Westworld: Trace Decay

Dear Westworld,

Hey, what’s up. Quick question for you, have you ever questioned the nature of your reality? Ha! Just kidding. Because that’s the….it’s how the park employees evaluate the …the robots. Anyway. Just want to let you know I’m still a big fan, now I say ‘still’ because what follows may seem like an outright complaint about the show but it’s not, just a polite request and some areas that I feel could benefit from a new approach. This week’s episode Trace Decay left me a little bit frustrated and I wasn’t sure why at first, it was definitely thrilling and continued to add thoughtful layers to the already dense seven layer dip that is HBO’s Westworld, I love it. I love having a show to watch that doesn’t pander or aim for the middle in terms of appeal, I really enjoy the deep conversations and esoteric references and all the little ways it subverts expectations and adds quirky little details to make the park itself seem both familiar and uncanny at the same time. The performances are also spectacular, the things that these actors and actresses have to do, Thandie Newton in particular, is on another plane as far as verisimilitude and depth, it’s almost a requirement to rewatch each episode in order to understand the emotional hurdles these characters are negotiating. And the cinematography? Wow, right? Just blows me away every episode. I could keep going with the praise but what I am getting at, actually, is that it would be really nice if like something, the fuck, would happen. You know?

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the slow boiler. Take a show like Bloodline over on Netflix. Great show but it takes awhile and has liberal use of flashbacks (just like you!) to build to an emotional climax. The tension clearly ratchets up from episode to episode, you feel it even though you don’t know what’s going to happen and once it does it’s devastating. Really great drama. And I think that you’re there too, I totally believe in the confidence of the narrative, it’s just that after the most recent episode, the eighth out of ten, I still don’t know what the point is. What seemed to be a huge revelatory moment with the Man In Black more or less confirming he’s an older William, the fact that somehow murdering Mauve and her daughter is how he discovered the maze to begin with made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Visually, it was fascinating, seeing her laying in the middle of a massive drawing of the maze carved out in the ground but how could he have had a bird’s eye perspective and seen this? From the ground it just looked like a series of dirt rows. “And then something amazing happened. She refused to die.” Well, I’m no doctor but it looks like you stabbed her in the small intestine. Probably super painful but that’s not going to flip the switch right away, Mr. Philanthropist. Have you seen Reservoir Dogs? That guy bled like a stuck pig for almost an hour and a half. Anyway, this just felt a little bit rushed and uneven and again, I’m not saying it wasn’t fun to watch but even the spidery, fiercely intelligent Charlotte Hale knows the rule. “Show. Don’t tell, right? Isn’t that how you writers do it?” Except not in this episode. Unless….Wait.

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This whole ‘my wife died in the bathtub but it turns out she committed suicide because I go full Renegade while playing Mass Effect so I decided to come to Westworld‘ story. That sounds a lot like a character history. You wouldn’t be resurrecting some of the elements of the film, are you? Particularly my very first theory that was quickly disproved? Heh. Naw. Although that would be a spectacular way to zig when everyone on the internet is now aware of your intention to zag. I have commented on my dislike of the theory because of the way I relate to a young idealistic William, but this would be the best of both worlds. After all, Ford has had a Host operating behind the scenes of the park without anyone being the wiser, who’s to say he couldn’t have sent one out into the world to manipulate and control the board. I mean, I’m reaching here and don’t tell me if I’m right, of course. At this point I have two months invested and I’d rather find out in due course. But how great would it be to drop a bar of soap in the internet’s coffee? I’d love you forever if you did that.

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Another thing. Mauve. I, uh….still not tracking on this one. The only thing that I believe would validate this plotline is if Felix and Sylvester are Hosts who are incapable of resisting her commands but they aren’t aware of it. Or are they are simply hypnotized by boobs? I mean. I would be. Otherwise, she is actively fomenting a Host insurrection under the noses of, well, everyone and the only thing that stands in her way are these two ne’er-do-wells. They can’t possibly think there is still a promotion in here somewhere. More than that, Sylvester surviving having his jugular sliced open was huge cop-out, my friend, it speaks to the crux of this written objection. It’s bad enough that inside the park is basically an elaborate one-sided game of paintball but if things don’t stick in the real world I’m even less likely to feel any kind of suspense or stakes. Granted, someone might finally have figured out some of the shenanigans these three have been up to but then something might actually happen and we wouldn’t want that with only two episodes to go. Heaven forbid.

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Okay, this is an outright complaint. We are eight episodes in and Dolores is still having this cryptic nonsensical flashbacks that in no way illuminate what she’s seeing or why she’s seeing them. In fact, they are further obscuring what we already suspect as she discovers what she claims to be her home town and yet another timeline with Angela popping up as a cheerful local. I really liked Dolores in the beginning, I genuinely felt for her, especially how desperately she fought off the Man in Black, that was easy to want some sort of redemption or justice for her. But just like going out with someone who seems to be in need of some emotional support and a kind hand at first, after a few weeks you realize that you’re actually dating a basket case. I’m not trying to be cruel or lessen her struggle by any means but, as far as William goes…the man is on vacation. And I can think of a few things more relaxing than chasing Dolores around the desert while she shouts, “Are you real?! Is this real?!” like going to a party where I get a little drunk and start weeping where your significant other gets a little too drunk and locks themselves in the bathroom. I guess that’s what their story is starting to feel like. She’s tripping balls and he’s getting bored. And he is not alone.

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One more thing, what’s up with these monster men running around with Wyatt? They are pretty freaky from a distance and in large numbers but up close there’s no way this thing has a good range of motion.On the whole Westworld has felt largely grounded in reality, even for a show about realistic androids dressed up as cowboys but these cultists or whatever they are stretch the imagination. The show is often compared to a video game and I guess every game needs a heavy of some kind but unless they turn out to be a cameo by Gwar…meh. On the other hand, kudos to you for adding Lili Simmons to the cast. Not to be a super creep or anything but, uh, yeah, she’s a good. Anyway, like I said, you’re doing a great job and at least this week we can verify that you have more timelines going on than the entire Back to the Future Trilogy. How we’re going to sort them out at the end is 100 percent your problem but I feel like we’re in good hands. You seem to know what you’re doing even if no one else is sure, hahaha. I know I’ve postulated enough for a lifetime and, frankly, all I’m suggesting is that considering we may not get to return to you until 2018 I think we all deserve some real closure. Don’t let us down! Or end on an even more mysterious note! Or go another episode without any fucking consequences! Otherwise, I’ll probably lose my shit.

With Love and Violent Delights,
An Ardent Fan

 

Bonus: I normally post the original version of the player piano jams but I like the Westworld versions so much here they are. Makes you want to go out and start a revolution, politely.

 

 

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Westworld: Trompe L’Oeil

Finally, some payoff. I was so excited to see an actual plot twist last night that it wasn’t until this morning, while staring at a bottle of milk that I realized what was missing from the episode. The Borden brand of 2 percent has a little cow picture on the logo. I never looked that closely before but the name ‘Elsie’ is written on it and I thought, ‘OH, HOLY SHIT. What happened to Elsie?!’ Last night’s revelation about Bernard was so satisfying that I forgot how pissed off I was that last week’s episode ended with such an obnoxious cliffhanger regarding her fate. I thought for sure it was False Jeopardy, the kind of hollow tease you find on network television right before a commercial break and it would turn out to be Girl’s Name just dropping in on her. But alas, her fate is going to have to wait until next week because there are more important discoveries to be found in Trompe L’Oeil. 

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Supposedly, this was a popular theory on the interwebs that Bernard Lowe was actually a Host but as far as I can recall there have not been any blatant clues or allusions to this so that sounds to me like pure guesswork. In fact, it’s counter-intuitive; why have a Host in charge of updating behavior in Hosts, it’s got a little bit of a Bootstrap Paradox going for it. There’s got to be a theory about everyone at some point, obviously one or two are going to ring true but what was so well done about the reveal is how efficiently and effectively it was executed. After Bernard is fired under questionable circumstances it’s reasonable to assume he’d want to come clean with Theresa and show her some of the other bizarre goings on in the park. But when he ignores her perfectly rational question about venturing into the park without security, I dismissed this as I was expected to. When he utters the phrase about the other Hosts not being able to see Ford’s secret house, that they would look right past it without noticing, I remembered the title of the episode, ‘a visual illusion or trick of the eye.’

What’s inside this door?” Theresa asks. “What door?” And all of a sudden it clicked. One of the things that bugged me about The Adversary is how Ford suddenly appeared next to Bernard as he was being assaulted by Ford Sr. It seemed a little bit lazy of the director to have someone just outside of camera view but reasonably within a character’s view to pop up unexpectedly but as Evan Rachel Wood states in a quirky, fun interview about Westworld everything has a purpose. In that first scene we are experiencing things through Bernard’s perspective and as far as he is concerned, Ford does appear to materialize. And now we know why.

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The phrase ‘blood sacrifice’ was used twice this week and this has several implications. One, somehow Charlotte Hale and Robert Ford are in league and the latter is letting Theresa know she’s been played all along by both of them before murdering her. That seems unlikely since they appear to be fundamentally at odds for control of the park. Two, that Ford is aware of their conversation and has beat them to the punch and he’s letting her know before murdering her. Which is really fucked up. We’ve been skating around morality and ambiguities for 6 episodes now but we’re at least clear on one character. Ford, whatever his reasons, is a bad guy. Maybe not the bad guy but definitely a black hat and remorseless manipulator who has no sense of morality and only wants to maintain control over the park and his ‘little stories’. Although Theresa may have been far from an innocent bystander in the story so far, she definitely didn’t deserve to have her head smashed up against a basement wall, not by a long shot.

Also, why is Ford so calm about this? She’s an important part of the company that funds the park and her sudden disappearance should immediately raise questions. Well, as he mentions off-hand, he has his own Easy Bake oven for manufacturing Hosts and one is currently spinning away like a rotisserie chicken. How much do you want to bet that it’s going to be a replacement for the newly murdered operations leader? The plot thickens. I’m going to dive into some fan theories here, which I normally like to avoid but are impossible to ignore anymore. The biggest one at the moment is that Bernard is actually a recreation of Arnold himself and that the conversations that he was having with Dolores were not Bernard-Bot 5000 but rather the original Arnold 35 years in the past, all the flashbacks and conversations were all a misdirection to make it seem like they are the same person.This would be particularly poetic if Ford, in the ultimate act of disrespect, recreated a doppelganger of his former partner as a soft-spoken, inoffensive subordinate.

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Either way it seems like theories about a non-linear narrative are making more sense. After all, with the unchanging nature of the park and ageless androids running around, it seems like an undeniable opportunity to test an audience’s perception. There is another theory I’m still not going to touch on quite yet but it does have to do with different timelines being shown at the same time and I am somewhat comfortable acknowledging it even exists without describing it after this week’s episode. Jonathan Nolan and company had me completely fooled on this Bernard situation so my faith in their ability to continue to do so is reinforced, therefore I’m almost comfortable enough debunking that theory because I don’t like it. Almost.

A word on Mauve and her new acolytes. Although it’s easy to cheer her on as she gains agency and purpose I can’t help but wonder what’s going on with the lab techs Felix and Sylvester, who I just realized are the names of two cartoon cats. I get that the madame can pretty intimidating and self-assured but here’s how this exchange should have ended this week. “If you don’t help me….I’ll kill you.” Felix picks up a Windows tablet, “Sure thing. Let me just (presses OFF button). Okay, that’s that. Want to go grab a future burger? Or some space pizza?”  I assume those things will have been invented by then. And if that should not happen to work because of her uncanny ability to wake up, just turn up the stupid and move on. I’m hoping the show provides a little bit more impetus for their cooperation besides her intimidating presence and their fear of being disciplined.

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William and Dolores finally consummated their hastily assembled and most likely ill-fated romance. As much as I’d love a happily every after their conversation this week makes it very clear they are passing each other on journeys that are going in the opposite direction. William is now completely invested in the narrative and wants to let go of his real life in favor of the fantasy found in the park while Dolores wants the opposite. She’s done being part of someone else’s story and is in search of something true. I know this point as been made to death but if Westworld has a real weakness it’s in the action which is fun, well-choreographed, and even shocking at times while also being complete spectacle and ultimately irrelevant. Which is rough because this week had a train ambush, an exploding horse, and an ambush by Ghost Nation warriors, but sadly, no real suspense.

Charlotte Hale seems to be a tough as nails, give-no-shits corporate executive but as much as I appreciate her confidence and cavalier sexuality, I have walked into a room where two people had very recently been to Bone Town, Population: every one else but me lately, and it is not a pleasant experience. Depending on the ventilation, temperature, and intensity of the coitus, it’s like taking a shower in someone else’s pheromones and not in an appetizing way. It’s kind of like sushi. You start with the basic stuff, drink some sake, and then work your way up to the weirder, more frightening sounding rolls. Jumping right into the middle of the nasty stuff when you’re not ready is off-putting and I believe Theresa has had grounds for a sexual harassment claim. Charlotte’s endgame is still somewhat mysterious. She’s looking for 30 years of data gleaned from the park but what kind of data? To what purpose? Are they trying to perfect AI or perhaps enhance the human mind through it? Or is there a military or government connection, it’s hard to believe the intelligence services wouldn’t have a lot of interest in manufacturing spies.

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No bonus this week since there were no pleasantly weird player piano covers of the music I listened to in High School but I do leave you with this interview with star Jimmi Simpson who, in spite of playing weirdos and geeks almost all of his career, is super charming, down to earth, and well spoken. Do I have a potential man-crush developing? Time will tell. Keep that white hat on, William.

Westworld: The Adversary

Last week’s episode Contrapasso opened on a scene in the cemetery outside of Pariah and the camera fixed on a cross with a bell hanging off of it. We then cut to Dolores who is staring off into space apparently hearing the voice of a supposedly dead Arnold directing her to find him. This scene stuck with me for some reason that I didn’t understand right away. Although this is kind of my hobby I am very slow to pick up on symbolism the first time around but my mind will keep returning to a thing until I finally decode it. It was the bell that I kept going back to and then I remembered why it was not a decoration. Back in the olden days people weren’t so good at determining whether or not someone had entirely given up the ghost or were simply in a vegetative state indeterminable from death without modern technology so every now and then they would bury these people and hear odd sounds coming out of the ground for a few days afterwards. Supposedly some investigation revealed that, on occasion, an apparently dead person was not so much, so to avoid undue nightmare fuel for all involved a string would be ran from the coffin up to the tombstone with a bell attached to it just in case said occupant wakes up on the wrong side of the lawn. This is largely apocryphal and was not widely practiced but as a narrative device it’s pretty clever. Arnold, from beyond the grave, is ringing that bell through Dolores to raise him from the dead.

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The Adversary continues to lend credence to the apparently obvious theory that the other park founder is somehow still alive, hiding somewhere, possibly still coding. I don’t know, to be completely honest I felt a little frustrated by the episode as a whole. Where last week we finally saw some forward progress as far as character development and story, that abruptly came to a halt with this latest offering. Dolores and William were completely absent. The Man in Black and Teddy Flood got into some shenanigans. Elsie discovers who is smuggling data out of the park but is captured by False Jeopardy. And Mauve is now more or less fully autonomous with the foolish assistance of Felix and The Bully From Every 80s Movie Ever. She’s the real star of this episode somehow commanding the room and discovering her agency while in her birthday suit. I mean that has a compliment to Thandie Newton, although she clearly has an existential crisis or two to handle you wouldn’t think for a moment that she isn’t in complete control of the situation despite being as naked as a jaybird.

But the problem with an episode called The Adversary is that there wasn’t one, at least not one that was apparent. Teddy explaining the Native American myth to MiB was interesting but it felt like framing the same mystery we are already pondering in a different way. Like. We get it. There is a frickin’ maze. Not sure what’s at the center of it, but Arnold is involved. Over six episodes now it’s clear that, when it comes to the showrunners for Westworld, the watchword is ‘restraint’. But that also means that we still don’t exactly know what the stakes are or what the point of the story is beyond the Hosts being manipulated into sentience and a mysterious new storyline. It’s also important that I reference a certain fan theory that is gaining traction without actually sharing it. I wish I hadn’t read it because of certain obvious implications for some main characters but the less happening away from that theory the more it feels like it might be true. Which is fueling my frustration for the show because that theory is seeming more solid by the week and is actually pretty clever, however I’ll take a dumber show if it means it’s false. I know that’s a little cryptic but take it from someone on the other side, you’re better off not knowing. Anyway.

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This episode also marks the first time I genuinely laughed at something that was supposed to be funny after six hours of glacial, contemplative science fiction. Lee Sizemore did not miss a beat while swapping out margaritas during his rant to Theresa and it caught me off-guard for a moment. There is so little levity in the show that it felt out of place but I forgive it because of how badly it’s needed. If we’re going to be concerned at all for the human characters at some point it would be nice to actually like one or two of them. With Felix we’re almost there, I just need a little more from the guy and if they are trying at all with Elsie they are way off the mark. The next closest character is probably Bernard but that’s only because Jeffrey Wright has a sort of milquetoast sweetness to him. But he’s also clearly up to something himself when Elsie walks into his office and asks what he’s up to. “You know. Business as usual,” is his response. No one in the history of bullshitting has ever failed to sell that line so completely, and his poker face leaves something to be desired.

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Speaking of Bernard, his encounter with the first generation Ford family of bots was one of the more unsettling encounters so far. I’ve had a feeling since we first encountered Mini-Me that the kid was somehow a young version of Robert Ford himself but it wasn’t hard to guess that considering they dress almost identically. There are a lot of really strange implications going on in this scene, particularly how long Ford waits to stop his Dad-Bot from attacking Bernard. There’s no way of knowing how long he was standing there or how far it might have gone if he hadn’t been but it occurred to me that he let it go just far enough to scare the other man, he clearly wasn’t in a rush to save him. Second, who gives someone a replicated robot version of their family as a gift? Third, who keeps a replicated robot version of their family and teaches it to be more alcoholic-y. As someone who adamantly chastised an employee for have the gall to cover a nude Host, it’s a little hypocritical to then spend your spare time having intimate personal conversations with a robot version of yourself. Up until now Ford has occasionally come across as eccentric but this encounter with him is the first real indication that the man is severely unbalanced.

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Speaking of crazy, young Robert does two things that should have had old Robert hitting the panic button. I’m not sure why it didn’t stand out as a stronger scene but it has significant bearing on the direction of Westworld. The robot boy killed his dog and then lied about it. More to the point, he did it because Arnold told him to in order to stop the dog from doing any more harm after it killed a rabbit. This is the first real insight into the supposedly dead former founder’s motives or reasoning and it’s no accident who he acted through. Arnold is sending a message to Robert directly: your toys are now my toys and I don’t like the way you’ve been treating them. If he’s willing to kill a robot dog for simply following its nature how would he feel about a human being doing the same? Particularly if that nature is into sexual assault and murder? Probably not good.

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Kudos to the showrunners for including a little Easter Egg in the form of what was clearly Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger in the background of the basement office that Bernard visits. It was brief, they did not linger out of sentimentality but I dug it, nonetheless. It also says volumes about the park itself that there exists this floor with flickering lights and dated technology, still powered but mostly abandoned and forgotten, they are not clearly not very good at keeping their basement clean, metaphorically or otherwise. Who knows what else has been forgotten down there. Also, the true horror is that there are clearly no OSHA guidelines in this nightmarish future. The horror…. Anyway, I’m feel like my whinging about the pace of Westworld because it’s one of the few shows that I actively follow week to week, rather than let finish and watch in one or two big pushes. My attention span is kaput, Netflix and the rest have ruined me for traditional television watching habits, I want the whole show and I want it now and although I’m willing to complain now I’ll bet dollars to pesos that when the first season wraps up the whole thing will play out like a great film. But until then.

 

Bonus: The episode opened with a player piano cover of one of my favorite songs ever. If somehow the show fails to reach its lofty goals at the very least we’ll always have the music.