We’re three episodes into “Westworld,” and so far each has begun with Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard speaking in voiceover to Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores as the camera lingers on the latter, unconscious. This is called repetition. It’s a way to make a point.
The point of “The Stray” appears to be to move the character-development ball downfield, not just for Dolores and Bernard, but also for Anthony Hopkins’ Ford and the two make-believe cowboys whose stories appear bound to Dolores’ — Jimmy Simpsons’s guest William and James Marsden’s host Teddy.
First we get Dolores and Bernard having their secret basement meeting (everywhere in the Westworld offices looks like a basement; Ford must dislike windows as much as he does people). Bernard gives Dolores an unsubtle gift — “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Dolores reads aloud, “If I’m not the same, who in the world am I?” It’s a bit on the nose, but here we have articulated the question that could come to be central to “Westworld”: As Abernathy’s infection spreads, who or what are the hosts becoming?
We also get a key point in Bernard’s backstory: He had a son, apparently in the past tense. So now we know why he acts so paternal toward the hosts, Dolores in particular. More to come. Then, back at the ranch (literally!) Dolores unfolds a piece of linen to find a gun hidden inside, the same gun, presumably, she buried in the yard last week. But then she looks again and it isn’t there. Is Dolores hallucinating or flashing back? It’s unclear, and the way that the show plays with time and perception in these moments is becoming one of the more interesting things that it does.
Now to town, where we find William, white hat on head, taking a walk and again politely declining the advances of comely android prostitutes. Up til now, William has been intrigued by Westworld, but not turned on by it. That changes with a gun battle that William is remarkably reluctant to engage in at first, considering he knows that he can’t be hurt. But once he kills his first bad guy, he’s hooked. How fully William buys into his surroundings is, on one hand, hard to believe. So many of the guests, like gross pal Logan or the boy from episode one who tells Dolores, “You’re not real,” appear hyper-aware of the unreality of their surroundings, suspending disbelief only long enough to pet a horse or have an orgy. Why is William such a sucker?
Consider one of the most popular critical responses to “Westworld” thus far — the park as metaphor for video-gaming. Now think of William as the totally engaged player still in the early stages a new game, trying to figure out how the world works, pressing gingerly at its boundaries. While you’re doing that, Logan will enter from offscreen, tugging at his schvantz. (This is fast becoming Logan’s signature entrance, like Kramer bursting into Jerry’s apartment.) William, having developed a taste for justice served cold, wants to head out into the country and roundup desperados. Logan, having apparently run out of robot orgy partners, begrudgingly agrees to go with.
Back to the office for some plodding exchanges between Bernard and Theresa, then Bernard and Elsie. In the former we learn that the Delos board is not stoked about Ford’s new storyline and the resources it’s taking. In the latter we learn that Walter’ massacre from episode one was likely driven by memories that should have been erased long ago. Oh, and there’s a stray host wandering off into the desert, so Elsie should take care of that. Elsie and Stubbs haed off together in search of the stray, providing Dolores and Teddy some unlikely competition for Westworld’s cutest-couple-ever title. The storyline that follows can be boiled down to “Elsie and Stubbs banter and another robot goes off its nut.”
After an appearance by Maeve, who is dealing with her own memories-slash-hallucinations, Teddy and Dolores are reunited. They start to play out their loop, but Dolores becomes frustrated when it’s clear that Teddy is stalling on running away together. Understandable, because they’re robots, and they’re not exactly allowed to runaway. But Dolores, with her mind expanding faster than a mushroom-ingesting college student’s, is no longer down for staying within those boundaries, even if she doesn’t yet understand where or what they are.
Cut to Teddy with Ford back in the basement. In contrast to Bernard’s nurturing, Ford appears to take pleasure in, if not quite tormenting, at least teasing the hosts. “Maybe someday soon we’ll have the life we’ve both been dreaming of,” Teddy says of Dolores. “No, you never will,” Ford says, explaining that Teddy exists simply to put up a fight for guests who want to rape Dolores. Poor, dumb Teddy. Someday he too will learn the super-secret knowledge, but not today.
The Marsden-Hopkins scene is one of this episode’s best. One of the great joys of “Westworld” so far is watching the host actors pivot from one level of awareness to another to another. Marsden’s face as Hopkins uploads memories of new heavy Wyatt, part of Hopkins big, controversial storyline, is this week’s best example that.
Wyatt was, according to the story Ford created, Teddy’s commander during the Civil War. “He claimed he could hear the voice of God,” Teddy says. Remember that part for later when, confronted by Bernard, Ford reveals his own hidden backstory — he created Westworld with a partner, Arnold, erased from the corporate-approved history of the park’s development. Arnold wanted the hosts to achieve consciousness, and thought they would do so if he programmed them to believe that their thoughts were the voice of God. (It doesn’t make much sense when Anthony Hopkins explains it either.) But that worked out about how you’d think it would. Arnold drifted away from human contact and toward the hosts, then died under mysterious circumstances in the park. The story is a mouthful, and Hopkins occasionally starts to sleepwalk through it as if delivering lines for a “Thor” movie. But he powers through. Once he and Wright are back to playing off each other, he brings his A-game — or at least his B-plus-game — back.
The rest of the episode is Teddy and Dolores, then Teddy minus Dolores and Dolores minus Teddy. After Teddy attempts to teach Dolores how to shoot a gun and she finds herself physically unable to pull the trigger (we learn through Elsie-Stubbs banter that only certain hosts have weapons privileges), Teddy gets hauled off in search of Wyatt, an escapade that ends with some guests getting freaked out by the villain’s Sand People-esque henchmen and Teddy getting overwhelmed by said henchmen.
Then Dolores, back on her loop, is sucked once more back into the story of her parents being killed by bandits — the story that usually ends with her rape. Only this time Dolores finds a gun in her hand and is able to pull the trigger, killing the host told by a guest to assault her.
The episode ends with Dolores, having escaped the bandits, literally stumbling into William’s waiting arms. But her firing the gun is the key moment of “The Stray.” Everything about “Westworld” thus far tells us that if a hero is going to emerge, it will be Delores. Every episode has opened with a shot of her face. Wood has logged more screen time over three episodes than any of her formidable co-stars. Even episode two, in which Dolores had no story, featured multiple Dolores scenes, lovingly shot. Delores is important, and her asserting herself in this way, through violence, just a few minutes after Ford asserted that Teddy exists only to help facilitate her rape, is a big deal.
But is it a good story decision? The deployment of sexual assault as a narrative obstacle for a female character to overcome is not exactly new stuff — especially on HBO. Delores is an appealing character intelligently portrayed by Wood, and at times cleverly written. But for her and the show to grow in the right direction, the device of her perpetual rape should be dropped and run away from at full speed. Views about sexual assault and how we talk about it as a society are changing rapidly, and the way that “Westworld” has handled the topic thus far feels behind the times. This show has enormous potential, but it needs to evolve fast to live up to that potential.