Westworld Episode Review: The Stray

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This week we’re finally getting a better idea of who’s turning the wheels on this crazy train. Dr. Ford is starting to show his true colors (jerk). Bernard and his existential obsession has a motive (dead kid). And we have a mysterious new angle to the host’s behavior regarding this Arnold character, and by the way I’m not buying word-one of his little biography or supposed demise (unreliable narrator). I also feel like we encountered the one thing this week that might actually threaten the longevity of the show with regard to staying power and I’d like to break that down first.

This Arnold person, according to Dr. Ford, was a co-founder of the park who became obsessed with the idea of creating consciousness in the machines and that same obsession (somehow) resulted in a park accident that claimed his life. Now, I enjoy the kind of conversation that followed, the idea of exploring the nature of existence and what makes a human being self-aware. Unfortunately, this is going to lose some of the casual audiences and I’ll make my case as such. The massive appeal of Game of Thrones is that while it is complex and harrowing and graphic, it’s also pretty accessible to a mainstream audience. As my main man Ian McShane put it after the internet blew up on him for kind of, sort of spoiling a plot point in the most recent season before it came out, his responsive was delightfully Al Swearengen-esque: “You say the slightest thing and the internet goes ape. I was accused of giving the plot away, but I just think get a fucking life. It’s only tits and dragons.” The thing is, he’s not wrong. Westworld is a big gamble for being more than just that, in fact the repetitive nature of the overlapping narratives, the initial ambiguity regarding who is a host and who is a guest, and these philosophical musings on the nature of existence and identity are not going to draw the same audiences that GoT pulls down. When it comes to the people of the land, the common clay of the new west, they are going to be turned off by this kind of subject matter, it doesn’t exactly titillate. It’s possible I’m underestimating the audience but it’s just that I’ve been hurt before with the previously referenced Deadwood and the bizarre but kind of brilliant horror Carnivale, both of which were cancelled before their time for not drawing a large enough viewership, among a few other examples. But I digest.

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So Elsie the Analyst, is on one hand a sort of cool, confident, sassy lady and, on the other, kind of creepy for making out with an inert Clementine when no one was looking. When she discovers that the errant host only killed other bots that murdered him in previous narratives, everyone kind of raises an eyebrow. The fact that no one is more seriously alarmed at the idea of these robotic victims remembering their treatment at the hands of each other, let alone of guests which seems likely to come, makes me feel that sort of removed amusement you feel towards characters in a horror movie that just decide to go on with the adventure and stay in the spooky house anyway. All despite the creepy gas station attendant who leered with unveiled predatory joy when they stopped for a fill up or the rabid cur chomping on what appears to be a human femur posted up at the gate. Or the fact that they are a conspicuously diverse group of ethnic and gender stereotypes with promising futures and raging libidos. (Note to self: rewatch Cabin in the Woods at some point.) Anyway, it doesn’t take a lot of prescience to feel like no good can come of this and that their somewhat distant concern is going to be their undoing. If they don’t see that bad thing coming they frankly deserve it, so we might as well enjoy the ride.

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That seriousness aside, William saw some action in the park itself this week. I mean, he sucked at it, letting a deputy and a bounty hunter get shot down in front of him with Clementine being taken hostage before he skinned that smokewagon. He’s now on an adventure that has taken him outside the confines of the town with his unlikeable buddy Logan and it’s good to see some progress being made here, I was afraid they were just going to peter around the gift shops all day. He’s currently your typical boy scout and I relate to that inherent un-coolness so my real concern about his character is that he’s going to get a taste of that bad boy image and go full on Dark Side. I like the actor but he also seems perfectly cast to Break Bad at some point. I’m also genuinely interested to see what his interaction with a newly independent Dolores is like. She’s the sweet, old-fashioned rancher’s daughter with a dark secret which is kryptonite to weenies like us. Maybe they’ll fall in loooove.

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Teddy got himself a little backstory too, courtesy of the newly cold-blooded Dr. Ford. This felt like a little bit of a 180 on his part. The first two episodes implied a kindly, sentimental old man who enjoyed long walks in the desert with young robot boys but in The Stray he immediately chastises a programmer for covering up a nude host. They are things, not people. Well, it’s a particularly realistic ‘thing’ and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want it pointed at me while I was working, either. So while uploading some history for poor Teddy, Ford coldly informs him of the futility of his existence and desire for Dolores, to no apparent purpose. Further, the aforementioned conversation with Bernard Lowe about the history of the park and the supposedly expired former co-founder Arnold seemed particularly curt and distant. You’d think he would at least demonstrate some sense of remorse or emotion or, I dunno, humanity but it wasn’t there at all. Methinks there’s even more to Dr. Ford than this, and if he seemed anti-morbidity and gruesomeness last episode, his newly written Teddy Flood narrative and bounty on the mysterious crazy guy Wyatt belies that idea. I mean. Fuck. Those dudes were nailed to a damn tree.

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Onto Bernard and his sad story. “Where is your son?” Dolores asks. “…nowhere you would understand.” There’s a lot going on in that exchange and he immediately ends the conversation to investigate its origin. This is the nature of his focus on the nuances of consciousness he sees in her, the reason for his secret conversations. Based on the conversation with what would appear to be his estranged or ex-wife, the trauma of losing his son is in no way completely processed. That pain is still very persistent and nagging and you feel for the guy but it’s interfering with his ability to remain objective with the park hosts. At first I thought it was obviously Ford’s update that started triggering the aberrant behavior in the robots but I’m starting to suspect Bernard at this point. Particularly if he’s the one who planted the gun where Dolores would find it. Her newfound ability to escape her narrative is the real ‘stray’ of the episode and, again, it remains to be seen how her vulnerability will jive with William’s inclination towards do-goodery. I invented that word just now.

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Finally, Elsie and the head of security Ashley (*looks up actor*….Luke Hemsworth?! There’s another one? Are these frickin’ guys multiplying?!) venture out into the desert to pick up a different kind of stray who has been inexplicably carving constellations into woodblocks. Once its discovered stuck in a crevasse, Girl’s Name climbs down and proceeds to hack the head off the malfunctioning host in order to gather data because for some reason, in the future, they don’t have flash drives anymore and it’s far more efficient to just cut off their fucking heads. This understandably goes pear-shaped. What I want to know is not why it ultimately bashed its own head in with a big rock but rather why it was attacking Elsie in the first place? She posed no threat. It’s as if it had gone rabid up until the last second before being remotely set to self-destruct. Oh, and one other thing, why did it bash it’s own head in?!

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This episode really brought the crazy with more actual horror than the existential kind. Some questions to ponder: who is this Arnold, really? I know the first theory to hit the top of the charts is going to be that he’s really the Man in Black. But I’m not buying that. No, I think if this Arnold character is still out and about he’s somewhere in that deeper layer that Ed Harris’ character is looking for. What’s our adorably sweet Dolores going to do now that she’s off-script? Are they going to catch her and figure out her secret? Is Bernard’s treachery going to be discovered? Why did that robot bash its own head in?! This show, if anything, has reminded me why I hate waiting a whole week to watch the next episode of a series, it’s barbaric.

Bonus: This episode was directed by the writer-director of one of the few horror films I sincerely love. If you ever get the chance, check out the original non-American edit.

 

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