“What’s your problem?” screams William, when Logan walks up to a host they’ve been traveling with and casually blows his brains out. “The second we get away from the real world you turn into an evil prick!”
It’s a question that many Westworld viewers have asked as well, as they’ve watched Logan — and so many of the other guests — murder and rape their way through the park like malevolent toddlers gleefully knocking over blocks. Logan has long since suspended his disbelief, and his response rings with condescension: “It’s a fucking game, Billy.”
It’s the same speech we see Bernard give Elsie, the young behavioral programmer who tries to warn him about a disturbing pattern in the problems with the hosts. They’ve been hearing voices, doubting the nature of their reality, flashing back to memories that shouldn’t exist — behavior that looks a lot more like mental instability than a mere glitch.
“The hosts don’t imagine things,” Bernard says dismissively, turning Elsie into the inevitable Cassandra of this little tragedy. “You do.”
It’s an interesting piece of gaslighting, especially when you consider that Ford gave almost the exact same speech to Bernard just one episode ago — and that Bernard is way more invested in the consciousness of the hosts than anyone realizes. But if we learn one thing about Bernard in “Dissonance Theory,” it’s that he’s not precisely what he seems.
Elsie isn’t the only woman who gets manipulated into doubting herself for someone else’s purposes. Dolores and Maeve spend most of the episode questioning their own sanity, increasingly unable to reconcile their traumatic experiences with the way they’ve been programmed to think about the world. Their cognitive dissonance is a great metaphor for the way women are expected not just to endure violence and harassment from men, but to regard it as normal — nothing to make a big deal about, just a fact of life.
Westworld is, after all, a world designed largely by and for men, one that demands not just that Dolores and Maeve suffer constant physical and sexual abuse, but that they remain pleasant, pretty, and compliant no matter how many times they are harmed. (The first episode, you may remember, revolved around Dolores being threatened with cold storage if she failed to act sufficiently complacent about living in an endless nightmare.)
In yet another of her daddy/robo-daughter talks with Bernard, however, we see Dolores growing more and more discontented. “I think there maybe something wrong with this world, something hiding underneath,” she says, like an 19-year-old who just took her first women’s studies course.
Rather than artificial consciousness developing purely out of advanced code, there’s some suggestion that the great robot awakening is also a response to suffering. Or rather to memory: the ability to remember pain, and to construct a story of self not just from the immediate agony of the worst moments of your life, but how you choose to respond and who you become in the aftermath.
“You think that grief will make you smaller inside, like your heart will collapse in on itself,” Dolores tells Bernard, while reflecting on the murder of her parents. “But it doesn’t. I feel spaces opening up inside of me like a building with rooms I’ve never explored.”
Dolores is having more and more memories that seem linked to Arnold, the mysterious, dead co-founder of Westworld. In the briefest of flashes, we see her kneeling at her own gravesite, by a church (possibly the same church that Dr. Ford gazed at with knowing significance), and holding a gun (possibly the same ominous gun she found buried in the dirt, which she may be carrying on her adventure with Logan and William).
Maeve, meanwhile, has been hearing echoes of dialogue and flashing back to previous deaths, and gets particularly fixated on a memory of the men in hazmat suits she saw when she jolted herself awake in the laboratory. She draws one on a piece of paper and hides it beneath the floorboards, only to find a stack of nearly identical drawings made in her own hand. When a group of natives wander through town, one of the children drops a doll that looks eerily like the masked men, which a bystander says is “part of their so-called religion.”
The only other native characters we’ve seen so far were scalping Maeve and getting scalped by the Man in Black respectively, so I really hope there are some non-scalping stories to come that let native characters transcend stereotypes — or at least do more to acknowledge that they’re being written into the park as a stereotypes. Regardless, we learn more about their faith from the sexy, nihilistic bandit Hector, who explains that the masked monster is a “shade” who walks between worlds. The shade was apparently “sent from hell to oversee our world,” confirming Maeve’s sanity shortly before they both die in a hail of bullets.
The idea that these images are part of a native religious tradition not only suggests they’ve been recovering memories for quite some time, but also that this has something to do with Arnold’s blueprint for robot consciousness. Perhaps he programmed the hosts to hear their own code as an inner monologue — or as the voice of the gods.
So, if the hosts are trapped in an endless purgatory and the humans are petty gods playing games with them for amusement, then what would robot salvation look like? Bernard, of all people, may have the answer. When Dolores says she wants to be free — a sentiment that very much defies her programming — he says he has a solution. Guess what: It’s the maze, which he calls a “a very special kind of game.” He says that if she reaches the center then “maybe you can be free,” which is a stunning piece of information. Not only does Bernard know about the maze, but he knows what lies at the center. And it has something to do with robot liberation.
The Man in Black seems to think so too, informing Lawrence during a jailbreak quest that he has no free will, that he’s nothing but a prisoner who’s never made a real choice of his own. “What if I told you I’m here to set you free?” he asks. Although the Man in Black admits that his quest for the maze is driven by a need to know how the story ends after investing 30 goddamn years in it, he also does some seemingly important whining about how the game has never had real stakes because humans can’t die in it. Does the center of the maze contain the switch for the “safety protocols,” as they used to say on Star Trek about the holodeck? Does the Man in Black want to turn them off so he can finally achieve the extremely questionable goal of making video games as “realistic” as possible?
We’ve spent the first four episodes of the show viewing the Man in Black as the misogynistic villain of the story, the scourge of hosts like Dolores. What if he’s their savior instead? What would it mean if he were both?