Westworld recap: The robots hack the system
What happens when a machine overwrites its human-designed programming?
Sunday's episode of Westworld explores how the park's "hosts" encode messages to their future selves. Whether it's Dolores' gun or Maeve's "shadow man," the hosts seem to be developing a system that hacks the park engineers' memory wipes.
One major question is whether the fact that the robots are programmed verbally means that they can alter their own code. (We learn in this episode that the only vestige of the park co-founder Arnold's system is using verbal commands to program them. It seems like a rather obvious vulnerability, but it's still an interesting one.) We've already seen that the hosts can verbally alter each other's code: It seems fairly clear that "these violent delights have violent ends" is a linguistic virus transmitted host to host, as Peter Abernathy did with Dolores and she did with Maeve. But can they do the same for themselves?
This episode begins with a little AI literary analysis. Bernard is invested in experimenting with Dolores' capacity for sentience by — among other things — offering her some literary analogues for what's happening to her. Enter Alice in Wonderland, the urtext for theorizing a disorienting experience of a different reality. "Dear, dear, how queer everything is today!" Dolores reads aloud. "And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I've been changed in the night." She observes that this is "like the other books we've read," which suggests a) that Bernard has been sharing books with her for longer than we've seen, b) that there's an unclear boundary between "literature" and "code," and c) that Dolores is able to do fairly complex analysis. "It's about change," she says of that passage. "Seems to be a common theme."
What becomes less clear is how the cuts to her debriefings with Bernard intersect with the storyline as presented to us. Dolores is glitching — or changing — and we're glitching with her. Her capacity for violence has obviously been growing (as the symbolic fly-swatting in the pilot showed). She couldn't shoot the gun in an earlier scene with Teddy, but when she overwrites that programming (apparently aided by a memory of a knife-wielding Man in Black) and shoots her assailant, we get two follow-up scenarios.
In the first, a guest shoots her in the abdomen. She stares down at the blood spreading through her dress and looks back up. Then there's a glitch: The man repeats his command in exactly the same way, but when she looks down again, the blood is gone; she hasn't been shot. It appears to be the same exact man repeating the same exact line — but because this scene is notable for its pattern-breaking (she's never shot anyone before), it can't be a flashback. So what's happening here?
Recall that when Rebus attacks Dolores (noting that there's no father or boyfriend to interrupt this time), she says, haltingly, "Interrupt — this — time." And she steals his gun, and she does just that. She was able to snatch a bit of dialogue from him and hear it as code for her own purposes. She interrupts.
A similar principle seems to be operating in the scene where she shoots Rebus: She can't do it until she pictures the Man in Black and imagines his voice telling her to do it. "Kill him," we hear him say as she fires. She can program herself at one remove by imagining she hears a voice telling her to do what she wants to do. These are the kinds of auditory hallucinations Julian Jaynes described in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind — a theory of consciousness Dr. Robert Ford considered central to his and his partner Arnold's thinking about how the hosts would work.
The Arnold story is chilling, of course. Ford clearly means to warn Bernard of the dangers of getting too attached to the hosts; he even scolds an engineer for leaving one host clothed as he works on him, which reminds us that Bernard has left Dolores dressed every time they've spoken. But it's unclear whether Ford genuinely believes what he says. If I'm right in speculating that the boy he spoke with in the second episode was a prototype of Ford himself, it's hard to believe he's as dispassionate as he claims.
More importantly, that conversation expands the show's philosophical premises to include the torments of consciousness, which include mental illness and pain and loss. Bernard sees this and tries to give Dolores a choice: Wyatt's illness is the bicameral mind. As Teddy puts it: "He claimed he could hear the voice of God."
Two developments are worth noting.
First, Elsie notices that Arnold is surfacing for more than one host as an interlocutor. She notices, too, that Walter, a disposable sidekick, is systematically killing hosts who have killed him in other storylines. He's in conversation with Arnold as he does so, and this is interesting for lots of reasons. But the big one is that his milk-drinking, milk-leaking body suggests he's worryingly immune to injuries that should, by rights, have killed him.
Secondly, Dolores seems to be developing a resistance to explicit commands by other guests. We've seen that she's getting better at routing her own wishes through auditory hallucinations voiced by guests whose commands she has to obey. But what's strange is that sometimes she doesn't. The main point of that back-to-back sequence in which the guest yells at her to "get back here" is that on the second replay, she's able to resist his command and ride away unharmed.
What brings these two tendencies together — the ability to resist verbal commands and the ability to resist death-dealing injuries — is the missing woodcutter. Elsie's "stray" appears to override his own programmed deactivation (his code) and his physical semi-decapitation (his body). While it's totally possible that his horrific bashing in of his own skull is just a distortion of the "Good Samaritan" reflex by which the hosts cannot harm guests, it could also be that he's suicidally destroying his own "wetware" so the engineers can't get access to whatever mods he's made. He's left his codes — his carvings of an apparent constellation that is not Orion — behind.
And then there's "Wyatt," Ford's brilliant new storyline. The "Wyatt" subplot achieves two important things: First, it disrupts so many storylines in the park that the engineers seem to be having trouble separating the noise of accidentally broken loops from truly erratic behavior. Secondly, it conveniently camouflages the hosts' emerging ability to withstand physical trauma that should kill them: "Way I heard it, Wyatt's a mercenary," says a member of Teddy's posse. "Gets his men to wear the bones and flesh of their enemies." We see just this: a group of apparently dead men with horrific injuries tied up to trees and rotting turn out to be alive. We learned last week in a conversation between Maeve and Teddy that some hosts know perfectly well that they're putting on an act and deceiving the guests. This seems to be an intensification of that ability.
"They're masks," Teddy explains, "The men underneath are the ones to be afraid of. Wyatt's got 'em so twisted around, they'll do anything for him. Kill anyone." But what comes next should make us wonder — "Pain don't slow 'em. They don't fear death. They reckon they've already died and gone to hell and this is it" — because Teddy could be describing himself. "Shakespeare never met a man quite like you, Teddy," Ford says. "You've died at least a thousand times, and yet it doesn't dull your courage."
What would it mean to have an army of beings who've died so many times they're no longer especially susceptible to or terrified by death? In Teddy's brand new backstory, Wyatt believes the land belongs neither to the white men or the natives but to him. It isn't hard to imagine Ford — who's likely to be engaging in at least some experimental sabotage — believing the same.