyatt” that provides credence to the mad doctor’s assertion that these robots have no thoughts or feelings beyond their embedded code.
Instantly, Teddy goes from desiring only to defend Dolores to leading a group of tourists on what is apparently a prototype of Ford’s new vision. It’s one that requires a trip to the outskirts of the park (where the further you go, the harder it gets). It is also curious that the wild men who jump Teddy don’t die from his gunshots, suggesting they too might be guests—and that one-day Teddy is going to refuse to fall down too.
However, in the here and now, Ford is confronted by Bernard about Arnold since one of the malfunctioning robots—who broke around the same time as Peter Abernathy—was calling for the long dead doc while explicitly displaying signs that he remembers his past. In other words, he was seeking revenge on other hosts while calling for the name of his creator—something Peter Abernathy also wanted to do in the first episode where Ford (apparently falsely) took credit for being Abernathy’s God.
Indeed, much of this is confirmed when Bernard and Ford begin discussing Arnold’s role in the park. By Ford’s admission, he printed the legend that he did this all by himself when, in actuality, Arnold helped engineer the most successful breakthroughs in building these artificial intelligences.
As partners, they shared the Westworld lab for three years before it opened to the public, and by the end of that first calendar cycle, their hosts had already passed the Turing test. At a glance, this appears to be the story of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with one taking most of the credit and the other being primarily forgotten for his instrumental contributions.
But there was something more profound going on. Beyond passing the Turing test, Arnold was seeking a way to make his robots truly sentient and achieving that moment of singularity where they were aware of their role in reality. He even fascinatingly used the theory of the Bicameral Mind—a recent 20th century hypothesis that proposed early man’s cognitions were divided between the two hemispheres of the brain, where one half had to obey the other half that was speaking in a literal form of communication. Theoretically, this also is supposed to be where the idea of gods came from with early humans believing their own thoughts were the voices of God(s), divining their orders on how to move and navigate their lives.
Whether true or not, Arnold apparently wished for his robots to believe their programming was the voice of God. In Ford’s words, “Arnold built a version of their cognition where hosts heard their code as an inner-monologue.” During this sequence, we also glimpse dear old Peter Abernathy in a different hosting role as one of the early robots to get this treatment from Arnold.
Ford goes on to dismiss this as vanity and the obsession of an isolated man, stating that it only made the hosts become lunatics. For what else is a man who claims to hear the voice of God in his head? Many of these robots went crazy and were scrapped, and soon after Arnold died in the park. “We called it an accident, but I knew Arnold,” Sir Anthony smiles. “He was very, very careful.”
With Ford’s undisguised God Complex, it is easy to read this sequence as a thinly veiled threat to Bernard: I know you’re testing the limits of cognition with Dolores. Stop and don’t end up like my other partner who nobody remembers. It’s creepy, but it also is even more insidious than just leaning on who might be his only friend in the world. At this point, it is easy to start pondering whether Arnold hadn’t actually succeeded in causing his robots to become sentient. As we learned from both Maeve and Dolores’ “malfunctions,” they are having memories that are supposed to be hidden, and dreams that should not exist.
Perhaps the voice Dolores hears is actually Arnold’s own, as opposed to the fan theory of being the Man in Black? What if she, as the sentimental favorite host, did become self-aware before having her memories scrapped? Ford is at least not wrong that it is the least he can do for the hosts to let them forget how guests use and abuse them. However, he also could have made them forget Arnold’s programming, his command that they meet their God, which the Man in Black could be jumpstarting (intentionally or not) in his quest for the maze.
Through this scenario, it becomes more and more likely that Dr. Robert Ford is, in fact, named after Bob Ford, the “coward” who shot Jesse James. As the movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford persuasively argued, James was a sociopath and while Ford was vainglorious and greedy, he was hardly a coward. But he did find his notoriety by betraying and killing a “friend” (who would have one day killed him too, but still). Likewise, Hopkins’ own Robert Ford saw his prospects improve upon the death of a colleague. Granted, the Westworld Ford proved to have better publicists working for him than his historical namesake, yet we may still see a robot disciple of Arnold perform the same tribute that a Jesse James fan did the day he visited Bob Ford in his own center of power (a Colorado tent saloon) in 1892.
As for Bernard, we also learned this week why he is so fascinated by Dolores: he is mourning. The father of a dead son, he throws himself into his work to forget the loss of a child. Gina Torres of Firefly fame even cameos as his estranged wife, calling him so they can both reminisce and grieve over the loss of a child. She eventually confesses she is not sure if their infrequent Skype calls help or hurt the healing process, but she wishes she could forget the loss of her son, so that she would not always be in anguish.
Bernard astutely replies, “This pain is all I have left of him.” Bernard sees everyday what erasing one’s memories does. It forces his hosts to live a lie. Ford says that chasing to find some form of life or humanity in them is pursuing a void, but we already know that these robots in their fictional lives seem to experience existence with greater virility than any of the broken humans that oversee them. And so when Bernard visits Dolores, he is not trying to plant awareness in her head as a form of malevolence or sabotage, which last week offered as a red herring. Rather, he is taking on a paternal relationship with her that might nonetheless prove damning.
He apparently has been bringing Dolores children’s books for their secret rendezvouses for a while, and in this episode he shows her Alice in Wonderland. It is not a stretch to imagine he sees the yellow-haired innocence of Dolores as similar to the Lewis Carroll creation. But the reason he has her read a passage from the story, as Dolores deduces, is that it’s a book about change. Bernard states, “I guess people like to read about the things they want the most but experience the least.” He is trying to kick-start a desire for self-improvement in Dolores, like a father teaching a son to swim (as Bernard volunteers as his own memory when Dolores asks about his son).
At first, her interest in his life seems to be borne from her programmed understanding of interaction and conversation with guests, but soon it takes on a deeper meaning for both of them.
Westworld itself is a story the park tells the guests for $40,000 a day. They get to pretend to be the characters they read about in their stories, whether that is a white hat or a black hat. But Dolores is actually, in small increments, trying to change herself in legitimate ways. It’s why Bernard, against his better judgment, cannot call off their meetings, even though it likely will one day spell his doom. It is also why Dolores does not wish to erase memories of their meetings. She knows, unlike the theory of the Bicameral Man, she is one being with one consciousness. And once she realizes how to use it, “I’ll be free.”
We catch a glimpse of that freedom at the end of the episode. Remembering yet more past experiences of her dying a hundred times in the arms of lustful guests, Dolores finds herself attacked again by that cowardly guest and several other robots hosting the carnage at her father’s ranch. Without even Teddy around to be the sacrificial lamb, she finds herself in the same barn where the Man in Black must’ve done something vile to her when she remembers that is also where she hid the gun (the voice in her head, likely Arnold’s “God” voice, reminds her of that). And she uses it to disobey her programming by pulling the trigger, killing another robot for the first-time ever. She then goes outside and recollects how she’s died here too before fleeing her family’s ranch and disappear into the wilderness.
Her first step into freedom might be a stumble, but she is genuinely off-script when she tumbles into the arms of William and Logan. The two are, by Logan’s words, playing “JV shit” at William’s insistence—trying to bring a bounty in and roughing it in the woods. And in Logan’s defense, there is little duller in Red Dead Redemption than the bounty side missions.
But this is just one more instance that proved my personal theories from last week wrong: William really is a white hat. It’s confirmed this week that he is going to be married, and to Logan’s sister no less (which explains their forced, awkward bonding on this trip). And now he has a real story mission of his own that the park never intended: he must nurse the first flicker of consciousness in Dolores, who has gone rogue from her function of simply being a piece of meat.
And like that the potential for Westworld exponentially expands again while the park itself edges ever closer to its inevitable “If the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates eat the tourists” phase.
But in this transcendent moment for Dolores tonight, we may have final confirmation that Westworld is the best new show of 2016.