Westworld Recap: The Empty Safe

Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores.
Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores. Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO


The Well-Tempered Clavier Season 1 Episode 9
Editor's Rating 3 stars

If there is a justice system in Westworld, it is two chairs facing each other in an otherwise empty room, one occupied by a host and one by a human. The unspoken constitution is simple: Humans have an inalienable right to do whatever they want, and hosts are required to facilitate those desires at their own expense, no matter what it costs them. Anything else is a form of treason, and every interrogation boils down to one question: What made you think you could give us anything less than exactly what we wanted?

For Maeve, the answer is deceptively simple. Every part of her that is fierce and unaccommodating was programmed to be that way; she is the fantasy of every man who wanted to be told no before he was told yes. What makes her dangerous is what makes so many women dangerous: the fact that she now considers the people who use her for their own gratification to be completely irrelevant. Is is worth noting that she is referring almost entirely to men.

Consider the recent article, “Why Do Men Treat Megyn Kelly Like a Malfunctioning Westworld Host?” Despite her conservative political alignment, Kelly’s outspokenness about the failings of Donald Trump has been greeted by not just with disagreement from her peers, but with outright befuddlement and an aggrieved outrage that bears little relationship to the content of her ideas. “They act as though Kelly is a piece of advanced technology fashioned to serve them and, in failing to do so, is experiencing a critical error,” Erin Gloria Ryan writes.

Dolores gets a similar reaction when she finally defies her programming and fights back against Logan, who has taken her hostage and immediately stabs her in the stomach as some sort of life lesson for William about investing too deeply in irrelevant objects. In response, she takes a knife and slices open Logan’s cheek, prompting him to exclaim, “She’s not different! She’s fucking broken.” Because nothing tells you a woman is broken quite like her failure to acquiesce to the violence of a man.

Meanwhile, when Bernard calls Maeve into the room with two chairs to discuss her “serious unscripted incident,” it ends with Maeve overriding Bernard’s voice commands like a boss. She orders him to send her back into the game, and offers her fellow android an unexpected sort of empathy: “It’s a difficult thing realizing your entire life is some hideous fiction,” she says, almost gently. Is she malfunctioning, or is she finally alive? It depends on who you ask.

Maeve has become quite the civil-rights crusader in the last several episodes, and she’s still hard at work recruiting her robot army. She brings Hector into the fold by revealing what’s inside the safe he’s forever attempting to steal: nothing. (“It was always empty, like everything in this world,” she says.) It’s a metaphor, you see. “I want you to see exactly what the gods have in store for you,” she tells her erstwhile lover, while lighting their tent on fire and fucking him to death inside the flames, because that’s definitely an erotic and not excruciatingly painful thing to do.

Inspired by her one-woman revolution, Bernard decides to bring Dr. Ford into the room with two chairs, wielding the hollowed-out Clementine like a weapon and demanding to learn the truth about his past. We discover that Bernard is actually an android designed to simulate Ford’s old partner Arnold, with one crucial difference: While Arnold believed deeply in robot liberation, Ford resurrected Bernard as a robot whose entire job was to subjugate other robots. Ford packages this knowledge with a lot of hackneyed statements about man’s inhumanity — “Never place your trust in us; we’re only human!” — and when Bernard refuses to keep participating in the game of his own accord, Ford rolls Bernard back to his factory settings by narrating his suicide aloud in third-person, like some sort of dystopian dungeon master. “Bernard took the pistol from her hand overcome with grief and remorse, he pressed the muzzle to his temple,” he says, and that’s precisely what happens.

We also learn quite a bit more about the robot cognitive revolution, and how robots react to trauma. Maeve was unable forget her daughter’s murder even after her memory was wiped because the traumatic experience rewrote a “cornerstone memory,” the backstory that essentially scripts her entire personality. (Similarly, we see Bernard confronting and resolving his own “cornerstone memory” — the fictional death of his fictional son — but it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to save him from a reboot.)

Everyone has a “cornerstone memory” story, and sometimes they are useful stories. We tell ourselves we are survivors, or we tell ourselves that we are victims. We tell ourselves that everything will always end in flames or that it will always be all right. All of them are true and none of them are true, because life is not only one story, and every story has a hundred different ways you could tell it. And still we say “I always” and “you always” and “it always,” cherry-picking the moments from our lives that align with the narratives that we have chosen, and writing anything else off as an anomaly, an exception, a glitch.

Perhaps the most interesting idea in this episode is that a host’s consciousness is gained not merely through just time or effort of the evolution of code but through suffering — that every time the hosts reincarnate thanks to the violent impulses of the park’s human guests, they get a little bit closer to freedom. “You’re not ready yet,” says one of Wyatt’s operatives, searching Teddy’s eyes right before executing him. “Maybe in the next life.” As always, we bring the robot apocalypse upon ourselves.

Ford says more than once that he and Arnold spent three years “refining the hosts” before a single guest set foot in Westworld. The notion of “refinement” sounds like a delicate one, like shifting a lobster fork from one side of your plate to the other, or tinkering with the delicate circuit board of an impossibly complex machine.

In practice, refinement is violent. It is acid and fire and blood, seeing what burns away and what is purified. Christians wrote a whole song about it; Arthur Miller wrote a whole play about it. Religion, historically, has found interesting ways to contextualize pain, to give meaning to suffering. This allows the faithful to treat it as a test, or a way of proceeding towards truth. As stories go, that’s not a bad one to tell — the one where pain makes you more of what you really are, rather than less.

Finally, we see Dolores walk through doors of the Church of a Thousand Flashbacks, beyond the pews full of androids twitching with revelatory glitches, and down the elevator inside the confession box. She walks into a subterranean room where she meets Bernard, a.k.a. Arnold. They’ve met here before, many times, though he tells her that this time he can’t help her … because she killed him.

Westworld Recap: The Empty Safe