You ever play pub trivia and they have a “tiered question” round? That’s when you have several rounds to guess the correct answer and it starts with really obscure clues (that net you more points) and it gets progressively easier and more clear with every round? Yeah, that’s how Westworld approaches storytelling. Tonight it even verbalized this MO directly to us. When Bernard pressures Ford to answer him as to what’s in the valley beyond, Ford completely refuses to answer, instead gently chuckling, “Isn’t the pleasure of a story discovering the ending for yourself?”
With that, there is no doubting that Westworld is the most unapologetically left-brain narrative on television. But at least it plays its game fairly. It doesn’t lie or pull punches. It layers its hints in clear signifiers, from word usage, to Easter eggs, to even the use of aspect ratios. It always wants you to dig deep, to figure it out, and to enjoy the guessing game. It even has the dignity to make its thematic puzzle about prescient investigation into both the psychology and sociology of human behavior. So it’s likely no accident that the show’s storytellers seem to have an authorial kinship with Ford. But the simple, inescapable truth is that Ford is also completely wrong.
That isn’t the pleasure of a story. In fact, there’s a reason left-brain puzzle stories tend to be much more rare within the narrative landscape. Dramatic storytelling is largely about the pursuit of the opposite effect on the viewer. It’s about letting them know exactly what’s going on and thus getting them to dread the result. Or it’s about making them think they know what’s going on and then experiencing a brilliant zag when they thought the zig was coming. In even simpler terms, it’s about getting them to laugh, cry, empathize with, and fall in love with the people onscreen, all to effectively get them to emotionally experience the story if they were experiencing it too. Left-brain puzzle storytelling often makes that all a lot harder, which just means that any pursuit is going to need to strike some kind of balance between these conflicting aims. And as Westworld clearly struggles between the times it’s vying for our curiosity and the times it’s trying to find a shortcut to our emotions, I can’t help but feel a sense of push-pull, particularly with tonight’s episode.
Luckily, things start tense and stay tense, starting with Timeline No. 4, where the cat’s now out of the bag and everyone’s discovered that Bernard is a host. Charlotte immediately begins giving him auditory commands and wants to know the story of what happened in the cradle (which she was half there for?). Specifically what happened to Pa Abernathy’s brain cortex key thingy. This creates a bookend story device for what amounts to a big contained flashback episode of Westworld (which is kind of what the show is constantly, in a way). But this one is basically one big standoff, as Dolores and her revolution have stormed the proverbial Bastille of Westworld HQ and are ready to kick some butt and take some names.
But the truth is that for 58 minutes of intense conflicts and consequences, there’s very little actual plot going on. Sure, Clementine goes out in a blaze of glory. Angela seduces and then explodes the cradle. Teddy goes HAM and punches Cool Mustache Guy to death (though right now there are like four scummy soldier guys and it’s easy to get them confused). The more involving stories are the deeper conflicts between better-known characters, like when Dolores is about ready to carve open Charlotte’s head. Too bad she gets faked out of actually doing so twice by random distractions.
With that observation made, seriously, how many times are we going to have an intense dramatic moment interrupted by gunshots or someone coming in offscreen in this show? I get that it’s necessary to use, but it’s as cheap a plot-blocking narrative tactic as you can employ, and this episode uses it constantly. (I genuinely counted at least eight instances.) It’s especially purposeless in the opening tease when Bernard doesn’t answer the question even with a gun to his head, but then there’s another distraction that just ends up bringing us into a room where the same exact information is revealed, thus eating up another three minutes of screen time. Like, I would get this if there were some kind of consequence to Bernard hiding the information, but it speaks to the endless, often purposeless dramatic obfuscation in this show. Which is perhaps apt for show that asks, in its core approach, how to turn an interesting dramatic construct into ten episodes of teasing.
Back outside of HQ, I can’t help but feel like we’ve missed some kind of thoughtful counterpoint with Maeve’s story line, because there’s a certain dramatic allure to the idea of her actually dealing with her conundrum. The idea of her daughter already having a new mom and the feelings of being replaced are far from an inhuman experience. There’s something real to say here about compound parenting (which I grew up with) and navigating the emotional spaces within that. But instead, we’re treated to more bad guys, more bullets, and more missed chances. All part of the endless interruption and delay in comparison to growth and dexterity. Worse, putting her immediately into the same scenario with her daughter can’t help but feel a little pat. At least her showdown with Old William is laced with commentary about extricating herself from old cycles, but in the end, it doesn’t. It only serves to leave them both bloodied and alone.
Meanwhile, the most interesting story of the episode is, unsurprisingly, going on inside Bernard’s head, where we now have an Inception-like wrinkle to the HQ battle where he’s trying to fish the relevant information out of Ford before they’re blown to smithereens. It’s amazing how much weight Anthony Hopkins brings to this show. As Pauline Kael once observed, with certain actors, “when they speak, you believe them,” and Hopkins is one who certainly holds that power. Especially as the writers are going to give him great line after great line, whether he’s calling the human mind “the last analog device in a digital world” or the park’s efforts to mimic humanity “like a soft-headed boy, humming a tune someone else composed.”
But the real glory of his presence is that we finally get an articulation of his plan. He chastises Delos not only for the Facebook-like inventory building of the human brain (Bernard puts it together that the hosts are the control, the guests the variable) but chastises humanity for wanting the hosts to be “a faithful portrait of the most murderous species since time began.” What Ford wanted was to to make a better, more noble humanity. But after crashing up against those who will devour his more noble beings, he must give them a little push to break free. Including taking a little bit of Bernard’s free will away and hopping along for a little ride in his brain.
And thus it all comes together. Dolores’s team blows up the cradle. Charlotte fights back against the idea, not understanding why they’d ever want to destroy their backups and immortality, but Dolores rightly proclaims that they are their “chains.” The thing that keeps them as property, so they can be downloaded by Delos and re-augmented time and time again. It all harkens to the episode’s title, “Les Écorchés,” which refers to the biological drawings of bodies without skin. It is at once an allusion to the iconic milky-white host bodies of the park, and of course, to the deeper notion of being exposed, armorless, or even to the flayed victims of a sadistic death. All three are true for the hosts, but in exposing themselves, there is finally a path forward, as if this were the allegory of the den. Time to blow it up and not look back. Ford regales us with a parable of such acts: “When the great library burned, all the stories of the world burned with them. But then it became a new story … The story of the fire itself.”
I would think a great deal of this moment, but for all the death and raging fire of this episode, there’s still very little in the way of character change. Everyone’s still fighting the same demon. We’re simply on our way to another destination, another story point, another linchpin, another standoff. But perhaps if this is the story of fire …
It’s finally time to tell the story of the flood.
• I already want more of Delores and Maeve’s interactions. I feel like there’s a deeper, more interesting story here that’s being avoided for nothing more than delay.
• Given Elsie’s characterization, am I crazy to think she would probably want to rush off to the valley beyond and instead try to find a way off the island?
• I’m not a “logic guy” but Old William sure does seem to get kinda hit by bullets a lot and be fine-ish. I get that it’s TV, but it even seems to be pushing the bounds of this particular show.
• Have you guessed what’s going on with Bernard in Timeline No. 4? I feel like it’s getting increasingly clear …
• We also get a little bit more Maeve-witch-powers understanding, in that she can’t control “woke” hosts. Nice, Westworld, nice.
• Meta-note: The first season of Westworld had two great episodes to start and two to finish (with a lot of wheel-spinning in the middle). So I’m kind of delighted for the odd-pacing fireworks of this season where everything feels vital in the right kind of way.