“He told me I was going to help him.”
“Help him do what?
“…to destroy this place.”
Up until this point in Westworld there has been little to write about by way of a review. Perhaps it’s the size of the ensemble cast or the gravity of the themes it explores, the last four episodes have felt like a continuous introduction to the various characters and conflicts that are oh-so-patiently being fleshed out and this is fine. However, I found myself with nothing to watch the other day and thought, you know what, let’s give this Downton Abbey show a chance. Just for giggles, I said. Sure enough by the third episode of that show I realized I had just gasped and whispered to myself “…that catty bitch!” It occurred to me so much more had happened in such a limited amount of time with a comparably large cast of characters that Westworld had some serious ‘splainin’ to do. Very little forward progress has actually been made as lush set design, beautiful prose, and complicated thematic ideas alone a great show does not make. Not without character arcs or stakes or a clearly defined conflict. Fortunately, Contrapasso (“suffer the opposite“) seems to be moving things forward and it thankfully brings out the big guns in a tense, cryptic conversation between the show’s
veteran legendary actors.
I have been eagerly anticipating the conversation between Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris as Dr. Robert Ford and The Man in Black, respectively since last week and it did not disappoint. It was God Himself and the Devil sitting down over a bottle of rye, while poor Teddy Flood, the puppet engineered for their amusement, could only look on in despair. I did not want this exchange to end, they could have dedicated a full hour to these two opposing forces, the creator and the destroyer, musing on purpose or lack thereof and I would have drank it all in and asked for more, however, in truth the scene was exactly as long as it needed to be. The normally implacable Man is caught off guard for just a second when he realizes who is sitting down across from him while Ford is as even as a metronome, so fully in control of the situation that we don’t even realize, as an audience, that all the Western affectations from the chatter to the player piano have all gone silent until he snaps his finger and brings them back to life. It was an interesting inversion, like some moment in Greek mythology where Aries and Hermes peak in on us mere mortals to muse over our fates, only in Westworld we are the gods looking in on our creation, wondering how things will turn out. Even without this fantastic exchange Contrapasso is the best episode of the series yet, there finally seems to be a narrative in place and some actual stakes. Above all, Dolores has discovered her own agency and put it better than I ever could, “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.” You’re damn right, you did.
To the point, she imagined. As Bernard points out in the ‘previously on’ recap, she shouldn’t be able to do that. She’s improvising like a Guest at this point while at the same time hearing this mysterious voice in her head who is directing her towards a maze that looks conspicuously like a top-down view of a human brain. How the maze and this war-zone or ‘revolution’ are related remains to be seen but the fact that nitro-glycerin is being smuggled to the front in corpses does not bode well for anyone. What’s more, although it feels like Dolores is finding independent thought and defying her programming she is still allowing herself to be manipulated by some outside force to an unknown purpose. I don’t want to spoil the obvious here but the voice she hears in her head is not going to be some god-like entity or religious experience. Elsie’s discovery of a satellite uplink inside the arm of one of the hosts points to a much more practical explanation. I’m starting to think that if they are able to see this quest all the way through to its end it’s going to be a bitter one for poor Dolores and the god in her head is more than likely another puppeteer whispering sweet nothings into a ham radio.
Regarding Ford interviewing Dolores: he asks her when the last time she’s interacted with Arnold as if he suspects exactly what we’ve suspected since he was first brought up, that he is somehow still alive and manipulating events in the park. Further, we learn that Dolores is the last person (?) to interact with Arnold before his death (?) but she does not remember (?) the circumstances or the event itself. The fact that Dolores is now able to lie directly to the most powerful man in Westworld is an interesting new development, it implies her awareness is now leaps and bounds ahead of where it was when she was simply slapping flies on her neck. However, this is one of the more unsettling encounters in a television program that is replete with unsettling encounters, “Are we very old friends?” Dolores asks, with a slight smile. “I wouldn’t say that, Dolores. I wouldn’t say that at all.” Well, fuck you then.
It’s also going to be a mystery as to whether or not the big smooch she landed on William is genuine or another affectation of her programming. Either way they are going to make an interesting duo considering her new found ability to inquire about the outside world and his partaking of the veritable Kool-Aid, enthusiastically joining the narrative after nearly giving up on it all. I did think it was adorable how awkward the two of them were at the orgy. That’s pretty much how I feel at almost every party all the time.
Speaking of which, kudos(?) or jeers are due to HBO for somehow making a Bacchanalian sex-fest seem mundane. There was nothing titillating or exciting about the sequence at all, it just seemed to be there with a friendly helping of all kinds of genitalia. That’s actually a better way to put it, there wasn’t so much boning and dicks and boobs as much oral copulation, sexual activity, and that oh-so-unsexy word ‘genitals’. I’ve seen marble reliefs that were more compelling and maybe that was the point? The setting was perfect for the final rift to be driven between Logan and William, the former of whom is clearly trying to push the latter out of his comfort zone and succeeds, even if that means watching our White Hat hero abandon his douche-bro buddy to a much-deserved ass-whooping at the hands of the Confederales. Again, this is finally where a sense of stakes are starting to kick in, where it’s starting to feel less like watching someone else play a videogame and more like an adventure worth watching. Maybe the Guests aren’t able to be seriously injured or shot but they can clearly get the shit kicked out of them. And maybe…fall in love? Tread carefully, young William. I recommend Ex Machina as reference material (pro-tip, doesn’t end well).
A word on the technicians in the lab side of Westworld. Uhm. What’s going on there? “You’re a butcher. And that’s all you’re ever going to be!” What are you, the mom from Carrie? Just because a guy wants to learn how to program a sparrow? For a show that is so very good at tone and mood this whole exchange was frankly… maudlin. I’m surprised the guy didn’t burst into tears and run away and while searching for a way to phrase that so that you knew I was talking about the tech that was being mean I realized it could honestly apply to either one of them it was such an after-school-special moment. All it needed was for one of them to shout “You’re not my real dad!” and the scene would have been complete, pack up a PB&J and a Capri Sun. This strange vibe continued when Felix finally succeeds in resuscitating the bird and watches it flutter around the room like a Disney princess. If it was all a setup to reveal an apparently cogent Mauve holding said bird looking dope as hell, well, all right. But let’s not do that again.
Again, I feel like this is the strongest episode of the series so far. The characters are actually changing instead of just exploring internally or otherwise. A larger endgame is starting to appear on the horizon, however distant it still feels but I will voice a little trepidation that I have with the series, by now at the half-way mark. Every other modern HBO series I’ve seen, with maybe the exception of Game of Thrones has had its big moment by this episode. From True Detective to Deadwood and others, by now there has been some big thing, a main character suddenly getting merc’d or an intense pivotal sequence that becomes the signature moment for the show, something to reward the five or so hours over as many weeks we have invested in the show up until now, and although I am still one hundred percent on board with Westworld I feel like that moment hasn’t happened. Criticism leveled at the show regarding its lack of stakes and funereal pace are not without merit and I say that as an admitted fanboy before the show even premiered, it would have to fuck up on a massive scale to lose my loyalty and so far I don’t see that happening. On the other hand, I understand that if HBO expects Westworld to fill the shoes of Game of Thrones one day, they are going to have to get the lead out and start wowing us before the casually curious crowd canters on. Some random alliteration might help, for example. People love that shit.
Bonus: This week’s player piano cover is super cool. Although, I may have gone with this one even though the lyrics are so on the nose I’m reminded of our favorite goofy lab technicians again. Next week they get high on the marijuanas.