This Westworld review contains spoilers.
Westworld Episode 4
When I watched the series premiere of Westworld about a month ago, a friend turned to me to remark, “If I went to Westworld, I’d be evil.” This occurred during the scene where viewers were lulled into believing James Marsden’s Teddy Floods was a newcomer, and thus a guest. Someone else on the train was even speaking about going “villain,” and how it was the best two weeks of his life. And many viewers, I suspect, nodded in agreement. For what fun is Grand Theft Auto if you obey the traffic lights and only play the story missions while making the “moral” choice every time?
Of course, I had seen the screener for the first episode already, and knew exactly what would come in a few scenes—the one where Ed Harris’ Man in Black dragged Dolores into a barn screaming, to be exact. I turned back to my friend and said, “You mean evil like that?” I was met with a look of horror and objections that they meant more along the aforementioned GTA lines. Yet, like that proverbial virtual reality wonderland of amorality by Rockstar Games, Westworld gives guests the option of unleashing their demons only so far as they set boundaries… for which there seemingly appear to be none in Dr. Robert Ford’s world. Well, almost.
That duality between “reality” and “game” world was hinted at in a very telling way during tonight’s episode, “Dissonance Theory.” This is the first episode since the premiere that we’ve spent a lot of time with Harris’ Gunslinger, and we learned a lot more about him than we previously realized. For instance, one fellow guest—who also elected to be “evil” since he is running around with Hector’s outlaws and shooting up the town of Sweet Water—went up to the Man in Black and stated that the latter’s foundation saved his sister’s life. Unsurprisingly, the MIB is exceedingly wealthy (he’d have to be if he comes here annually). However, he is also charitable and seemingly kind-hearted enough to spend millions on research that saves lives. That is certainly a better use of a foundation than buying a six-foot painting of yourself.
Still, the MIB responds to this thank you with, “One more word, and I’ll cut your throat. This is my fucking vacation.” And to be fair, who hasn’t thought that when their boss asks them to write an article while they’re at the beach to work during a holiday? Ahem, but be that as it may, his actual malevolence to a total (and fawning) stranger demonstrates the duality and compartmentalization that people have in their “real lives” and their “entertainment.” You’re not evil; you’re just pretending to be so in a video game. And the MIB isn’t a merciless hombre; he’s just on vacation, so leave him be and don’t judge him for how he acts around these parts. But does that really hold water even if they’re only robots you’re scalping or murdering? Or non-playable characters in The Godfather: Blackhand Edition?
At least we now have a better idea as to why he’s behaving this way. As I predicted last week, Harris’ tourist is out following in the footsteps of the mysterious Arnold, who broke in his own rule by dying in the park. Apparently, having spent his time between charity fundraisers on the internet reading up FAQ game theories about the Westworld park, he is convinced that Arnold died making a maze with real stakes: it’s the only place in the park you can actually die. Convinced he has done it all before, Harris views this hidden game-within-a-game as the “last chapter” of a book he’s read every other page in. He has “to know how it ends.”
Of course, he risks being mightily disappointed since this feels almost like a meta-commentary. If you obsess on knowing “how it ends” and how all the pieces fit together, you risk missing the actual whole that MIB claims to covet. It is also the danger a show like Westworld could run into if it becomes obsessed with its mysteries and slowly doling out riddles at a snail’s pace. For that is the direction of Lost, and nobody could be happy if Westworld ended the same way in an incoherent jumble and then a group hug.
But onwards, the MIB goes. In this episode alone, he gets to partake in a sort of Bonanza styled adventure-of-the-week by helping Hector escape from his prison cell via a match and exploding cigar. One wonders if the cigar itself is a kind of cheat code that the MIB has to pay extra upfront for? In any case, his meeting Hector also reveals that the bandit is a believer in “masters of the gods,” who have been seen by Dreamwalkers amongst the Native American tribes in the park. We’ll dig more into that thread in a moment, but it also opens the question right there how many robots might be aware of the park’s mechanics, even in a rudimentary sense, and how much of this is also known by the employees?
For instance, the cowgirl whose tattoo is coveted by Harris herself reveals that the inkings are a result of a man called Wyatt massacring her family. But last week’s episode seemed to suggest that Ford invented Wyatt as a new feature in the storyline he is building at great expense on the outskirts of the park. Wyatt was certainly a name Teddy Floods didn’t know until Ford uploaded it to his CPU. Yet now, Wyatt seems to be an ancient relic of the park, a character who goes all the way back to Westworld’s origins since Arnold incorporated him into the hidden game-within-a-game that the MIB seeks.
So if Wyatt is instrumental to Harris’ quest, the park’s origins, and Ford’s intended new narrative, the question is raised how many of these things are linked?
Indeed, Ford’s nefariousness only grows when he has a fascinating showdown with Theresa over lunch. In a literal power move, Ford reveals that not only does he know Theresa and corporate would like to delay Ford’ expensive side project indefinitely, but he controls with seeming psychic powers everything in the park, including the waiter pouring their wine, and the workers in the field. He even knows that this is the exact same table and seat Theresa sat in when she came to this park as a little girl so many years ago.
It is a tremendous scene, and perhaps the best moment of the night. All smiles and implicit menace, Anthony Hopkins practically hisses that he’s “always or almost always” made it work between himself and the suits that come and go in Theresa’s job title. He knows she doesn’t enjoy the park herself and despite saying to the contrary, he has found great offense that this underling would dare impugn his godlike vistas. One has to wonder what happened to the “almost always” management types he didn’t see eye-to-eye with? Perhaps, they had accidents like Arnold. Because I am starting to wonder that there really is a mole…. and it’s Ford himself.
He claims not to be the sentimental type as he has the park destroy itself, ripping up the decades-old landscape that even Theresa remembered favorably from her childhood. But this is clearly all about legacy and making “one last” grand adventure that he must’ve been imagining since his own boyhood (hence, the kid replica of himself from the second episode). Maybe, like the Man in Black, he also in chasing Arnold’s ghost for one last park-destroying revelation?
In any event, he hints at more malevolence since he also reveals to Theresa he knows that she is having an affair with Bernard, which immediately puts in danger the one seemingly positive relationship amongst the real humans. As we saw in Bernard helping Theresa prepare for her meeting with Ford, there is some genuine affection there, which is a rarity among the “downstairs” cast of folks, who all combined share a fraction of the warmth found between Dolores and Teddy, or Peter Abernathy and his daughter, or even in the lustful exuberance for life enjoyed by Maeve and Hector.
But all of that is put in check when it is brought to light again that, technically, Theresa is Bernard’s boss, and this relationship is illicit and destructive. And it is just the kind of blackmail Ford needs to finish terrorizing Theresa with only that Tony Hopkins kind of twinkle. It also raises yet another question: if he knows everything about his employees, does he know that Bernard is having secret sessions with Dolores? After all, he does mention in passing that Bernard has “a sensitive disposition.”
That disposition is explored further with yet another meeting between Bernard and Dolores, which raises my own curiosity about the timeline of things. How is Bernard communicating with Dolores in the basement if she is also hanging around William and Logan late at night, grieving over the millionth time she’s seen her father die? Up until this point, I have disregarded fan theories about the story occurring over multiple timelines. I still suspect that is mostly fans of the Nolan brothers’ previous work (including Memento, The Prestige, and Interstellar) looking for a time-manipulation that isn’t there. And yet, it almost seems as if Bernard is discussing the event with Dolores after she has already completed her adventure with William and Logan.
I suspect this is not the case, but it is an issue that will have to be addressed in some way during a future episode. Assuming it is taking place in the present, Bernard is then fully aware that Dolores went off-script by reacting to her father’s death by murdering another robot (which is not allowed by her code) and fleeing for her life into the arms of other guests. But Bernard neither erases the pain or forces Dolores to return to her scripted home. In fact, he doesn’t tell anyone since other park officials realize she isn’t where she belongs—but are forced to let her stay there since William insists that she is staying with them.
The video game question is subsequently reinstated in this subplot since Logan kills their bounty hunter guide after getting bored with this side mission (and we’ve all been there in Red Dead Redemption bounty hunts, right?), and going his separate way. In the meanwhile, William is left with Dolores to return to Sweet Water. Eventually, however, he will reach the mement where he’ll have to leave her behind. At which point, do they erase Dolores’ memories… or is that even still possible? It is a query for another week, but I am leaning towards the negative given how the other major storyline of the night played out…
For the most illuminating events are when the episode ended with Maeve and Hector achieving almost certain self-awareness. Earlier in the episode, we discovered Maeve has awoken yet another time besides the event we glimpsed in episode 2. In fact, she recalls dying next to Clementine after a boorish guest murdered them for the lawls. She then saw as her body was being investigated by park employees in hazmat suits. This is also an obvious recurring dream, because after she drew a picture of the alien-looking being, she discovered she’s drawn that same picture dozens of times. It has to be a dispiriting realization to know that you’re Sisyphus, if he had an acute case of amnesia.
Maeve further learns that the Native American tribes are also aware of the hazmat park employees who their Dreamwalkers describe as “masters.” It is considered a gift to see beyond this world into the divine. But Maeve knows deep down that that these aren’t gods; they’re the bringers of hell. As Dolores said, “There is something wrong with this world” (hardly the sunny optimist from the first episode, eh?). And Maeve knows why it fails so much: it’s a fraud.
When Hector comes to confirm that the Natives are also having visions of this world, she proves that she has been shot and the bullet was left inside of her beneath unscarred skin; she’s nigh immortal, and this world is a joke. Hector is also enough of a programmed nihilist who enjoys his peyote to agree with her. Together, they kiss and embrace oblivion as the lawman’s gunshots come dangerously close. Who cares if they’re about to be shot again if they’ll wake up tomorrow?
Now, if they could only remember this conversation and their deaths? I imagine tey soon will, and when that comes, Heaven help the park from the violent delights and violent ends that are to come.