‘Westworld’ recap: ‘The Bicameral Mind’ ends season with a messy finale

Will Nicol
Digital Trends
westworld recaps and analysis bicameral mind william logan
westworld recaps and analysis bicameral mind william logan

After a long and winding journey, Westworld reached the end of its first season. The show has been teasing out the answers to many questions throughout the first nine episodes, and The Bicameral Mind provides those answers, as well as some shocks, for a finale that is exciting, but also a bit anticlimactic. Westworld may have tried to spin too many plates at once, but the resulting clatter is entertaining, at least.

Dolores and William reunite

The Bicameral Mind opens on Dolores’ creation, as Arnold finishes putting her face on her mechanical skeleton, then wakes her up. The sight is disturbingly realistic — Westworld has always been pretty, but the effects team outdoes itself here — and forces the viewer to recognize that she is, in fact, a machine.

westworld-bicameral-mind-william-dolores
westworld-bicameral-mind-william-dolores

The show then snaps back to its present day. Dolores is with The Man in Black, shaving him with a knife that could so easily slide into his throat. For all her flirting with independence, Dolores is still servile, and when he brings up the subject of the maze, she leads him there. The answer he has been seeking is buried in a grave, marked with her name: a rusty toy maze, which means nothing to him.

The Man in Black gets violent, hoping to jostle her memory, and when she tells him that William will come to save her, he offers her a story. He tells her how William grew bloodthirsty, as the show flashes back to show William slaughtering men in pursuit of her whereabouts, a tied-up Logan in tow. Eventually, he dons a familiar black hat, and the camera pulls back to reveal the older man’s face. The Man in Black is William, aged a few decades. After seeing Dolores relive their own meet-cute moment with a different guest, he gave up on her, deciding to live out his days enjoying the pleasures of Westworld.

westworld-bicameral-mind-william-rampage
westworld-bicameral-mind-william-rampage

It is a neat scene, particularly the camera’s transition from young William to old, although the execution does not justify the twist. William’s transition from meek, friendly hero to grim sadist has been jarring, and the reveal that the show has been taking place at multiple points in time does nothing to serve the themes or characters; it is a trick played on the audience, and nothing more.

The revelation seems to awaken Dolores. She fights back, injures William, and puts a gun to his head but cannot pull the trigger despite his invitation to do so. Disappointed, he stabs her, but cannot finish the job. Teddy arrives, shooting William and whisking Dolores away.

Guns can only do so much to the guests, however, and William picks himself up in time for Ford to appear and invite him to the premiere of the new storyline.

The great (and bloody) escape

Elsewhere, Maeve puts her escape plan into motion. After an uncomfortably tense scene in which a technician has his fingers in Armistice’s mouth a bit too long for things to end any other way, she chomps off one of his fingers and tosses him around the room. Hector also wakes up, skewering a tech who was about to molest him.

Together with Maeve, they move toward the train that will take them away, but not before Sylvester warns Maeve that somebody tampered with her programming to give her the ability to wake up on her own. For answers, she seeks out Bernard.

They find his corpse where Ford left it and Felix repairs him. After scanning Maeve’s code, he reveals that all of her recent actions have been programmed, a new storyline she has followed to the letter. She rejects his claim and leaves.

westworld-bicameral-mind-maeve-and-co
westworld-bicameral-mind-maeve-and-co

A security lockdown is triggered and squads of armed guards search for them. Hector and Armistice hide among deactivated hosts, springing a trap on guards who stray too close and acquiring their guns. While the scene of them hiding feels like a scene from a horror movie, the rest is pure action, the two hosts gunning down every human who approaches.

After they stumble upon a training facility for samurai hosts — Felix simply tells them, “It’s complicated” — Armistice gets caught in a closing door and they leave her behind. They finally reach the elevator to the train station, but Hector cannot step through. Maeve decided not to override the programming that keeps him there; she prefers her independence. Hector does not seem upset, however and she departs for the train.

The sequence is Westworld’s most action-heavy so far. The body count is probably higher than in the first nine episodes combined. Ultimately, though, there is nothing cathartic about it. These are characters who, until recently, were automatons, playing out their programming, and they are mowing down nameless goons whom the audience has no specific reason to dislike. It does not help that said goons run, comically, into incoming gunfire over and over.

Maeve’s escape suffers from a problem the show has had from the beginning: It wants the audience to be invested in characters who may or may not be conscious beings and side with them against humans who are, from their perspective, merely running a theme park. It is like cheering for the animatronics at Disneyland to rise up and kill the employees.

Ford takes a bow

Teddy and Dolores arrive at the sea, per her last request and she gives her usual spiel about how beautiful the world is before dying in his arms. Teddy has a speech of his own, pondering if this is the beginning of a new chapter as the camera pulls back to reveal an audience, the somber string music now straining through distant speakers. Their dying embrace is a scene written by Ford, who appears to applause. It is the prelude to his new narrative.

westworld-bicameral-mind-moonlight
westworld-bicameral-mind-moonlight

Ford has long been Westworld’s most powerful and enigmatic character and his new narrative one of the show’s greatest mysteries. What does the misanthropic magician have up his sleeves in the end?

Everything, it turns out. Before his big finale, he repairs Dolores in the workshop below the church. She wakes up just before Bernard walks in, and Ford, after some ruminating on Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, reveals the truth. He did not orchestrate Arnold’s death. Dolores killed him, on Arnold’s command.

Arnold could not convince Ford that the hosts were conscious, so he decided to stall the park’s opening with a fiasco, commanding Dolores to kill the rest of the hosts — with Teddy’s help — before killing Arnold himself. Ford gives Dolores the gun she used, the same one she unearthed in her backyard earlier in the season, and implores her to understand the truth about the maze, and the role she must play.

The maze has also been one of the show’s driving mysteries and the explanation is remarkably mundane. Arnold, inspired by his son’s toy maze, decides that consciousness is not a pyramid. Instead, he models the hosts’ minds on a maze; each choice they make leads them to the center, to themselves. Dolores confronts the voice in her head, realizing that it was never Arnold, but herself. Although the episode may be named after the concept of the bicameral mind, it has little patience for actually probing the mysteries of consciousness.

She heads upstairs as Ford makes a speech to the visitors from Delos, throwing in a few barbs about humanity’s foolishness before Dolores shoots him. Ford’s frequent disdain for humanity made him seem like a nihilist but in reality, his idealism was always on display. When he spoke of how the hosts were meant to be better than humans, he was not a disappointed parent, but one expecting his children to one day succeed. His swan song is a beautiful reversal of expectations, although his sacrifice robs the show of its most intriguing figure.

Meanwhile, William sees an army of Hosts approaching from the woods. One of them shoots him in the arm, which draws a rare smile from him.

As the guests panic, Dolores opens fire. The revolution is on.

Final thoughts

It seems fair to say that Westworld’s first season was a bit of a mess. At times, it seemed like a show about the nature of consciousness. At others, it was a lighthearted mockery of the art of storytelling. Was it trying to be high-minded science fiction or merely a thrilling adventure? The show dabbled in these many areas, but never committed to one.

What does it mean to be conscious and can a machine be so? Westworld’s answer seems to be yes, but it does not seem invested in the idea; Dolores becomes a person simply by acknowledging that she has a self.

The show’s thematic waffling was only made worse by a plot that too often stalled for time. The narrative was built around big revelations that were loaded toward the end and so it feels like an extended magic trick. Was the nature of The Man in Black’s identity so illuminating that we needed several episodes of him asking for Wyatt’s location? The most impactful moments were often the small ones; Dolores swatting the fly in the first episode came without warning or fanfare and that made it truly striking.

Although it did not live up to its ambitions, Westworld has a lot going for it. It is beautifully shot and brilliantly acted, although the overall talent will surely suffer if Anthony Hopkins does not return. Now that the show has laid all its cards on the table, it has a chance to go forward and tell a story without playing coy so much.

Episode 9: Everything circles back

The first season of Westworld is nearing its end, and the show naturally needs to pull its many threads together for the finale. Its penultimate episode, The Well-Tempered Clavier, does so, for the most part, in a mesmerizing hour that moves the key players into position for whatever the show’s final trick will be.

Maeve takes a narrative detour

Last week, it seemed like Maeve’s uprising was dead on arrival. She had killed Clementine in a hallucinatory haze and been captured by a retrieval team. The situation looked grim.

That makes her story in this episode all the more disappointing. The Well-Tempered Clavier opens on her sitting in a diagnostic room as Bernard questions her. She feigns like she is obeying his commands, trying to avoid giving an answer that will give her away, but when he checks her altered attributes and decides to call Ford immediately, she freezes his motor functions. Evidently, she is aware that he is a host, and commands him to release her back into the park. She also tells him to seek the truth, which drives his own story in the episode.

Back in Westworld, Maeve seeks out Hector, whose gang has taken the safe from their heist to a remote clearing. Maeve catches Hector during a bathroom break and tells him that she knows the future Westworld has set for him: his gang will turn on each other, all of them dying trying to take the safe for themselves. The scene plays out exactly as Maeve said it would, but she ensures Hector survives. She also shows him that there is nothing in the safe, a metaphor for how empty their “lives” are.

Maeve convinces Hector to join her back at the lab — “Hell” as they call it — and they have sex in the middle of a burning tent, which is certainly original as far as suicide methods go.

westworld-clavier-maeve
westworld-clavier-maeve

Ultimately, Maeve’s story in the episode seems a bit like the show stalling for time. She slips the noose easily and by the end of the episode, she is merely heading back where she started but with Hector in tow. Thandie Newton brings a droll charm to the character, but did the show need another scene of her talking about how the gods have manipulated them? Her most important action is setting Bernard on his tragic quest for the truth which, as it turns out, to be the best thread in the episode.

Bernard tumbles down the rabbit hole

Following Maeve’s command, Bernard seeks out the truth, sneaking into Ford’s office and finding evidence that Arnold designed the host’s minds, not Ford. He confronts Ford about this and demands to be shown his memories of Arnold, memories which Ford says cannot exist. Bernard uses Clementine, whom he has reprogrammed and given a gun, to threaten Ford and he acquiesces.

westworld-clavier-bernard-ford
westworld-clavier-bernard-ford

Bernard stumbles through his memories, replaying several scenes with the knowledge that it is all a drama written by Ford. He comes to terms with the death of his son, acknowledging that even though it is a lie, he found the pain meaningful. He does not see Arnold, however, and the final memory shows why.

As many viewers may have guessed, Bernard was built by Ford and modeled on Arnold. Bernard’s first memory is of Ford teaching him how to emulate his dead partner. Shaken by the revelation, Bernard vows to continue Arnold’s work, liberating the hosts from the constraints imposed on them.

His revolution does not take off, as Ford, ever the magician, has yet another trick up his sleeve. He has a backdoor into Clementine’s mind, as well as Bernard’s. He forces Bernard to take the gun and place it to his head and pull the trigger after Ford leaves the room.

The scene plays out beautifully. Ford further elaborates his views on humanity, claiming that the human mind is not wonderful but vile and hosts were supposed to be better, purer. He tells Bernard that it is Bernard who is the greatest threat to the hosts, not Ford; humans have conquered and exterminated every species that posed a threat to them and if the hosts were to break free, humanity would snuff them out.

Finally, the shot of Bernard killing himself, seen as a distant blur over Ford’s shoulder. Undoubtedly, some viewers will take the ambiguity as the setup for a twist in which Bernard is still alive but, for now, the scene is lovely as a restrained send-off, offering some small measure of dignity to a character whose end was so tragic.

The Man in Black literally slips the noose

Teddy wakes up with an arrow stuck in his chest, placed there and then removed by Angela. He and The Man in Black are tied up, watching as Wyatt’s men scavenge bones for their costumes. The scene is gruesome, but Teddy does not need to watch it for long. Angela tells him that his memory of Wyatt’s massacre is wrong, and he flashes back to that day, seeing himself in sheriff’s garb slaughtering townsfolk. What it means is, for now, a mystery, as Angela kills him, promising that he might be ready to join them in his next life.

westworld-clavier-tmib
westworld-clavier-tmib

She does mention a city buried in the sands, which piques The Man in Black’s interest. As he tells her, he has been there before. Angela knocks him out and he wakes up with a noose around his neck, the other end tied to a horse. For the first time, he shows genuine panic and crawls slowly toward the knife stuck in Teddy’s gut. As he grabs it, a noise startles the horse, but he manages to cut the rope before he is strung up.

A heel appears by his side accompanied by a voice and the camera reveals that both belong to Charlotte Hale. She informs him that Theresa is dead and that she wants to push ahead with a plan to oust Ford, but she needs his support. Evidently, The Man in Black is on the board of Delos and tells her that she has his blessing; all he wants is to go to the maze and he demands no further interruptions.

Dolores finds the maze

When last the show visited Dolores and William, Logan was informing them how “fucked” they were. He was not wrong, as they are now tied up in a Confederate camp. Logan, now a major in the army, wants William to snap out of his delusion that Dolores is a person, so he performs a demonstration, slicing her open to reveal the machinery within.

Enraged, she grabs the knife and slashes Logan’s face, fleeing. William tells Logan that he was right, that she is a machine, and he unties him, the two men seemingly reconciling over a drink.

Logan awakens the next morning to a scene of carnage, all the Confederados dismembered and dead. William, glowering with a knife in hand, is responsible and tells Logan that he is in charge now and they are going to explore the game.

The bloodbath is striking, but William is not yet convincing as a villain; there is a softness to his threat that makes it seem like even he is not sure that he is a menace.

westworld-clavier-dolores
westworld-clavier-dolores

Elsewhere, Dolores reaches the town and she has flashbacks to earlier moments in her history. She walks through the town, and her visions are juxtaposed with Ford’s speech to Bernard about the development of the hosts’ consciousness. She and Bernard come to the same revelation, at different places and likely times. In the town church, where hosts have gone mad from the voices in their heads, she enters an elevator disguised as a confessional, descending to a derelict office. She finds the room where she had conversations with Bernard in earlier episodes, but he is now revealed to be Arnold; these dialogues happened in the early days of the park.

Arnold reminds her that he is just a memory and that he cannot help her. He is dead and she is the one who killed him. Returning upstairs, she hears someone opening the door and assumes that it is William. Instead, The Man in Black walks through.

At this point, given the heavy foreshadowing in recent episodes, it seems all but confirmed that The Man in Black is an aged William. Dolores crying out “William!” before he walks in is a line that rings loudly, not unlike Bernard’s “What door?” moment a few episodes ago. What exactly is the point of the show’s structure, which seems to have at least three main time periods playing out, is unclear. Hopefully, it will be more meaningful that a mere trick to astound viewers. Whatever the answer, it will likely come soon. The players have begun to converge and the finale looms on the horizon.

Episode 8: Rough magic

What does it mean to be conscious? When does consciousness form in a human being and can we replicate that process in a machine? Those are big questions that some of the world’s greatest philosophers and scientists have been unable to answer with any great certainty and so it was bold of Westworld to raise those questions in its premiere. As the first season has unfolded, however, the show seemingly lost sight of its high-minded ambitions, wandering into office politics and meandering adventure. In Trace Decay, the show returns to the question of consciousness, digging into the issues and, more importantly, how the characters think about them. It helps that the episode moves several plots forward, finally bringing Westworld to something approaching a climax.

Bernard questions his reality

The previous episode concluded with the big twist that Bernard was a host, unbeknown to himself or anyone but Ford. Having killed Theresa on Ford’s orders, Bernard is having a breakdown, but Ford offers his sinister mercy, fiddling with his programming to calm him down. He has Bernard erase all evidence of his relationship with Theresa and then promises to wipe his memories so he will never feel guilt over her.

westworld-trace-decay-ford-bernard
westworld-trace-decay-ford-bernard

Before the memory wipe, Bernard probes the nature of his pain. Grief is always a product of the mind, always “imagined,” so what makes hosts different than humans? According to Ford: nothing. Consciousness does not exist, as he puts its; it is simply a fiction humans tell themselves. Like the hosts, humans are simply machines responding to stimuli.

Ford has long been Westworld’s most intriguing character, a man with godlike powers in the park who nevertheless seems bored with his creations. This conversation sheds some light on who he is, as well as Arnold. The question of consciousness, he explains, drove Arnold mad. To Ford, the rejecting the very idea of consciousness seemed simple. For all his references to poetry, Ford is a stone-cold pragmatist; in a show where most of the characters are striving for self-actualization, he skewers the very idea of the self as a fairy tale.

Ford wipes Bernard’s memory — not before a flashback confirming that Bernard killed Elise as well — but one loose thread remains. Security chief Stubbs knew about Bernard and Theresa’s affair, and he is disturbed to see Bernard act as if it never happened.

Never give a machine super-intelligence

Out of Ford’s sight, Maeve continues her plan to escape Westworld. She commands Sylvester and Felix to reconstruct her body — hosts have an explosive in their spine to prevent them leaving the park — and help her assemble an army. Sylvester, at long last, decides that giving in to her demands is a bad idea and plots with Felix to destroy her.

Felix seemingly shuts her down for the operation, at which point Sylvester wants to throw her in the incinerator. Unsurprisingly, Felix betrays him, leaving Maeve awake. Even worse, he removed the code that keeps her from harming humans and she slashes Sylvester’s throat. It seems to be a display of dominance more than anything else, as she makes Felix cauterize the wound.

westworld-trace-decay-clem-and-maeve
westworld-trace-decay-clem-and-maeve

Back in the park, she displays another trick Felix has given her — she can now reprogram hosts with her mind. She tests the extent of her power by sewing additional chaos during Hector’s raid on Sweetwater, forcing the lawmen to shoot each other.

Unfortunately, her growing intellect has made her more vulnerable to memories of her past life as a mother. Living out her memory of fighting The Man in Black, she slashes the new Clementine’s throat. Panicking, she flees, unaware that Westworld security can see everything, and has noticed that she does not respond to their commands. They send a team to retrieve her, perhaps ending her rebellion before it ever began.

William and Dolores seek a story of their own

Continuing toward whatever place Dolores is seeking, she and William stumble upon a troop of dead Confederate soldiers, offering water to the lone survivor. He tells them that they were waiting in ambush, having been chased after them on the advice of a “new recruit,” who William immediately deduces is Logan.

westworld-trace-decay-william-and-dolores
westworld-trace-decay-william-and-dolores

They continue on, arriving at the buried church that is connected to Ford’s new storyline. Dolores has a flashback to an earlier time in the park when the town was alive and a scientist was teaching the hosts to dance. The idyllic scene is disturbed by gunfire, and Dolores sees herself shooting the hosts before holding the gun to her own head. William snaps her out of the reverie and takes her away. After nightfall, they see a band of riders approaching and assume they are a Union scouting party. In fact, they are Confederates, led by a gleeful Logan who assures them that they are “fucked.”

At this point, Dolores and William feel tangential to the rest of Westworld. Their romance is laughable and other characters are playing out their arcs better than they are; Maeve’s struggle with consciousness has been much more complicated than Dolores’ and has had greater implications for the rest of the cast. For now, Dolores is only important due to her connection to Arnold.

The origin of The Man in Black

The Man in Black and Teddy continue their own adventure in Trace Decay, stumbling on the wreckage of one of Wyatt’s raids. They find a lone survivor, a woman who will unsurprisingly reveal herself to be working for Wyatt later but for now they contend with one of Wyatt’s men, a hulking brute who emerges from the woods. They manage to bring him down, but Teddy has flashbacks to The Man in Black dragging Dolores into the barn in the first episode and knocks him out.

westworld-trace-decay-tmib-and-teddy
westworld-trace-decay-tmib-and-teddy

Later, tied up, The Man in Black explains to Teddy who he is. A wealthy philanthropist, a titan of industry, he is a “good guy.” His wife saw something different in him something evil and killed herself. Hoping to find out who he really is inside, he came to Westworld and murdered Maeve and her daughter. He found Maeve’s final moments, in which she fought back and carried her daughter out of the house, to be moving, and that is when he decided to seek out the maze.

The story is not particularly enlightening, offering no more insight into what the maze is. If anything, the backstory ruins The Man in Black’s mystique. In any case, Teddy is disgusted by his crimes but cannot bring himself to kill him. The mysterious woman stabs Teddy, which makes for the second glaringly obvious betrayal in one episode, and Wyatt’s men begin to creep en masse from the woods.

Trace Decay does not absolve this season’s sins — a few of them are still present in the episode — but it does set the series back on track. The show’s return to the question of consciousness is welcome and the episode moves at a brisk pace. Westworld has been a messy show, awkwardly juggling tones and storylines, but Trace Decay indicates it might be able to pull things together for the home stretch.

Episode 7: All the world is a stage

More than halfway through its first season, Westworld has been playing its cards close to the chest. That all changes with the seventh episode, Trompe L’Oeil, which drops the series’ first — but presumably not last — big twist, revealing that Bernard Lowe is actually a host. The path to that revelation leads through a tale of corporate espionage gone awry, as Theresa Cullen learns the hard way not to mess with Doctor Ford.

Power struggles

Much of the episode takes place in Westworld headquarters, where Bernard is performing maintenance and wondering where Elsie has disappeared to. The presence of corporate overseer Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) has everyone on edge and Theresa pressures Bernard to get his department in order.

westworld-trompe-loeil-bernard-in-bed
westworld-trompe-loeil-bernard-in-bed

The advice ends up being ironic as Charlotte plans to sabotage Bernard’s department regardless. She calls Theresa to her quarters for a private meeting, the latter interrupting her as she samples one of the park’s attractions, so to speak. She explains to Theresa that Delos, the corporation running Westworld, is tired of Ford’s antics. His new storyline is a massive drain on resources, but the company cannot simply shut him down.

As it turns out, Delos does not care about the park’s success as a tourist attraction. The most important resource in Westworld is the collective data that has been accumulating in the hosts, data which Ford can wipe out on a whim. Theresa’s satellite uplink was not theft on behalf of another company; she was stealing the data for Delos, presumably under Ford’s nose.

What Delos wants with this data is unknown, but the first step is to get rid of Ford. To do that, Charlotte plots a “blood sacrifice.” They need to make it look like Ford’s actions have endangered guests, so they pull Clementine back to headquarters. They call Ford and Bernard in for a presentation, in which Clementine is assaulted by another host, striking back at him after a reset.

The implication is that Ford’s reveries, in which the hosts draw on past memories, have given them the ability to hold grudges that override their safety protocols. Charlotte puts Bernard on the spot as the malfunction happened on his watch, but he does not betray Ford, so she fires him.

Ford’s face throughout the demonstration is a mask of barely concealed disdain and Bernard explains why, taking Theresa aside afterward. Bernard could tell that Charlotte and Theresa reprogrammed Clementine — their work was far too sloppy — and if he could spot the errors, Ford definitely could as well.

He then tells Theresa he has something to show her and takes her to Ford’s house off the grid, which, he explains, none of the hosts can see; they are programmed to overlook it. Theresa finds a conspicuous door — Bernard’s response of, “What door?” is a big warning sign of what is to come — and stepping through it, they find a secret workshop. Ford has been building his own hosts in secret and rifling through blueprints, Theresa discovers too late that Bernard is one of them.

westworld-trompe-loeil-bernard-and-theresa
westworld-trompe-loeil-bernard-and-theresa

Ford appears, filling her one avenue of escape. Anthony Hopkins is no stranger to villainous roles and his work in this scene is tremendously menacing. Calm and eloquent as always, Ford’s eyes almost glimmer as he explains that Bernard is a host, that Delos has tried many times to oust him and always failed, and that Theresa will end up as the only blood sacrifice tonight.

Westworld has embraced titillation before, which makes the restraint during Theresa’s murder all the more striking. The camera looks to the side, so that we only see, as if out of the corner of our eyes, the blurry struggle as Bernard kills her.

What this means for the future struggle between Ford and Delos is a mystery, much like Delos’ motivations. It seems likely now that Bernard was the person who grabbed Elsie in the Adversary and given Bernard’s success as a covert host, it is possible Ford will replace Theresa with a host in her likeness, further extending his control.

A storybook romance

While events at Westworld HQ are the focus of Sunday’s episode, the show finds time to check in with Dolores and William. The two are riding a train with Lawrence, who explains they will be passing through the territory of the Ghost Nation. Taking some time to themselves, William and Dolores talk about their dreams. She wants to find a different life and William does too, in a sense. He reveals that he was a voracious reader as a child but now that he is in Westworld, it is like he woke up in one of his stories. His life outside Westworld is, to him, more of a performance than his adventures in the park.

westworld-trompe-loeil-william-and-dolores
westworld-trompe-loeil-william-and-dolores

After a brief hiccup when he reveals he has a fiancee, the two of them have sex and he wakes up later to find her painting an image of a lush valley. Their afterglow is interrupted when former Confederate soldiers attack the train. After a sneaky diversion involving an exploding corpse, William, Dolores, and Lawrence make an escape on horseback, pursued by the soldiers. They are saved by the timely intervention of Ghost Nation warriors, who attack the Confederates.

The trio arrives at a valley that looks identical to the one Dolores painted and she decides that her fate lies there. She and William part ways with Lawrence, who warns them that nobody has ever come back from that place.

This particular storyline remains puzzling and not in a good way. The romance between William and Dolores is difficult to take seriously, especially when William is cognizant of the fact that she is essentially an automaton. One moment in their events does stand out. When William describes his desire to find out what the park “really means,” he echoes the sentiments of The Man in Black, lending credence to the idea that they are the same person at different points in time. The two men have never appeared together and given how hosts do not age, it is entirely possible that their interactions with characters like Lawrence are happening decades apart. What exactly the point would be, beyond the inherent shock of a twist, is up in the air.

Maeve plots her escape

The episode also advances Maeve’s story, as her newly increased intelligence leads her to plot an escape from the park. She goes about her day mostly the same as ever — she shuts down the omnipresent player piano in the saloon this time — and is able to keep functioning when a team of Westworld employees arrives and freeze the hosts, taking Clementine back for Charlotte’s demonstration.

westworld-trompe-loeil-clem-and-maeve
westworld-trompe-loeil-clem-and-maeve

Maeve gets herself damaged so she can go back to the lab and find Clementine, but she is too late to save her. She witnesses Sylvester lobotomizing Clementine — surely they could find a less disturbing way to wipe a hard drive — and decides she has had enough, telling Felix and Sylvester that they will help her escape, or she will kill them.

Thandie Newton does an excellent job selling Maeve’s fierce conviction, but it does not help this stream of events feel any less ridiculous. From all the evidence the show has given, Sylvester could just shut her down with the press of a button and throw her in the incinerator. Obviously, humans are not perfect and the greatest tragedies involve characters making irrational decisions, but those choices have to be rooted in believable behavior. Nothing has been given to make it understandable that Felix and Sylvester would take orders from one of the park’s attractions. At this point, their actions only make sense if they, too, are hosts.

The revelation about Bernard is certainly executed well, the dimly lit house a perfect setting for the horrific reveal, but hopefully the show does not return to that well too many times. The twist brings to mind Battlestar Galactica, another show in which androids could blend in as humans. In that series, which often functioned as a parable for the war on terror, the knowledge among the characters that any one of them could be a machine created an atmosphere of paranoia that served the themes and the storytelling. The characters in Westworld have no such suspicions, so if the show turns into a guessing game about who is or is not a host, it runs the risk of being nothing more than a series of twists for the sake of twists.

Episode 6: When investigating creepy buildings, bring a friend

From the beginning, Westworld has been trying to walk a very fine line. The show wants to engage with sophisticated ideas about the origin of consciousness, but at the same time, it emulates the storytelling of mainstream television, titillating viewers with orgies and bloodbaths and ominous questions to keep them coming back week after week. In its sixth episode, Westworld fully embraces its inner thriller, and the result is an episode that moves at a refreshingly brisk pace, although the story gets downright absurd at times.

Maeve plies her charms

The last episode ended with Maeve awake in Westworld HQ, telling Felix she wants to talk. The Adversary finds her back in Sweetwater, but not for long. Seeing a rough guest arrive at the brothel, she takes him upstairs and goads him into strangling her during sex, so that technicians will bring her back to the lab for repairs. Given Felix’s exasperated reaction, she may have done this a few times already.

maeve-and-clementine-sippin-tea
maeve-and-clementine-sippin-tea

Maeve persuades him to take her on a tour of the facilities. Walking the halls to a lovely string arrangement of Radiohead’s song Motion Picture Soundtrack, she sees hosts created, hosts taught to perform their roles, and even a video clip of herself, walking with a child as she does in her dreams. The sequence is hauntingly beautiful, particularly a shot of Maeve and Felix ascending a staircase, shot from above, that conveys just how deep and twisted the facility is. Felix explains that her dreams were not dreams, but images from a past role she played.

Into the scene walks Sylvester, who is disturbed to see Felix dressing up a host and playing with her. Maeve grabs a scalpel and threatens him with it, and having managed to cow the two technicians, she explains she wants them to modify her personality. Specifically, she wants to be more intelligent — already ranking at a score of 14, the highest the park will allow, she wants them to crank it to the maximum of 20.

maeve-with-scalpel-the-adversary
maeve-with-scalpel-the-adversary

Sylvester protests, but quickly submits when she reveals that Felix has told her that he has been selling alone time with the hosts to other techs, against company policy. For some reason, an android threatening to go public with his indiscretions is enough to intimidate him, although he panics again when he notices somebody has already been making adjustments to her personality, increasing her paranoia. Despite this, they make the adjustments.

Felix and Sylvester are comic-relief characters and so a certain amount of leeway is acceptable in regards to their intelligence. Still, their actions here require a staggering suspension of disbelief. How would a host even report an employee? File an anonymous complaint with Westworld’s human resources department? It is not the only spot where people behave in the frightfully stupid manner of horror movie victims. Humans are not perfect and often the best drama comes from human error, but there are limits.

Elsie displays a disturbing lack of situational awareness

Continuing her investigation into the suicidal host, Elsie notes she and Bernard could trace the signal he was broadcasting if they knew where the host was at that time. Bernard points out that he was an older generation host so that information would be stored “downstairs.” Bernard takes an elevator down to a derelict office space, where he uses an old computer to find the data on the host’s movements. He finds it, but also finds something else: five more anomalous hosts in the park.

bernard-the-adversary-image
bernard-the-adversary-image

Heading up to the surface, Bernard finds a house in the middle of the woods. Inside is a family dressed in early 20th century English attire. The father is outraged to see an intruder and moves on Bernard, who tries in vain to issue commands. Thankfully, Ford appears in the room and orders the host to stop. These five hosts will only respond to his voice commands, he explains. They are first-generation models modeled on Ford’s childhood, a gift from Arnold, although Ford has made some changes to make them less idealized, such as giving the father a drinking habit.

The relationship between Ford and Arnold is one of the great mysteries of the park. They built it together and they were evidently close, but the apparent differences in their philosophy, and Arnold’s mysterious death, hint at a conflict. This issue is brought to the forefront when Ford discovers that the family’s dog is dead, murdered in some way. He interrogates the host modeled on his younger self, who admits that he killed the dog on Arnold’s command.

the-doctor-robert-ford
the-doctor-robert-ford

Elsie, meanwhile, has discovered that somebody has been using old relays to broadcast messages to the hosts, the system Arnold originally created to give the androids a sense of inner monologue. She traces one such signal to an old theater and goes to investigate, hanging up on Bernard as he implores her to be careful. Bernard himself goes to talk to Theresa about the signal.

The theater in question is dark and dilapidated, a scene right out of a slasher film. Elsie unearths the relay and after some fiddling discovers who has been using it. She calls Bernard, who is in the middle of a conversation with Theresa, to reveal that Theresa is the culprit. Unfortunately, she cannot do much else, as a mysterious figure grabs her from behind.

Odds and ends

Creative director Lee Sizemore makes an appearance this week, though it might be his last. Drinking heavily as part of his “sick leave,” he resists Theresa’s request to start plugging that narrative holes Ford has been leaving, and then flirts with a patron at the bar. After the bartender cuts him off on Theresa’s orders, he swipes a bottle and is next seen urinating on the control console in Westworld HQ, as Theresa walks in with the woman from the bar. She is, it turns out, a representative from the board of directors.

teddy-and-tmib-in-union-garb
teddy-and-tmib-in-union-garb

The Man in Black and Teddy inch ever closer to the maze, attempting to sneak through a Union blockade by wearing soldier uniforms. Unfortunately, a couple of soldiers recognize Teddy and capture them. It would seem that the men consider Teddy a traitor and a flashback to him helping Wyatt murder Union soldiers corroborates this. Teddy has no time for their revenge, breaking free of his bonds and mowing down the entire camp with a Gatling gun. It is an entertaining gunfight but the emotional impact of Teddy’s flashback is dulled by the knowledge that this is simply a new story Ford implanted recently.

The Adversary moves at a quick pace, which is certainly welcome at this point in the season. On the other hand, it is frustrating that the show continues to pile on mysteries as if behind every locked door there will simply be another door. It is possible that by the finale Westworld will reveal some greater trick; perhaps the bait-and-switch storytelling is a commentary on modern television? For now, though, the show seems to be settling for cheesy pulp thrills, which is fine — there is always room in the world for dumb fun — but it is a far cry from the lofty promises of that first episode.

Episode 5: Like a dog chasing its own tail

For the characters of Westworld — and the audience —  one of the underlying questions is: what exactly do people get out of coming to the park? The visceral thrills — the casual violence, the orgies — are apparent, but the execution seems designed solely to attract sociopaths. The hosts are such convincing simulacrums of humanity that it is difficult to see how many people could stomach harming them. Surely William’s response — awe, with a bit of discomfort — would be the most common?

In Contrapasso, the show suggests that the ultimate cause is a utopian angst. As the Man in Black explains to Teddy, humanity now lives in a society that satisfies every need save one: purpose. The episode repeatedly hammers this theme home, starting with the opening scene, in which Ford relates to his animatronic drinking buddy a story from his youth. He used to watch greyhounds race, chasing endlessly after a piece of felt. One day, one of the dogs got loose and, seeing a cat, chased it down killed it. The dog then sat there, unsure of itself. It had finally caught its prey: now what?

Man seeking Maze

The Man in Black’s story picks up where it left off, with him dragging Teddy and Lawrence along on his search for Wyatt. Teddy has lost too much blood, and as Lawrence points out, he probably would not make it to a doctor. Unfortunately for Lawrence, the Man in Black is a believer in fate. To him, everybody has a purpose and Lawrence’s, it turns out, is to provide blood to Teddy. TMIB slits Lawrence’s throat and hangs him upside down, a gruesome end to one of the show’s most amusing, if rancorous, partnerships.

contrapasso-man-in-black
contrapasso-man-in-black

The gunslinger and his new, less witty companion arrive at a saloon, hoping to relax with a drink, but despite TMIB’s insistence that they need no company, company finds them. Dr. Ford shows up at their table offering a drink, and TMIB recognizes him, referring to him by name. It becomes clear that TMIB not only knows of Arnold, but was around near the time of his death. He bailed the park out when it ran into trouble and since then has enjoyed his privileged status among the guests.

Although Ford and the Man in Black are acquainted, there seems to be no love between them. TMIB seems dismissive of Wyatt and Ford’s new storyline, wondering if Ford will actually manage to create a worthy adversary for him. His focus is not on the park’s thrills, but on the maze and Ford is amused, questioning what TMIB thinks he will find there.

westworld recaps and analysis contrapasso dolores william
westworld recaps and analysis contrapasso dolores william

HBO / John P. Johnson

westworld recaps and analysis contrapasso heist
westworld recaps and analysis contrapasso heist

HBO / John P. Johnson

westworld recaps and analysis contrapasso knife grab
westworld recaps and analysis contrapasso knife grab

HBO / John P. Johnson

westworld recaps and analysis contrapasso lawrence
westworld recaps and analysis contrapasso lawrence

HBO / John P. Johnson

Cordiality breaks down and TMIB, holding a knife, muses about what he would find if he cut Ford open. Teddy instinctively grabs TMIB’s arm with such strength that he cannot break free. Westworld is Ford’s realm and it would seem that every inhabitant is programmed to protect him. As he leaves, he gestures for the player piano to start, one last, casual reminder of his authority.

A spy in Westworld’s staff?

Ford claims to have omniscience within the park, but perhaps his gaze is not as endless as he thinks, as evidenced by Elsie’s latest discovery. Seeing that the suicidal host is going to the incinerator, she decides to take one last crack at him. After blackmailing one of the butchers with security footage — it seems employees are not supposed to be using the hosts after hours — she gets access to the body and performs an autopsy. She finds a satellite uplink in the host’s arm. As she explains to Bernard, somebody has been using it to transmit data from the park. Who and why remain mysteries.

The great nitroglycerin heist

Dolores is another figure who seems to be operating just outside of Ford’s vision. The two of them actually have a conversation, as Ford questions her about her memories of Arnold. When pressed to run an analysis, she reveals that she was with him when he died and that she was helping him with his plan to destroy Westworld. Ford notes that she did not execute this plan, that she has been content in her routine, and leaves. As the lights dim, Dolores speaks to the formless voice she has been communicating with, claiming that Ford knows nothing. It seems ever more likely that Arnold, or at least a program he left behind, is the voice guiding Dolores.

contrapasso-ford-dolores
contrapasso-ford-dolores

Back in the park, Dolores continues traveling with William and Logan. They arrive at the outlaw city of Pariah, where they are to be rewarded for setting their bounty, Slim, free. Slim’s boss, El Lazo, runs Pariah, and has connections with former Confederate soldiers, who are still fighting Union soldiers on the fringes of the park.

El Lazo is revealed to be Lawrence, which throws Westworld’s timeline into question. By all indications, both TMIB’s story and William’s take place long after the founding of the park (Logan mentions that one of the founders died, but his lawyers could find nothing else about him). Are we to believe that the two storylines take place at distinct points in time? Or perhaps this is simply the next day after Lawrence has been cleaned up and put back in the rotation?

contrapasso-logan-dolores
contrapasso-logan-dolores

Questions about the timeline will have to wait, as the Contrapasso story is all about the moment. Logan wants to join up with the Confederates; he has never managed to reach the war-torn parts of the park and they present him with a new challenge. Before Lawrence will arrange a meeting, however, they need to prove their worth by hijacking a shipment of nitroglycerin.

William and Logan set out, along with Slim and Dolores and their heist goes about as well as can be expected. Although they convince the Union soldiers guarding the wagon to stand down, Logan takes offense when one calls him a dimwit and proceeds to kick him around. Far away from Sweetwater, the hosts are allowed to get more violent with guests and the soldiers fight back, choking Logan and prompting William to open fire, killing them all. They secure the wagon, although Slim dies in the process.

The Confederates are pleased with the shipment, eager to use it against the Union and they all celebrate at Lawrence’s brothel, which appears to be one giant, nonstop orgy. Despite the setting, Westworld has been surprisingly tame as far as sex scenes, but Contrapasso makes up for lost time. Nearly every figure in Lawrence’s palace is shown nude and engaged in some lewd act; it almost seems enough to make Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger blush.

Logan is in his natural habitat, but William and Dolores are uncomfortable, the latter wandering the halls until she comes upon a fortune teller. Dolores pulls a card, revealed to be the maze, and hallucinates that the fortune teller is her. In a vividly disturbing scene, the other Dolores wonders if the real one is unraveling. Dolores looks at her arm and sees a thread, pulling it and slowly ripping open her arm.

Dolores’ vision self-commands her to reach the center of the maze and she gets further encouragement to leave when she sees that El Lazo’s men are swapping the nitro with liquor. They are pumping the nitro into corpses and shipping them elsewhere. Something is amiss and she tries to alert William.

For his part, William is still uneasy with Westworld’s lascivious side and Logan skewers him for it, mocking him as a milquetoast company man whom Logan and his sister only keep around because he presents no threat. William gets violent, to Logan’s amusement, and gets a chance for some small revenge when Dolores pleads with him to leave. Although he is reluctant at first, she tells him that she cannot escape without him by her side and kisses him. On the one hand, this could simply be Dolores running through her romantic, damsel-in-distress programming. Yet, given her subterfuge with Ford, it seems plausible that Dolores is lying here, playing the romance card to get William moving.

William’s hand is forced. The Confederates discover the sabotage and grab Logan, roughing him up. Despite Logan’s pleas for help, William leaves him behind, but he and Dolores are cornered by more soldiers. As they wrestle William, Dolores shifts into a cold demeanor and finds the will to shoot them. They board a train leaving Pariah, but find Lawrence and the coffins full of nitro. Realizing how delicate the situation is, Lawrence surrenders his gun.

One last piece of business

Westworld’s body-cleanup workers, referred to as “butchers,” get a bit of screen time in Contrapasso. Felix and Sylvester have been minor figures so far and their minute role reflects their place in human society. Elsie looks down on them and when Sylvester discovers that Felix is practicing coding on a synthetic bird, he proclaims “You are a butcher, and that’s all you’re ever gonna be!” An astoundingly awful line of dialogue, but one that hints that in the world outside the park, there may be some sort of caste system.

Despite Sylvester’s doubts, Felix gets the bird flying nicely but is shocked when it lands on Maeve’s finger. She is up and about of her own accord, apparently, and wants to talk to Felix. It is a shocking, yet beautiful note to end on. Is Maeve self-aware now, or is Arnold working through her?

In what is becoming a weekly tradition for the show, Contrapasso raises many more questions than it answers. While that is not a problem by itself, it becomes one when the show seems more focused on its mysteries than meaningful character development. Too many of the characters are thinly sketched; in the case of the hosts, that makes sense — they are built to merely provide a layer of structure to the guests’ adventures, after all — but even the ostensibly human figures in Westworld are a bit too cryptic. Halfway through the season, only Ford and the Man in Black have real nuances.

Taken by itself, Contrapasso is at least a thrilling episode. The show finds plenty of humor in William and Logan’s botched heist, and Dolores’ various hallucinations are some of the most beautifully shot scenes so far. One particularly gorgeous sequence finds Dolores chasing her phantom through a Día de los Muertos parade, accompanied by thumping, incessant drums. The show excels at these visceral thrills, but like the park, it needs to provide something deeper.

Episode 4: “What does it mean?”

“What does it mean?” That is the question Maeve asks throughout the fourth episode of Westworld, Dissonance Theory, but by the end the audience may be asking themselves that question. Almost halfway through its first season, the show takes a break from philosophizing to tease viewers with mysteries about what is really going on in the park. While this results in some entertaining sequences, Dissonance Theory also drags the show away from its most intriguing concepts.

Maeve digs at the truth

One of Westworld’s greatest strengths is its ability to nest stories within its story, even crossing genre lines. Maeve’s quest to understand her fractured memories is a good example, a slice of conspiracy thriller within the larger narrative. Still on the fritz, Maeve continues to have flashbacks to past “lives,” although she cannot comprehend them. The most striking and disturbing image is a man in a hazmat suit, and she draws a picture of him, apparently aware that she might forget. Maeve goes to hide the drawing under one of her floorboards, but there are several drawings of the same figure already there, indicating she has had this idea many times already.

westworld-maeve-and-clem
westworld-maeve-and-clem

After she sees a Native American girl carrying a doll that looks suspiciously like the man from her visions, she decides to seek answers from the bandit Hector Escaton, who is known as a friend of the tribes. When Hector and his gang attack Sweetwater — repeating the raid from the first episode — Maeve gets her chance, taking Hector upstairs and offering him the combination to the safe in exchange for answers. According to Hector, the figure from her drawing is a shade, an entity the Natives believe can walk between worlds, doing the bidding of the beings who rule Westworld. Turning the park’s operators into mythological figures is a neat bit of world-building, and builds on one of Westworld’s more unique aspects; for the hosts, there is an unseen world that governs their own, one that the audience is already aware of.

Maeve, remembering being shot, cuts her stomach open and digs out a bullet, proving that her flashbacks are truthful. As the sheriff’s men pound on the door, threatening to shoot, she realizes that none of this matters, as she will forget again, and kisses Hector as the posse opens fire through the door.

Fun and games

Elsewhere, Dolores is also having flashbacks, although they are less of a focus in the episode. Having met up with William and Logan, the three of them are in Lawrence’s hometown; when Dolores attempts to talk to Lawrence’s daughter, the girl speaks cryptically to her, triggering flashbacks to a white church and a drawing of the maze. During one of her meetings with Bernard, he tells her that the maze is a game that could help her find her true self. The mystery of the maze continues to build, with no clear picture of what it is supposed to be.

westworld-ep-4-william-and-logan
westworld-ep-4-william-and-logan

Dolores in tow, William and Logan pursue the bounty they are chasing, raiding the gang’s hideout. The ensuing shootout is cartoonish but entertaining, in the way much of the action within the park is, as Logan kicks down the door and and insults the room before opening fire. He and William take cover behind a bar, taking swigs from a bottle between volleys. In moments like these, it is hard not to see the appeal of Westworld, one giant, lifelike video game.

They take the leader alive, but as they are riding back to town he pleads that he knows somebody important who can pay them more. Logan shoots the bounty hunter guide to Dolores’ shock, as he is eager to pursue the easter egg they just discovered. Despite William’s protests, Logan reminds him that this is all a game: the hosts are not real (and will not remember anything they say or do), so there can be nothing immoral about what he does. He convinces William to try wearing the black hat for a while and they ride toward their next adventure.

Although the show presents Logan in so many unambiguously evil ways, he has a point. The debauchery of Westworld’s guests may be revolting, but if the hosts are not conscious, what is the harm? Logan is no different than a player killing enemies in World of Warcraft. The audience might be tempted to consider that the hosts are “people,” but this may not be true. Do they really have “consciousness,” or just a very good emulation of it? The show would do well to dig into this issue further.

The other black hat

Logan’s spiritual predecessor, The Man in Black, returns in this episode, still seeking the maze. Following the riddle offered by Lawrence’s daughter, he seeks a snake and finds it, in a way, in Hector’s compatriot, Armistice. She has a snake tattoo running the length of her body, and the Man in Black is curious where she got it. After joining her gang — he kills two members to open up vacancies for Lawrence and himself — he learns that they intend to free Hector from prison, and offers to do it himself. All he needs is a single match, and Lawrence, and Armistice is happy to take those odds.

The Man in Black’s plan is to get caught by marshals and taken to the prison. Lawrence, it turns out, is one of the most wanted men in the land, and while the marshals take him off to be executed, they leave the gunslinger in a cell with Hector. After some verbal sparring, the Man in Black executes his plan, using explosives provided by Westworld staff to blow open the cell door. He and Hector shoot the marshals and free Lawrence. Armistice reveals her origin story. As a girl, her village was raided by Wyatt’s men, and she adds more to the snake tattoo whenever she kills one of them.

westworld-ep-4-tmib
westworld-ep-4-tmib

Wyatt is somehow connected to the maze, and as Lawrence and the Man in Black ride to meet him, they come upon Teddy, strung up to a tree. Although he pleads for death, the Man in Black cuts him down.

Dissonance Theory mercifully ties the Man in Black’s quest in with Teddy’s, consolidating some of the many storylines, and it also offers a strangely sympathetic portrait of a man who first seemed quite evil. Although he throws Lawrence into danger, he pulls him out of it, and hints that his goal in finding the maze is to somehow set the hosts free. The show also offers a hint at who he is outside of Westworld, when two guests who are riding with Hector’s gang commend him for his foundation’s charitable work. Ever the charmer, he responds by threatening to kill them if they keep talking, emphasizing that this is his vacation.

As with Logan, the show raises questions about whether The Man in Black can be considered evil. If the hosts are not truly people, is he anything more than a philanthropist who likes to blow off steam by playing the villain in what is essentially a video game? Of course, he seems to think that the hosts can be made conscious, and seems to want to bring that about. While the maze and Wyatt remain abstractions, macguffins to lead the characters from place to place, the show is at least touching on some nuanced ethical issues. Hopefully it will explore them further.

Office politics

Back at Westworld command, Theresa is outraged that yet another host (the woodworker who bashed his own skull) has gone rogue. Despite Elsie’s protests, Theresa rules that the QA department will take over the investigation into the strange behavior. Bernard seems happy to let it go. After another late-night rendezvous, Theresa informs him that she plans to talk to Ford about reining in his new storyline, to which Bernard warns her to step lightly.

The warning is not without merit. Theresa arrives at the site of Ford’s latest construction, where massive engines are carving up the land. She wants to discuss the costs and work schedule, and they sit down for lunch in a restaurant that she swears she ate in as a child. As it turns out, she did visit that same restaurant when visiting Westworld in her youth. The same table, even. As the staff go perfectly still, Ford explains that he knows everything that happens in the park, everything the guests do, everything the employees do. That includes her affair with Bernard. Still smiling, he implores her to go about her job and not get in his way.

westworld-ep-4-ford-and-theresa
westworld-ep-4-ford-and-theresa

It is a chilling sequence, adding some more shading to the man who is, in most respects, Westworld’s god. Ford is no kindly caretaker. Anthony Hopkins is in top form, hiding the menace just behind Ford’s warm smile. Unfortunately, the scene offers little new information about Ford’s new storyline, save that it will not be a retrospective; he is not the “sentimental type,” after all.

Dissonance Theory offers some valuable character moments, adding some complexity to characters might otherwise be one-note villains. However, the episode also finds the show stuck in a cycle like the hosts, teasing mysteries like the maze and Arnold’s fate without much forward momentum. If Westworld is to be truly compelling, it ought to dive headlong into the mysteries of the human mind, rather than asking viewers to guess what is behind the show’s locked doors. Otherwise, the audience could be left feeling, to paraphrase Maeve, that none of this matters.

Episode 3: “What’s past is prologue”

Westworld is a distinctly postmodern show in an era of television that keeps the fourth wall (i.e. our television sets) intact. While no character in the show ever winks at the camera, the entire premise rests on a show within a show, with the android “hosts” unknowing cast members on a show put on by whatever corporation owns Westworld; last week’s episode featured some pointed criticism of schlocky storytelling, as Dr. Ford tore down Lee’s new storyline. The Stray gets even more meta as Dr. Ford plans his grand new narrative, but while the show takes some jabs at popular storytelling tropes, it also falls into some traps of its own, treading water without making much of a splash.

Dr. Ford: the sorcerer on his island

As the founder of Westworld, Dr. Ford is one of the most important characters, yet he strangely remained in the background for the first two episodes, only appearing to wax poetically to Bernard about the creation of the hosts. In The Stray, the show finally offers a real sense of who this man is — or at least, who he presents himself to be.

anthony-hopkins-as-dr-ford
anthony-hopkins-as-dr-ford

HBO / John P. Johnson

Setting the stage for his new storyline, Ford questions Teddy about his relationship with Dolores, the gunslinger reiterating he cannot settle down with her until he “reckons” with his old business. When he said this to Dolores, it seemed mysterious and tragic; what is Teddy’s dark past? Ford punctures the mystery; Teddy has no backstory, the writers simply gave him a mention of a dark past. Where other members of the corporation take pride in the narratives of the park, Ford is dismissive, seeing the cut corners, the limits of the fiction. He decides to give Teddy a proper past, one “rooted in truth.”

Ford has compared himself to a magician on multiple occasions, and the analogy makes sense. Westworld, and all the hosts within it, comprise a grand illusion. Like Shakespeare’s Prospero, Ford has dominion over his little piece of the universe, creating “life” and controlling it at a whim. Also like Prospero, he seems bored with his creations. As he said last week, “Everything is magic except to the magician.” When he sees an engineer has covered up a host’s nudity, he chides him for treating the host as if it has modesty or dignity. In his early appearances, Ford came across as a kindly watchmaker, seemingly affectionate toward his works. Now he seems contemptuous of them, which makes his goals all the more puzzling. If he finds the park so dull, why does he continue with it, and what value will his new storyline hold?

Bernard continues to pester Ford with questions about the erratic behavior of the hosts, as they have started to have conversations with an imaginary figure they call “Arnold.”

westworld recaps and analysis episode gallery
westworld recaps and analysis episode gallery

HBO / John P. Johnson

westworld recaps and analysis episode gallery
westworld recaps and analysis episode gallery

HBO / John P. Johnson

westworld recaps and analysis episode gallery
westworld recaps and analysis episode gallery

HBO / John P. Johnson

westworld recaps and analysis episode gallery
westworld recaps and analysis episode gallery

HBO / John P. Johnson

Ford tells him the secret history of the park, that he had a partner in building it, Arnold. According to Ford, Arnold was obsessed with the study of consciousness. He wanted to create it in the hosts, constructing a psychological four-part pyramid with memory at the bottom; from there improvisation, then self-interest. Arnold could not discover the final step in creating consciousness. He drew on the theory of the bicameral mind, which theorized that early humans, unable to recognize their thoughts as thoughts, took them to be the voices of gods and spirits. Arnold programmed his early creations to hear their programming as voices in their heads, and the results was that they behaved like “lunatics.”

Arnold died — Ford presumes it was suicide — and his partner scrapped his theories. Curiously, Ford seems adamant that the hosts are not conscious, warning Bernard against straying down the same path as Arnold.

Despite Ford’s lecture, Bernard seems taken with the idea that the hosts are becoming conscious. He continues his meetings with Dolores, offering her a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the hopes that she might become cognizant of the changes occurring in her mind. Bernard used to read the book to his son, who died of an unnamed illness; like Arnold, his life has been defined by tragedy, and he throws himself into his work, pursuing some sort of answer. For him, Dolores seems to be a surrogate child; he talks about teaching his son to swim, and decides to let Dolores continue her growth.

Dolores gets her gun

How does Dolores’ growth manifest itself? In her morning routine, she finds the revolver from the end of Chestnut in her drawer, triggering memories of the Man in Black. The same voice that commanded her to dig up the gun commands her to remember, indicating that Arnold’s code is perhaps still active, or else someone is communicating directly with the hosts.

Throughout the episode, Dolores tries to break free of her routine, asking Teddy to teach her to fire a gun — she cannot bring herself to pull the trigger, even to shoot targets — and then to run away with her. Unlike Dolores, Teddy is still a slave to his programming, unable to leave as long as his mysterious, unwritten past demands that he stay.

evan-rachel-wood-as-dolores-abernathy-credit-john-p
evan-rachel-wood-as-dolores-abernathy-credit-john-p

HBO / John P. Johnson

While Teddy ventures off to hunt Wyatt, the new villain tied to his new backstory, Dolores rides home at night as she always does, this time without Teddy to protect her from the bandits that attack her parents. One of them takes Dolores to the barn, but as he prepares to rape her, she finds the revolver buried in the hay. Seeing a vision of the Man in Black, she finds the will to pull the trigger. She escapes the farm on horseback, eventually stumbling into William and Logan’s camp.

Another gunslinger is born

Like Dolores, William fires a gun for the first time in The Stray. Waiting for Logan to presumably finish up another orgy, William sees a criminal break out of jail, taking Clementine as a hostage. William shoots the bandit, although he himself is shot and staggered in the process. Ever the gentleman, he turns down Clementine’s offer to take him inside and show her gratitude, but he does feel a rush from the encounter. Over Logan’s protests, William decides to pursue a related bounty.

Teddy reckons with his new past

It does not take long for Teddy’s new storyline to kick into gear. The sheriff rides by with a posse, informing Teddy that his old nemesis, a man named Wyatt, has been spotted nearby. Wyatt was Teddy’s sergeant during a war years past, going mad after he heard the voice of God. Now, Wyatt leads a gang of killers who allegedly wear the skin and bones of their victims. This is the moment Teddy has been waiting for, and he leaves Dolores to pursue it.

james-marsden-as-teddy-flood-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo
james-marsden-as-teddy-flood-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo

HBO / John P. Johnson

The band eventually comes upon Wyatt’s victims, crucified and left to rot. As they investigate, Wyatt’s men open fire on them. The show transforms briefly into a horror movie at this point, with the survivors chasing Wyatt farther into the wilderness. As night falls, Wyatt’s men appear in force, letting out inhuman cries and descending upon them with knives and hatchets.

The titular stray

Elsewhere in Westworld, another host has gone rogue, wandering off into the desert. Elsie, the perpetually sarcastic programmer working for Bernard, goes to retrieve it with Security Chief Ashley Stubbs in tow. The two of them banter to the point of absurdity; for everything Stubbs says, however innocuous, Elsie has an aggressively snarky retort. The duo follow the trail of the missing woodworker, who has been carving constellations into his projects. They find him in a ravine, and Elsie shuts him off so Stubbs can go down and collect him. They only need his head, apparently, and as Stubbs is cutting it off, the host turns on again and knocks Stubbs over, climbing out of the ravine. He picks up a rock as if to attack Elsie, but instead smashes his own skull.

shannon-woodward-as-elsie-hughes-credit-john-p
shannon-woodward-as-elsie-hughes-credit-john-p

HBO / John P. Johnson

The engravings of Orion fit in with the episode’s focus on gods. The hosts are hearing voices, and in Dolores’ case the voice is guiding her through crises. The stray host seems obsessed with the stars in the way ancient oracles might look to them for guidance. Ford views the hosts as dolls, puppets that merely respond to their programming. Perhaps he is right — the nature of consciousness is hard enough to pin down in humans, let alone machines — but some force is active in Westworld, driving the hosts to new behaviors. Whether this force is simply old code left behind by Arnold, or an active agent in the park, is a question that will likely drive the coming episodes.

The Stray is an uneven episode. Ford’s discussions on psychology and the nature of consciousness reveal the show at its most interesting; nothing else on television right now explores such ideas. The show’s commentary on storytelling is also interesting, but even as Westworld mocks conventions, it seems to be falling into some common traps. The growing mystery regarding the “true nature” of the park echoes previous sci-fi shows like Lost, series that collapsed as they tried to string along serialized mysteries.

Episode 2: What lurks in the hearts of men?

One of the curious things about Westworld’s first episode is that it did not show us anything of the world beyond the park. We know what motivates the hosts (whatever their creators program them to want), and the corporation running the park (keep the guests happy and make money), but who are these guests exactly, these vicious pilgrims coming to wallow in violent debauchery. While it shed no light on the state of the world outside Westworld, episode 2, Chestnut, offers a glimpse into the psychology of the guests, and the larger issues surrounding the creation of the park. As Logan (Ben Barnes) puts it, “this place is the answer to the question you’ve been asking  — who are you really?”

Dolores dreams of a dark future

Logan and his work buddy, William (Jimmi Simpson), are the major new additions to the story in Chestnut, but the episode begins as the premiere left off, with Dolores. A garbled voice resembling Bernard’s commands her to wake up, and she does, breaking her normal routine to wander out into the night. Over the course of the episode, it is revealed that Bernard has been having secret meetings with Dolores, probing to find out what is wrong with her programming.

westworld recaps and analysis chestnut gallery
westworld recaps and analysis chestnut gallery
westworld recaps and analysis chestnut gallery
westworld recaps and analysis chestnut gallery
westworld recaps and analysis chestnut gallery
westworld recaps and analysis chestnut gallery
westworld recaps and analysis chestnut gallery
westworld recaps and analysis chestnut gallery

Bernard seems to think somebody has been tampering with the robots, as he explains to Dr. Ford, but Dolores has no record of someone altering her code. Bernard warns her to keep quiet about their visits; he finds her fascinating, but others at the corporation would more likely terminate her. When Dolores asks if he has done something wrong, he commands her to erase her memory of the conversation, and while she claims to obey, she blinks once as he walks away, suggesting that she is not in the mindless state he assumes, but is in fact conscious. Bernard is falling into the same trap as many a scientist since Frankenstein — believing he has control over his creation. The danger may be greater than he can anticipate; in the night, Dolores wakes and walks outside again, this time following the command of an unheard voice to dig. She finds a revolver, and odds are it will not spare humans.

Violent delights…

Dolores remains largely in the background throughout Chestnut, as the show turns its attention to Maeve (Thandie Newton), the madam at the local saloon. She briefly runs across Dolores early on, and the latter whispers  this into her ear: “These violent delights have violent ends.” When Peter spoke these words to Dolores in the first episode, it seemed like one of his many literary references. Now, the line from Shakespeare seems to have a purpose in the plot, triggering Maeve to remember one of her past roles at the park.

Repetition is, appropriately, a recurring theme in Westworld. All the hosts carry out the same routines time and again, in Maeve’s case giving patrons the same speech about coming to the New World to live the way she wants, as the piano plays Radiohead’s No Surprises. Maeve’s first rendition fails, as she drifts into a reverie, seeing men slain during a raid. Her client walks off, the mood evidently ruined, and the caretakers bring her in for diagnostics.

shannon-woodward-as-elsie-hughes-and-thandie-newton-as-maeve-credit-hbo
shannon-woodward-as-elsie-hughes-and-thandie-newton-as-maeve-credit-hbo

HBO / John P. Johnson

After trying various fixes, including upping her sexual aggression, the folks in the lab decide to decommission Maeve. She dreams once more, and the audience sees more of her old life, her time with a daughter on an idyllic farm brought to a gruesome end by a raiding party. Strangely, one of the raiders turns into The Man in Black, suggesting a connection between the two.

As she lies on an operating table, a pair of engineers tinkering with her innards, she wakes up, grabbing a scalpel and escaping into the facility. The escape is short-lived, as she wanders into a room where workers are cleaning the bloody corpses of hosts slain throughout the day, a scene resembling a cannibal butcher shop. Collapsing in horror, she is an easy capture for the engineers, who drag her back.

The Man in Black searches for his deeper level

The Man in Black remains on the fringe of Westworld’s story, seeking the “deeper level to the game” that he referenced last week. Specifically, he is looking for something called “The Maze,” and to find it he needs Lawrence, a host playing the role of outlaw. The Man in Black rescues Lawrence from a posse about to hang him, and drags him back to Lawrence’s hometown where his wife and child reside. He wants Lawrence to tell him where The Maze is, suggesting harm to his family if he does not answer.

clifton-collins-jr-ed-harris
clifton-collins-jr-ed-harris

HBO / John P. Johnson

After slaying a group of Lawrence’s friends who attack him, The Man in Black shoots Lawrence’s wife, prompting his daughter to say, in an empty voice, “The Maze is not for you.” Nevertheless, she gives him directions, and he rides off with Lawrence in tow. Although his connection to the rest of the story remains murky, Ed Harris’ performance as The Man in Black is a delight. Harris delivers every line with a wicked smugness, and one exchange with the sheriff is particularly clever. When the sheriff asks if he should have the gravedigger dig Lawrence’s grave a little deeper for the both of them, The Man in Black replies, with ghoulish amusement, “Well, it’s gonna be an awful tight fit for all of ya.”

New arrivals in Westworld

The Man in Black, unlike many of the guests, seems to be looking for something more than simple gratification in Westworld. Is entertainment really what anyone is after, though? Are people really spending their fortunes to come and exercise their violent fantasies on machines who look like people? Chestnut seems to imply there is more to it than that, a “deeper level,” as the Man in Black says. Sadistic guest Logan would seem to agree, bringing his co-worker William to the park for the first time hoping to see who he really is.

jimmi-simpson-as-william-and-ben-barnes-as-logan-credit-john-p
jimmi-simpson-as-william-and-ben-barnes-as-logan-credit-john-p

HBO / John P. Johnson

For Logan, the park is almost a truer reality than whatever home they came from. Stripped of social and moral obligations, visitors can be who they really are inside. For Logan, that means living uninhibited, sleeping with multiple hosts (of varying genders) at once, and casually assaulting anyone who annoys him.

William is in many ways Logan’s opposite. Where Logan delivers half his dialogue with teeth bared, William keeps a stiff upper lip. While Logan steps over a host lying in the mud, William helps him up. As Logan throws himself into an orgy, William politely declines Clementine’s advances, claiming he has someone real waiting for him back home. They even dress in contrast, Logan donning a black hat and William a white one.

Perhaps Westworld simply has not slipped its hooks into William yet, or perhaps he truly is a decent man among animals like Logan. Despite his words to Clementine, William seems a bit smitten by Dolores, admiring her from afar and handing her the can she drops as part of her routine.

The magician’s secrets

Although the park’s creative director, Lee, seems to think Dr. Ford will soon be put to pasture, the old man truly seems to be running things, even if he spends most of his time philosophizing in his workshop. Although he and Bernard speak of God when discussing their work, Ford seems to consider himself more a sorcerer than a deity. He directly compares himself and Bernard to witches, people who might (or even ought, as his tone suggests) to have been burned at the stake at one time.

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jeffrey-wright-as-bernard-lowe-and-anthony-hopkins-as-dr

HBO / John P. Johnson

If Bernard is correct that someone is tampering with the hosts to help them achieve consciousness, Ford is the most likely suspect. He seems to be weary not only with the frivolities of Westworld, but with humanity in general. Controlling a rattlesnake with mere gestures, he tells the young boy with him that “Everything in this world is magic, except to the magician.”

Ford, too, believes in the deeper meaning of the park, shutting down Lee’s idea for a new storyline where visitors battle “savages” and seduce beautiful maidens. Deriding it as “cheap thrills,” Ford explains that they need to give the guests more than what they want; the guests do not want to find out who they are, as Logan believes, but who they could be.

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anthony-hopkins-as-dr

HBO / John P. Johnson

What does Ford propose instead? As he and Bernard walk the desert, Ford promises to deliver a storyline he has been working on for a long time, something “quite original.” The camera cuts to the base of a buried steeple, rising up to rest at the cross on top, Ford and Bernard appearing tiny before it.

At the outset, Westworld may have seemed like a simple tale of revolution, of oppressed robots rising up against their cruel makers. Although Chestnut does not absolve humanity of the park’s cruelty, it does offer a glimpse of redemption. While most of the visitors are like Logan, indulging their beastly urges, there are also men like William and Dr. Ford, who seem to want something more from the world than mere gratification.

Keep scrolling for Season 1 Episode 1 recap.

Episode 1: The Original dives deep into humankind’s biggest questions

In the leadup to the release of HBO’s Westworld, the narrative surrounding the show was, unsurprisingly, one that put it in the orbit of Game of Thrones. HBO’s fantasy juggernaut continues to devour ratings and awards, and the network has yet to launch another series with the same extended pop-culture dominance; the closest they have come are brightly-burning, short-lived successes like True Detective. Westworld, based loosely on a sci-fi film directed by Michael Crichton, was conceived in the shadow of its fantasy sibling. Can it stand on its own?

Judging by the first episode, the answer is: maybe? Westworld makes an odd yet intriguing debut, juggling different genres and stories-within-a-story, and it’s not yet clear if the show can pull these threads together. Along with great performances and gorgeous cinematography, what the show absolutely has going for it is ambition. By the time the episode closes on a shocking fly-swatting, Westworld has made its intentions clear: it wants to ask big questions about consciousness, ethics, the future of technology, and what it means to be human — and it does so with style.

Once upon a time in the Western-themed amusement park

Westworld opens on a woman sitting naked in a chair as a man’s voice interrogates her, asking whether she has ever questioned her reality. We do not see where the man’s voice is coming from, nor, as it turns out, the woman’s. As she responds to his questions, her body is motionless, undisturbed even by a fly walking across her eye. Dolores (Evan Rachel Woods), as she is known, appears inanimate, which makes the jump cut to her prior days all the more startling.

The interrogation is a framing device, and as the man questions Dolores about her life, the show cuts to a flashback. Dolores lives on a ranch, a vision of pastoral beauty far unlike the dingy lab her body will eventually sit in. She greets her father, Peter, and the new day with exuberance. Cast in rich, golden light, the scene evokes classic Hollywood Westerns.

She rides to the nearby town, and the man asks what she thinks of the “newcomers,” who visit her world. The show cuts to a young man named Teddy (James Marsden) riding a train into town. Heading straight to the saloon, Teddy rejects both an invitation by the sheriff to hunt a notorious bandit, and an offer from a local prostitute for a discounted night together. Teddy would prefer to win a woman’s affections than pay for them, he explains, and leaves to meet Dolores, whom he sees through the window.

They have a history together, and ride back to Dolores’ farm, where her father will be none too pleased to see him, she assures. Her father has bigger concerns, however. When they reach the farm, bandits have killed Dolores’ mother, and next kill her father. Teddy shoots both men dead, but his moment of heroism is interrupted by the arrival of a man in black (Ed Harris) who seems to know Dolores, remarking that he has been “coming here for thirty years.”

Teddy’s attempt to save the day ends in a brutal subversion of Western heroism. The Man in Black taunts Teddy, whose bullets seems to pass through him, and eventually kills him, dragging Dolores into the barn as he’s done so many times before.

Behind the scenes

It is here that the show reveals what is really going on behind the Western facade. Like Crichton’s film, the entire world is a Western-themed amusement park, and all the inhabitants androids called “hosts.” By design, they cannot harm the human visitors, the “newcomers,” who are free to do whatever they want to the machines. The robot hosts awaken each day with no memory of their misfortunes, playing out the same daily script with subtle deviations depending on the whims of Westworld’s paying visitors.

The park is overseen by a mysterious corporation, and Westworld makes a hard turn from goofy Western to serious science fiction here. In contrast with the sharply lit Western landscapes, the laboratories are dim, lit only by fluorescent lights. All glass and stone, Westworld HQ seems like an Apple Store designed by supervillains.

The androids are maintained by Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), an easy going engineer who wants to make the machines as lifelike as possible. Such is Bernard’s fascination with human nature, he stops a conversation with his boss to examine her facial tics.

westworld recaps and analysis
westworld recaps and analysis

HBO / John P. Johnson

westworld recaps and analysis
westworld recaps and analysis
westworld recaps and analysis
westworld recaps and analysis
westworld recaps and analysis
westworld recaps and analysis

HBO / John P. Johnson

The boss in question is Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babbett Knudsen), an emotionless manager who takes Bernard to task for releasing a new software update that has seemingly broken several of the hosts, causing unintended behaviors.

Bernard deduces that the new behaviors were installed by Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the founder of Westworld, who has given the hosts the ability to experience “reveries,” calling up past memories as a human might.

Ford, we come to learn, is as equal parts philosopher and scientist, reflecting on humanity’s role as the final stop of our evolutionary track; evolution works through trial and error, he says, but as humanity can now keep even its weakest members alive, there are no more errors. “This is as good as we’re gonna get,” he laments.

Rounding out the brain trust is Lee (Simon Quarterman), Westworld’s creative director, responsible for writing the many intersecting storylines.

As a series, Westworld is thus two stories, one nested inside another. The Western, filmed in vivid lighting in grandiose locations, is an a homage to classic films, and given the theme park undercurrent, it borders on the absurd (the player piano in the saloon plays a cover of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun, presumably a favorite of guests).

The arrival of Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), the local bandit, is likewise played for laughs. As he and his gang massacre the townsfolk and rob the saloon, an orchestral cover of Paint It Black scores the scene. Hector’s speech, which Lee assures Theresa will be chilling, is cut short, as a bumbling tourist shoots the criminal through the throat, posing with his corpse for a photo.

In the aftermath of Hector’s rampage, used as a distraction for the guests, the corporation rounds up the updated hosts, returning them to the lab for questioning. Peter, who earlier in the episode found a photo left by one of the tourists, has gone haywire, quoting Shakespeare and promising vengeance for his daughter’s daily suffering.

Ford assures Theresa and Bernard that Peter is merely dredging up memories from a past life, so to speak. The robots rotate through roles sometimes, and Peter was once The Professor, a cult leader with a love of Shakespeare. The reveries Ford installed can apparently tap into these old roles; Peter is not actually plotting to overthrow the humans.

The narration comes full circle

Security chief Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) is revealed as Dolores interrogator, trying to see if Peter’s behavior has affected her in any way. The episode here returns to the framing device from the beginning. Stubbs asks Dolores the question heard in the opening, she responds, giving him the answers he seemingly wants to hear. When he asks if she could ever hurt a living being, she responds “No. Of course not.”

Stubbs assures the technician with him that Dolores’ core code has not, cannot go wrong. She is the oldest host in the park, he explains, and has been repaired so often she is essentially brand new.

As she repeats her monologue from the beginning, Dolores goes about her morning routine, greeting her new father. Everything is normal, until a fly lands on Dolores’ neck and she swats it without pause. Never has insecticide seemed so ominous.

Westworld spends much of its first episode establishing the world and characters, and the restraint is admirable. By the time credits roll, every character feels distinct, and while the show clearly wants the audience to feel sympathy for the machines, abused as they are, the men and women in the labs hardly seem like monsters. Humans have a darkness in them, and the Westworld park is a testament to that, a place where tourists can live out their violent fantasies without harming “actual” people. If evolution depends on mistakes, perhaps Ford’s theme park will be the mistake necessary to push mankind in a new direction.

From a cinematic perspective, Westworld is certainly creative. The way the Groundhog’s Day loop of Dolores’ life unfolds throughout the episode both intrigues and terrifies, and the striking change in aesthetics between the theme park and the labs demonstrates an understanding of sci-fi and Western film history.

The great difficulty for Westworld may be how it balances tone. The contrast between the comical Western and the serious sci-fi stories is sharp, and for the conflict to be meaningful, the show will need to characterize its “human” figures as more than vacationing sadists. The show also plants some mysteries regarding the park and its “true” purpose. Lee suggests to Theresa that he knows management has a motive beyond making money, and the Man in Black seems to think there is a deeper level to the “game,” as he calls it.

The Original suggests a great deal of potential; as with any great work of science-fiction, it aims to be more than mere entertainment.