The most meta Westworld episode yet
It was only a matter of time before the series turned — however briefly — into the HBO show many suspected it of being
It was only a matter of time before Westworld turned — however briefly — into the HBO show many suspected it of being: a symphony of exploitative nudity and pointless violence that uses gorgeous cinematography, high production values, and the occasional decent storyline to claim "prestige." Welcome to Pariah, the "city of outcasts, delinquents, thieves, whores, and murderers." Logan describes it in language that doubles as an account of network television versus HBO: "Some of the park feels like it was designed by committee, market-tested," he says, and we picture ABC and CBS sitcoms. "Everything out here is more raw," he says of the park, a.k.a prestige cable. "But it doesn't come cheap. Rumor it they're hemorrhaging cash."
What's interesting about Pariah — and that nested analysis of television — is the very particular lens through which our visit there is filtered. Showing us Pariah through Dolores' eyes might be HBO's most effective self-critique yet.
Westworld is more or less built around the question of what exactly fantasy does, and for whom. Sizemore's absurd proposed storyline featuring auto-cannibalism and every imaginable form of shock felt like a parody of the ultra violence evident in HBO shows like Game of Thrones. Ford's speech to Sizemore felt at the time like an important corrective: He countered Sizemore's claim that people want to find out who they are via Westworld stories by suggesting that in fact, people want to find out who they could be.
But Pariah doesn't seem to live up to Ford's promise, or to his early signs of being a benevolent god. When Ford said he'd bet Arnold that people would play good storylines as well as ugly ones, he seemed to position himself as the more optimistic half in their partnership. But we know that he "designed every inch of it, every blade of grass," as he put it, and the results aren't exactly utopian. As William says, "Whoever designed this place, you get the feeling they don't think much of people."
More interesting than any of this, though, is Dolores' alienation as she walks through Pariah and its orgies. This will be familiar territory to many a woman used to watching HBO properties and who, like Dolores, say "it's beautiful in its way." This, too, feels like a network self-critique. By making all its increasingly sentient hosts women, Westworld is taking on Hollywood's longtime problem: The fact that women are in fact used as accessories or set-dressing; as creatures who don't seem to understand how they're being used, or talked about, or discarded. "Who the fuck cares what Dolores wants?" Logan says to William when he objects to going to the brothel. "She's a goddamned doll."
"Could you not say that around her? I swear I feel like she understands," William says.
"Of course you do," Logan says, and snorts.
Female viewers — who routinely and gamely try to belong to the culture they live in by identifying with fantasies that work against them — do understand. And Westworld's signature problem (and I mean the park here, not the show) is that its grandiose promises of fantasy, self-discovery, and self-fulfillment are built with men in mind. Yes, there's the occasional woman who enjoys a roll in the hay with Maeve and a good adventure, but we've yet to see any superstructure dedicated to female pleasure. (It's something of a missed opportunity: Just imagine what a saloon full of male prostitutes pleasuring women would look like.) Nowhere is this more clear than in Pariah.
But then two encouraging things happen. Let's start with the second one: Lawrence gives Dolores a hat — it's brown, so she's neither a white hat nor a black hat gamer. Still, a hat! And she changes out of her dress into something more suited to questing work. And she gets a gun, and learns to shoot it by "imagining a story" in which she doesn't have to be the damsel.
That exciting development is either undercut or heightened by a strange sequence in which she spots herself in Pariah's parade of dancing skeletons. When she hears Ford's phrase about a "dreamless sleep," she passes out. And wakes up (apparently) in what she calls a "dream," though Ford somewhat churlishly insists that the dream is his, not hers.
"Tell me: do you know what this dream means?" he asks.
"Dreams are the mind telling stories to itself. They don't mean anything."
"No, dreams mean everything," Ford says. "They're the stories we tell ourselves of what could be, who we could become." (We're reminded of this thesis statement re: Westworld's function.)
"Have you been dreaming again Dolores? Imagining yourself breaking out of your modest little loop? Taking on a bigger role? Well, I suppose I can't begrudge you that. My father told me to be satisfied with my lot in life. That the world owed me nothing. And so I made my own world. Tell me Dolores: Do you remember the man I used to be?"
Westworld has been extremely coy about its timelines; it's never clear how Dolores' interviews with Bernard and Ford intersect with her quest with Billy and Logan. But the cut here indicates that we're supposed to be making some important connections. The relevant revelations here are that Arnold created Dolores, that she's pretending to not know who he is, and that she's now capable of hiding things from Ford even when she's in analysis mode. Ford rejects her claim that she doesn't remember Arnold, though he interprets her forgetfulness more charitably:
"Somewhere under all those updates, he's still there, perfectly preserved. Your mind is a walled garden. Even death cannot touch the flowers blooming there."
But he remains suspicious, and asks her once again to repeat her last conversation with Arnold.
"What's the last thing he said to you?"
"He said I was going to help him."
"Help him do what?"
"To destroy this place."
"But you didn't, did you?" says Ford, doing what he does — telling the hosts blunt truths that he, like Logan, thinks they don't understand. "You've been content in your little loop for the most part. I wonder. If you did take on that bigger role for yourself, would you have been the hero or the villain?"
We see, too, that Ford's response to Dolores question — "are we very old friends?" — conceals a fairly intense history. Were they lovers? Were he and Arnold rivals for the love of someone who looked like Dolores? Did Arnold create Dolores to get back at Ford for something? What's going on?
"No. I wouldn't say friends, Dolores. I wouldn't say that at all."
There's more to say about Arnold's developing presence in Westworld, but I wanted to note one other thing: Bells are triggering Dolores' flashbacks. When they get to Pariah, a ringing bell elicits a memory. The bells at the parade do the same.
Westworld is an intertextual animal, and it's worth thinking about how Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and John Donne's "Meditation XVII" from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (from which Hemingway takes his title) are being invoked here. Some fans of the show have pointed out that Dolores is an anagram for El Sordo, the anti-fascist leader in Hemingway's novel, which also features a woman named Maria who was raped and whose parents were executed by fascists. (And the novel, like this episode, has the theft of explosives as a prominent plot point.) As for the Donne version: Dolores' name means "pains," and Donne's text seeks to endow human suffering with a point. Ford has called himself a god and the Man in Black is obsessed with finding a meaning in the Westworld text. He even speaks in literary metaphors: he says he's read every page but the last. Here's Donne, whose claim that no man is an island is bolstered by the idea that death cannot be shrugged off. "Any man's death diminishes me," he writes:
When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
What makes the Man in Black's surprise interview with Ford interesting is this debate about meaning. Ford's anecdote at the beginning of the episode about a greyhound chasing a bit of felt — which is, of course, about an organism responding to the drives that have been programmed into it — is a sad story about pointlessness. The Man in Black is singularly and spectacularly uninterested in Ford's view. "You know why exist, Teddy?" he says. "The world out there, the one you'll never see, is one of plenty."
Every need taken care of, except one: purpose. Meaning. So they come here, they can be a little scared, a little thrilled, enjoy some sweetly affirmative bullshit, and then they take a fucking picture and go back home. But I think there's a deeper meaning hiding under all that. Something the person who created it wanted to express. Something true.
Ford smiles and invites the Man in Black to ask for the "moral of the story." The Man in Black shoots him down. "I'd need a shovel," he says. "The man I'd be asking died 35 years ago. Almost took this place with him. Almost but not quite, thanks to me. But maybe he left something behind. I wonder what I would find if I opened you up."
He pulls a knife and Teddy springs to action in Ford's defense, but we're left to wonder about that remarkable statement. The Man in Black used that exact phrase, "open you up," earlier when he was explaining to Teddy why he's hurting:
It's not my fault your're suffering. You used to be beautiful. When this place started, I opened one of you up once. Million little perfect pieces. Then they changed you. Made you this sad, real mess. Flesh and bone, just like us. They said it would improve the park experience. But you know why they really did it? It was cheaper. Your humanity is cost-effective. So's your suffering.
So we know that the Man in Black somehow saved the park from being destroyed, and we know that he gives Ford no credit for creating it. Is it possible that Ford is Arnold's creation too? What's going on? It doesn't help that this scene began with Ford playing Claire de Lune on the piano; this show has hit us over the head with the mechanization of player pianos. Is Ford a robot? It seems unlikely, but we're forced to admit that it's at least possible.
The other crucial thing we learn about the "real world" outside Westworld (besides the fact that people are well-cared for and therefore desperate to find the stakes of their own lives) is that the technicians are selected for their particular line of work when they're embryos, and that at least one of them is resisting his designated path. It'll be exciting to see what Maeve's resurrection means (since she's clearly doing the same) and whether Dolores' horrific vision of the wire in her arm has any connection to the woodcutter's implanted laser, or whether it's an indication that she's starting to become conscious of her own strings and who's pulling them, however painful the discovery turns out to be.