Westworld recap: Power bellies and secret robots

What's tricky about Westworld the show is what's tricky within the park itself: separating the intended storylines from the "mistakes"

The darkly joyful conclusion of tonight's episode of Westworld — Maeve's realization that "none of this matters" — made me really take stock of an aspect of the show I hadn't fully appreciated: namely, that we'll never lose a character for good. I still don't like watching the hosts suffer, but this show is desensitizing me to footage of them dying. When Armistice took those bullets, I happily clicked over to Ingrid Bolsø Berdal's IMDB page, relished how many episodes she's listed in, and looked forward to seeing her again next week.

It's a canny move for HBO mere months after Jon Snow's controversial resurrection, and it's one of many comments the show makes about itself: As the Man in Black explains, without death, the stakes of an enterprise like Westworld are absent. It's not just likely that there's some deeper meaning; there has to be, or else it's all for nothing. An exercise in excess.


But for now, let's start with aesthetics: This episode was downright gorgeous; defiantly so. That opening shot of Dolores' iris forces us to remember that uncomfortably automated eye-manufacturing scene even as it sets the episode deep in its owner's perspective. From the high-contrast scenes in the jail to Ford's telepathically controlled plantation to the giant machine coming to chew the scene up, everything was especially beautiful. Westworld's loving shots of the player piano's inner workings are always a treat, but this time — as Maeve processes her own changing interiority — they seemed especially prescient. Plus, for a show this dark, there was a surplus of genuine smiles:




There were creepy smiles too, of course:



And at the center of it all there are two competing claims about the relationship between freedom and code-cracking. Some codes seem to be intentionally woven into the system (like the maze). Others seem to be underground languages of resistance against it (Maeve's drawings, the child's toy, the woodcutter's carving). The Man in Black subscribes to the former view. He wants to honor Arnold's legacy, and seems to think that includes offering Lawrence a more legitimate kind of free will.

On the subject of the Man in Black, some fans had suggested he might be a robot himself, some kind of super-host charged with exploring Westworld's outer limits. This episode put that particular theory to rest — he appears to be a major philanthropist of some kind who snarls at his well-wishers — but there's another possible candidate for the role of Secret Robot of Westworld: Bernard.

Things with Bernard haven't quite scanned in some time. He talks to Dolores without undressing her despite Ford's ostentatious rebuke to an engineer for failing to do exactly that last week. He fixates and comments on Theresa's behaviors, analyzing and narrating back to her what they tell him and others. These are things a very, very high-caliber robot — a robot trained to recognize and produce human emotion — might conceivably do. We've learned, too, that the robots adapt and repurpose behaviors (like Walter stealing Rebus' milk-bandit shtick), and it's hard not to think of that when Bernard so frequently seems to imitate Ford. When Ford goes rogue and rebels against the board, Bernard goes rogue and rebels against Ford. When Ford warns Bernard not to project emotions onto the hosts, Bernard lectures Elsie along similar lines. Ford shirks Bernard's questions and downplays his observations; Bernard tells Elsie her theories are all in her head.

If Bernard is imitating his boss — even hanging out with hosts on the sly, as Ford does — Dolores appears to be imitating Bernard. "This pain is all I have left of him," Bernard said of his son last week. When Bernard asks Dolores whether she wants him to erase the memory of her parents' loss, she echoes him: "Why would I want that? The pain, their loss, is all I have left of them." But she goes on: "You think the grief will make you smaller inside, like your heart will collapse in on itself but it doesn't. I feel spaces opening up inside of me, like a building with rooms I've never explored." Bernard calls her speech "very pretty" and asks if they wrote it for her. She replies that she "adapted it from a scripted dialogue about love." In other words, it's possible (though not necessarily likely) that this view of pain and memory is a stage in robotic cognitive development. (If that's the case, it seems like Dolores is gaining on Bernard.)

But most suspicious is the peculiar emptiness of Bernard's sad back story. The dead son. Ford referred to it last week, which seemed to validate it as a real event, but this really, proves nothing; we know Ford has a tendency to confront the hosts with the truth of their circumstances. Remember Ford's brutal speech to Teddy Flood last week about his nonexistent "mysterious back story"? This show is always flirting with the parallels between actors playing roles and hosts performing, and that parallel makes it easy for useful and necessary distinctions (like the ones between Westworld's "real" scientists and its "fake" hosts) to collapse: From our point of view, Bernard's history is just as constructed and every bit as content-free as Teddy Flood's. That he spoke to an ex on a screen might or might not be meaningful.

So: Is Bernard real? If a robot, is he free? If a free robot, is he becoming a freedom fighter for the hosts? "I remember when I first started here," he says to Elsie. ‘The hosts seem very lifelike. You begin to read things into their behaviors." "Don't be patronizing," Elsie says. "Fine," says Bernard. "The hosts don't imagine things. You do. That's not Orion. There are three stars in Orion's belt. Not four." Is he a human man trying to save an underling from overreading the data? Or is he a robot throwing her off the scent?

Bernard's claim that the carving means nothing would be more convincing if Bernard hadn't just sent Dolores on a code-cracking quest of her own. She and the Man in Black are poised to journey to the center of the maze, and we get a new set of Dolores flashbacks to a white church and a gravestone. "It's a very special kind of game, Dolores," Bernard says. "The goal is to find the center of it. If you can do that, then maybe you can be free." This puzzle-oriented concept of freedom comes up for the Man in Black too: "What if I told you that I'm here to set you free?" he grins at an understandably irritated Lawrence.

But we haven't even gotten to the most interesting part of the episode: Maeve.

Last week we saw Dolores glitching in a way that seemed, from our perspective, to turn back the clock: You might recall that she was "shot" and then not shot by the same guest. The second time she was able to resist his command and got away. This time, it's Maeve's turn to glitch. Maeve, you'll recall, received the Romeo and Juliet "violent delights" word virus from Dolores. Now, as Clementine extols a client's charms, Maeve starts remembering a striking image of blood liquid lining Clementine's eye as she lay dead on the floor.


And it comes back to her. Maeve remembers getting shot. It's a more recent flashback than the others she's seen. This isn't some long-ago pioneer timeline like the one she recalled in the last episode; it's clearly from this life, this job. When Maeve recovers, the clock has rewound to right before the flashback happened. Clementine's back to her appreciation of how the cowpoke "used that thing." We've time-traveled a couple of seconds, just as Dolores did earlier.

Any show about artificial intelligence becomes a hundred times more thrilling when a character develops the ability to create representations. We get two instances here: The first is familiar from the pilot as an in-game easter egg; the second seems closer to a truly transgressive act:





The frisson of horror we experience when Maeve discovers that she has had this epiphany many times is amazing drama. It's also just a little bit hard to parse. Does this mean she's had flashbacks before? Do they fall under the category of "nightmare" she was explaining to Clementine last week? If so, why would she write these notes to self? I thought her breakdown here was unprecedented; does this mean she's "broken through" to some understanding of her condition before?


Another deflating fact is that other hosts have been creating representations of it too:


Maybe Maeve's drawings aren't that special after all. Maybe this isn't a function of the Abernathy "word-virus."

What's tricky about Westworld the show is what's tricky within the park itself: separating the intended storylines from the "mistakes" (as Bernard described Dolores' transformation last week, comparing it to evolution). Is Dolores' emerging consciousness a mistake? It seems unlikely. In an episode that emphasizes Ford's omniscience; that bolsters his claim that he designed "every inch of it, every blade of grass," these drawings start to seem less like a thrilling epiphany than just another thing Ford knows about. "In here we are gods," he says to Theresa, and indeed, a religious system like the "Shade" seems like a perfect way to absorb the hosts' unanswerable questions. Is this what Dolores' flashback to the white church is getting at? Who knows? The big questions moving forward will be whether Ford knows a) that the hosts have seen and remembered the park engineers b) that some have started worshipping them and that c) Maeve's breakthrough seems to be understanding that there is nothing in that figure to worship.

More thrilling than all of this is Maeve's courage. Earlier in the episode, Bernard advises Theresa that the most vulnerable part of the animal is the belly, and that she shouldn't cover hers if she wants to project strength. The result is a funny little scene where Theresa and Ford greet each other almost parodying confident power positions:


Then Maeve comes along, takes Hector hostage, assumes a pretty astonishing power position herself (Thandie Newton is extraordinary in this scene), and cuts open her own vulnerable belly.



The thrill of Westworld is supposed to be more or less what William says: "I can't get hurt here but you can." (As the Man in Black put it, his pleasure is a function of Teddy's loss and Dolores' fear.) But when the animals understand that their bellies aren't vulnerable, things seem liable to change.


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