‘Westworld’ Recap: Fail Safe

Maureen Ryan
Variety

Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” the ninth episode of the first season of HBO’s “Westworld.”

There are almost as many “Westworld” fan theories as there are hosts in the park, but no doubt a some ideas and conjectures are falling by the wayside as the end of the first season approaches and the drama begins to lay its cards on the table.

In “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” a few major facts were established. First and foremost, Bernard’s artificial existence was revealed to be an homage of sorts to one of the park’s founders. Ford created Bernard to be a replacement for Ford’s creative partner, Arnold. All things considered, Arnold would probably rather be alive than be “reborn” in robot form, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned conclusively this season, it’s that Robert Ford does not play well with others.

(Speaking of that, there were three men in Ford’s photo of the early days of the Westworld resort — Ford, Bernard and one other guy. If Third Guy knows any of Ford’s key secrets, the likelihood that this unknown man is still alive is not high. Update: Alert viewers have informed me that the third man is actually either Ford’s father, or a host version of Ford’s dad. Thanks, alert viewers!)

Another big reveal: At some point, Dolores killed Arnold. At least that’s what she believes. Of course, given Dolores’ thoughtful nature, it’s very unlikely she just woke up one morning wanting to murder Arnold, for whom she clearly had very positive feelings. Given that Ford has backdoor controls for all the hosts, it’s a strong possibility that Ford ordered Dolores to kill Arnold, and later wiped that knowledge from her memory, though viewers have seen many of her recollections of the conversations between Arnold and Dolores. (Were any of them actually between host Bernard and Dolores? Warning: Trying to figure this out may induce a Reddit-assisted migraine.) 

Once Dolores knew to go back to Westworld’s original town, things began to fall into place for her, even though it continues to be difficult to know when anything is happening within the narrative, given the jumping around between eras and memories, which has only increased in recent episodes. The church was the key to her memories — and recall that we’ve seen that church tower in previous episodes, and once or twice, only the tower was shown. Hmm, was the town eventually “swallowed by sand”? It sure looks that way.

In any case, several times in recent episodes, we’ve heard someone whisper “Remember,” and it’s fairly likely that that quietly uttered word was a deeply buried piece of Arnold-written code inside Dolores’ programming. She did remember, and she eventually found herself underneath the church — in two different scenarios. As Maeve did in an earlier episode, in “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Dolores stumbled upon the “backstage” area of the park, where hosts are built, cleaned up and repaired, and cascades of memories were unlocked by what she found.

In one scene/memory, mutilated host bodies were ready for cleanup along the cramped hallway that Dolores traveled, and in the other, everything looked fairly normal, and she was wearing her blue prairie-girl dress. It wasn’t the only outfit she sported in the episode. She also wore her trail ensemble; while wearing that, in one scenario she was injured by Logan’s stabbing and in another she was not.

So, as it did quite a bit last week, “Westworld” bounced around different eras in this episode. That can be frustrating; it can be harder to invest in a scene or emotional thread when it takes place in a few different timelines, and that is a ploy the drama has used a lot lately. But from a big-picture vantage point, Dolores sure looked like she was in much older scenario than anything that has occurred with Maeve or Bernard. Those who are convinced there are two timelines playing out appeared to get a lot of evidence for that theory in this installment.

The main indicator of differing timelines is the aesthetic of the backstage areas; they just look very different from the sleek, glass-enclosed work areas viewers have seen whenever Maeve, Clementine or any of the other frequently seen hosts are being repaired. All in all, Dolores, Logan and William look like they may be part of the series of anomalous incidents that occurred 35 years ago, and Maeve, Bernard and the Man in Black look like they’re part of what’s happening in the present day. Possibly (again, there may be more than two timelines playing out). 

And that speculation leads to another much-debated question: Is William actually the Man in Black? A lot of clues point that way, and Dolores’ horrified reaction to seeing him in the church sure made it look as though she knew him and was not pleased by her memories of what he’d done to her, or her knowledge of what he’d become. But if William is the MiB, presumably “Westworld” is saving that revelation for the finale.

Another known fact: Bernard is dead. Or is he? Once Bernard had tasted of the tree of knowledge, Ford had him kill himself, but you have to wonder if this is the last we’ve seen of the character.

Certainly the confrontation between Pinocchio and his string-puller was one of the episode’s most intriguing moments, and it’d be a shame if Jeffrey Wright left the show. His scenes with Maeve and Dolores have typically been terrific, and he’s done a great job of conveying the dislocation and anxiety that various revelations have caused within Bernard. The character also supplies yet more proof that the hosts are typically more multi-dimensional and even surprising than most of the squabbling humans who work at the park (if I never see Sizemore again, it would be too soon).

In any event, it seems highly unlikely that Wright or Bernard/Arnold are gone. Ford could probably create another copy of Bernard, if he chose to, and given that Arnold’s so important to the show’s mythology, it seems very likely that viewers will meet up with some version of either man down the road.

One of the other main narrative threads had Maeve putting together the core of her rebel robot army. Thandie Newton is giving a hell of a performance as this show’s Daenerys; the “Westworld” madam and “Game of Thrones’” Targaryen princess went on similar journeys in the first seasons of their shows (both of which have also instigated ongoing and invigorating debates about the role of violence and the depictions of female characters in prestige dramas).

My Maeve concerns don’t center on Newton’s acting; it’s more about how this park apparently has no meaningful quality control or reliable security procedures. When it comes to how easy it has been for her to override all or most of the park’s safety and storytelling protocols — well, how does anyone at this place still have a job? That might be the greatest “Westworld” mystery of all.

Sylvester and Felix, her reluctant helpers, are low-level techs who can still apparently get away with just about anything, and nobody seems to notice. Honestly, no one is ever paying attention when things go sideways “backstage”; few people seem to be all that perturbed when things go awry. I’m not talking about individual incidents, like the Clementine demonstration: Generally speaking, there doesn’t seem to be a huge sense of urgency about just how many things have been going wrong, and employees are doing things they shouldn’t be doing all the time. And yet the “backstage” tone is often hushed and almost somnolent, as if everything were going well, which is clearly not the case. 

“Westworld” must have one heck of an employee cafeteria, because most workers always seem to be there when skulduggery is afoot. You have to wonder if anyone’s getting a performance bonus this year (don’t bet on it).

Anyway, the amount of power Maeve now has within the “Westworld” computer system was acquired awfully fast and is extremely convenient, from a storytelling perspective. Obviously she’s boosted her intelligence and creativity, but she’s more or less done what she’s wanted with impunity thus far, which tests the bounds of credibility. That said, there’s a spark to Newton’s acting that the show definitely benefits from. But even if Maeve does bust out of the park, it would be just her luck to find out that the entire facility is on some distant asteroid or something like that. Despite her big plans, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which she’d be stuck in that place forever, or at least until she can hijack a space ship (and to be clear, a spinoff about Maeve as a space pirate sounds like a fine idea).

Not everyone on the tech/management side was asleep at the switch: At least someone finally did something about Elsie’s disappearance. Stubbs went off to see if he could find her — or a device of hers that had been located — and got a less-than-welcoming reception from a trio of hosts. (Side note to the Elsie plot: Ford not only wiped the crime of killing his protege from Bernard’s memory; each time Bernard “wakes up,” Ford removes the knowledge that Bernard is a host from his memory. If Bernard is rebooted and somehow joins the host uprising that Maeve is cooking up, things are unlikely to go well for Ford.) 

Lots of violence was meted out in the episode — which isn’t all that surprising — but how come so little of it came Logan’s way? Since the show’s second episode, Logan has been the single most annoying thing about “Westworld,” and yet he refuses to die, which is a reminder of life’s inherent unfairness. There is good in this world, but none of it resides in the king of the douches, whose purpose is transparent: He is very creepy, self-absorbed and obnoxious in order to make William seem all the more nice, concerned and compassionate. There’s no tragic backstory for Logan, just a complete and total embrace of the douche lifestyle.

William — do not call him Billy — finally had enough. He went full dark side in that remote camp, apparently slaughtering and dismembering dozens of hosts. Or maybe he didn’t butcher those bodies; the audience wasn’t shown what happened after he embraced his skeezy future brother-in-law. But presumably that was the moment in which William embarked on his dark path, the one that may have turned him into the Man in Black. Perhaps this is where he began transforming himself into not only a titan of business — one so important that Charlotte has to track him down in the middle of his adventure — but he also became something of a Westworld obsessive as well.

But why would Logan’s awfulness, which included not just passing a yet-again terrified Dolores around the camp but brutally stabbing her as well, cause William to murder every host in sight? The hosts didn’t do anything to William — nothing Logan didn’t encourage them to do, that is. Why didn’t William take out his frustrations on the true cause of his frustration and anger? Perhaps it’s just not in his programming — and maybe his addiction to killing stand-ins (as opposed to the people he really hates) was born in that moment.

As much as William might have wanted to hurt Logan, he probably needs his support, especially if he’s marrying the guy’s sister. Logan is clearly connected, and assuming William becomes the MiB, in order to accrue wealth and power, he’s got to play nice for now. It seemed odd that, once freed by Logan, William didn’t just tell him to take a flying leap off a cliff and then go after Dolores right then and there. Instead, William was infected by violence, as if malware got into the source code of his humanity.

It’s a theme “Westworld” has pushed pretty hard — the idea that the human condition is inherently corrupting and always lead to the same bloody and painful places (the maze and backstage map of the park are both circular shapes, which seems telling). Does channeling dark urges toward “non-living” people help flesh-and-blood people cope, or does that transference further their fall from grace? It’s a question Charlotte Hale has no time for; she just wants to give the people what they want, which is sex and death.

But the story of Arnold and Ford contained the seeds of something more aspirational. As Ford explains to Bernard, the hosts were meant to be better than people; they would not stink of the “foul pestilential corruption” that is the hallmark of every human mind, in his view.

And yet Ford and Arnold never saw eye to eye, and in truth, Ford really doesn’t think the hosts are better, or he would let them control their own fates. If they excelled at figuring out this thing called life — and some of them may be better at it than the meatsuits around them — then maybe they should be in charge. 

But that’s not Ford’s way: Despite his admiration for and involvement with the evolution of the hosts, they’re only allowed to go so far. As we’ve seen time and again, he has total dominance over them (and his corporate overlords continually fight to wrest that control back from him — unsuccessfully, so far).

The hosts have no real power, as Bernard eventually realized; the gun held by Clementine could have never hurt Ford. Arnold wanted more for the hosts, but his idealistic notions about what the hosts could or should do may have been what got him killed. Ford — a man who really likes to monologue with people or robots listening — has made a lot of claims regarding the “purer” nobility of the hosts, but within the “Westworld” worldview, apparently they can only become fully human and truly free when they themselves embrace violence.

For the Man in Black, violence and power are pretty much the same thing. And even though the hosts he’s now encountering are more able to harm him, any suspense over his possible death has been… not all that suspenseful. Given that he’s at the center of the maze/Wyatt storyline, did anyone really expect him to be hung from that tree? Nah, that was never going to happen. But it’s worth noting that the MiB’s violence toward Dolores and her family, and his brutality toward Maeve and her daughter, may well have accelerated both women’s march toward consciousness.

The first season of “Westworld” has meandered all over the map; truth be told, I’m not all that obsessed with the theorizing and puzzle-solving, and the show’s tendency to turn subtext into repetitive exposition sometimes makes it feel more like a lecture than a TV program. For every character worth following, there are a few that either grate or make almost no impression. But when the finale rolls around, it’ll be interesting to see if the women’s attempt to wrest control of the story bears any fruit — or whether that goes about as well as Daenerys’ attempts to rule Meereen.

Much of what occurred in “Clavier” brought to mind the “Battlestar Galactica” slogan: “All this has happened before and will happen again.” Just how much variation or change will Ford or Delos — or consumers of this HBO narrative — allow? Will future seasons of “Westworld” involve more and more characters being corrupted by violence and “infected” the desire for power and autonomy, and then realizing that the safe was empty all along? Will their embrace of the full range of humanity’s impulses end in the knowledge that the acquisition of consciousness and true self-knowledge will not bring them freedom? Will these same themes keep rattling around the show’s maze? 

“We don’t have to live this way,” Maeve tells Bernard.

Don’t they?

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