It’s not clear to me why someone would name a child Dolores. It’s a word that means “sorrows,” which seems like a pessimistic way to christen someone entering the world. In Westworld, however, the name is more than apropos for the lovely farmer’s daughter in the sweet blue dress, a name that isn’t a benediction so much as a job description: She was built to suffer.
The tragedy of Dolores gets summarized rather succinctly when Dr. Ford brings in Teddy for an update, and hears him rhapsodize about his future with Dolores, how they will someday have the life they dream about. “No, you never will,” Ford says. “Your job is not to protect Dolores; it’s to keep her here. It’s to ensure that the guests find her if they want to best the stalwart gunslinger and have their way with his girl.”
Put differently, Teddy exists — his whole relationship with Dolores exists — so that male visitors can feel extra-satisfied about raping her after they kill him. She’s naïve and sweet and pure specifically because “despoiling” innocent young women is a popular sexual fantasy among Westworld’s guests, and thus every loop ends with Dolores watching the brutal murder of her parents and then getting dragged into a barn to be raped and probably murdered herself. And then it starts all over again. That isn’t a life; it’s a Greek mythological punishment.
Unsurprisingly, the name Dolores originates in one of history’s most impassioned theaters of ritualized suffering: religion. The Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, a woman immortalized not just for her piety or her virtue, but for her pain. The story of her suffering is gratifying and so she suffers in perpetuity; we chisel her tears in stone and we tell her story over and over as though her grief were happening for the first time, every time. Like Dolores — like every character in every story — she has a loop, a story that will play for as long as someone wants to hear it.
That’s what makes the hosts unnerving. They are stories in human form who must relive every retelling of their tragedies; as the show suggests, this is a horrifying thing to contemplate when even a trace of sentience enters the picture. Of course, the company line is they’re just machines running code, even though that’s not how they look or feel, either to the guests or to the actual television audience. Which is the point, in both cases. As Logan tells William, when his future brother-in-law reacts to the seemingly authentic terror of an android damsel, “That’s why they exist. So you get to feel this.”
Ford has a similar conversation with Bernard, wherein he shares a little bit of Westworld history: The park had a secret co-founder named Arnold, who tried to give the hosts true consciousness but ultimately died in a mysterious and highly suspicious manner. Ford warns Bernard that Arnold “saw something that wasn’t there” in the hosts, a sort of empathetic pareidolia where he projected an illusion of consciousness into their programmed humanity, like seeing images in the clouds.
Ford’s new narrative continues to simmer in the background, inserting a new villain called Wyatt who’s running some weird cult of hooded Saw rejects in the mountains nearby. Teddy ends up playing out the narrative with my favorite guest yet, a badass queer lady who bursts on the scene by confronting the men who assaulted some local “working girls,” and blowing the assholes away with a shotgun. While the ethics of the park are admittedly questionable, if you’re going to play out a power fantasy, there are worse ones.
Despite Ford’s warnings, Bernard continues to have secret conversations with Dolores, his very favorite American Girl RealDoll. He gives her a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the same book his dead son used to like, whose heroine not-so-coincidentally looks a lot like Dolores and also remarks on the growing strangeness of the world around her. Change is apparently a common theme in the books she and Bernard have read together; he notes revealingly that “people like to read about the things that they want the most and experience the least.”
Maybe that’s why the grieving Bernard is pursuing this entire line of inquiry about robot consciousness: It feeds his desire to believe that change is possible, that perhaps we are not as lost or as doomed by our circumstances as we might believe. When people feel hopeless, they seek miracles. Is there anything more miraculous than a robot making itself real?
Despite the fluttering sense of awareness that he senses in Dolores, she is still trapped, both by her programming and by a narrative that refuses to let her escape. When Teddy begins his familiar speech about their future, we see her pushing at the limits of the story for the first time. “Someday sounds a lot like the thing people say when they mean never,” she says. “Let’s not go someday, Teddy. Let’s go now.”
He demurs, because it’s his job to trap her, partly by promising her freedom in a future than will never come. Later, when Dolores asks Teddy to teach her to shoot a gun, she finds her own programming holds her back as well. Unless her “weapons privileges” are toggled on, she’s physically incapable of pulling the trigger, a forced helplessness that makes her rapes and murders feel all the more disgusting. It’s a reality so unpleasant that it eventually gives Bernard pause: Is consciousness truly a gift to Dolores, or a form of cruelty?
Bernard offers to restore her to her former Memento-like state, because “this place you live in, it’s a terrible place for you.” But the death of Bernard’s own son — and his insistence he’d never choose to forget him, even if stopped the pain — points to another melodramatic but inescapable truth: Everyone is built to suffer.
Pain isn’t just an unfortunate side effect of being alive. It’s not a bug in the human machine, but a feature. It’s inextricably tied to the ability to change and grow, something Dolores realizes in the final scene of the episode, where she returns to her homestead to witness the murder of her parents yet again. But this time, something is different.
Not only does she transcend her weapons block and shoot the man who tries to rape her in the barn — overcoming her programming seemingly through sheer force of will — but she dodges a bullet that hit her in a previous loop, making me hope with every fiber in my being that she gains perfect recall of her memories and rampages through Sweetwater like a gunslinging Rita Vrataski.
For now, the synthetic woman programmed to be a damsel-in-distress will have to settle for something almost as radical. She’s becoming more than the tired, sexist role assigned to her by the men who run her world, and finding a way to save herself.