Analysis

Westworld recap: The omnipotent Robert Ford

What if the system never breaks down at all?

When will the safeguards fail? When will the apparently foolproof system finally break and spin out of control? That's what Westworld — a show about a fantasy playground that lets you hurt and kill others while remaining perfectly safe yourself — has been asking since it began.

This is familiar territory for the genre. The fear that true security is fundamentally unachievable drives every Michael Crichton story about amusement parks, most stories about artificial intelligence, and a range of Big Questions from elections to empire to life itself. Systems break, and security bubbles pop.

Or they don't. In Westworld's latest episode, "The Well-Tempered Clavier," the only thing more horrifying than the breakdown of the system is the possibility of it remaining intact. After revving us up for the hosts' insurgence against their human oppressors, the series instead just offered devastating proof of the system's impenetrability: Robert Ford has a "back door" into everyone's code that they themselves seem unable to see or access.

The "back door" solution worries me because of how it weights Ford's power. His obvious command over the park used to be intriguingly undercut by what seemed like chinks in his armor — he seemed disconcerted when he saw the maze, shaken by his interview with Dolores, and surprised by his robot-dog's murder at the hands of his robot-child-self. He seemed vulnerable and occasionally troubled by doubt. Not so now that he's emerged as an omniscient mega-boss. The question now isn't whether Ford will be voted off the board, but whether Charlotte Hale will survive the season. That's less interesting.

Still, Bernard's death was a brilliant and dispiriting upset for a genre whose plot engine is system breakdown. We've been expecting and hoping for the insurrection. But what if it never comes? Or worse, what if when it comes, it's expected? "There are no accidents," the Man in Black said to Charlotte, and we're forced to consider, in horror, that he might be right. Ford knew everything Bernard was going to say. Wyatt seems like a planned principle of chaos. What if Maeve's "unscripted" self-improvement is neatly scripted? What if Dolores' awakening was just another loop? In Westworld, as in Bach, the composition might be so claustrophobically complete that it even includes its own escapes. (The well-tempered clavier for which this episode is named has a fugue for every prelude, after all).

Ford suddenly became too strong a villain, in other words, in ways that don't quite seem to square with how the show set him up earlier. If Westworld is itself a beautifully tempered clavier — or should be — it's tricky to independently check its counterpoint to confirm its perfections or its flaws. There are so many variables (and the show is so cagey about the park's internal processes) that the signal-to-noise ratio is off. Real plotting problems are tough to distinguish from either the park's baseline procedures or the way those procedures have been affected by Ford's new narrative. Is the park a well-oiled machine where techs scrutinize and efficiently pick out every host's anomalous behavior, as it seemed to be in the first few episodes? Or is it so lax and unsupervised that Felix can fix birds and Dolores can go off-loop with no one noticing? Do hosts get picked up the instant they're killed, as we see happen in Sweetwater, or do they lie out rotting for days, as seems to be the case in William's, Dolores', and Teddy's paths?

These things matter because Maeve's and Dolores' chances are different in a Delos packed with human error and benign neglect than they are in a Westworld run by this new formidable Ford. We've watched Ford repeatedly outmaneuver opponents who we understood to have better information than he did. Now he's better at it than we ever imagined and has a back door. And on whom do we now pin our hopes? On Maeve, a brilliant and resourceful host with so little actual leverage over Sylvester and Felix that her progress badly strains credulity? On Dolores, a touchingly bewildered seeker, an Alice figure rediscovering her murderous side through the looking glass?

Maeve's and Dolores' stories are the best part of Westworld, but they're as riveting as they are risky because the revolutionary character of their "awakenings" is only plausible in an atmosphere of benign neglect. Earlier in the series, the idea seemed to be that the women's developing abilities were unscripted — literally outside the code. They were fascinating evolutionary mistakes. The creatures were busily developing mutant defenses against their god. Thrilling stuff, and objects like Dolores' hidden gun and Maeve's secret drawings suggested both the possibility of a private language and maybe even something like an underground railroad for hosts. Maeve's speech to Bernard sounded like a freedom fighter's: "I'm not going to do that to you, because that's what they would do to us. And we're stronger than them. Smarter."

But evolutionary change requires benign neglect, and Ford — whose talents everyone rates a little differently (the Man in Black is hilariously unimpressed with him) — now seems too much in control to make that theory possible. How many times must we hear Anthony Hopkins pleasantly whisper that he designed every blade of grass before we take him at his word? He seems to neglect nothing.

That could mean very bad things for the women who think they're conspiring behind Ford's back. If he's aware of and even scripting their rise, this is going to be an incredibly depressing season. (It's already depressing enough; if Teddy gets inexplicably mutilated or killed one more time it might tip into comedy.) But even if Ford doesn't know that Dolores is talking to Arnold in secret, and even if it wasn't confirmed that Arnold is indeed dead, it seems like a problem that Ford is as much in control as he now appears to be. Westworld has at various points referenced Dr. Frankenstein, the Mad Hatter, and — with last week's Minotaur attack — Daedalus. But these are not equivalent figures. They don't help us understand the scope or the limits of Ford's power. (Hopefully some of those references will eventually align with Arnold.)

Nor does the show seem particularly consistent in its models for host memory. It emerged last week that memory works differently for the hosts than it does for human beings; hosts recollect the remembered event with the same vividness as the present. That's hard to square with Ford's "reveries," which were variously explained as gestures from the past or as dreamier "echoes." A little clarity on that point would go a long way — and could help us understand whether Dolores' glitches are symptomatic of the system working as intended or cracking up.

Again, much of this will hopefully be explained by the season finale; it's just that so much of our information about Westworld is partial, provisional, and unconfirmed, that it's getting tough to develop a working theory of anything that doesn't immediately seem to contradict itself.

And frankly, the show is at its best when it embraces some of its contradictions, as it did in Logan's scene with William. Logan seemed to be acting out of something like real brotherly love when he disemboweled Dolores and made William look at her mechanical insides. He made a sane case for why William needed the reality check. The way his and William's frames of reference sat incompatibly on top of each other while both being equally true was terrific writing.

Ford's showdown with Bernard, in contrast, while heartrending, seemed a little feeble given Bernard's allegedly extraordinary mental abilities. If ultra-brilliant Bernard couldn't come up with a better set of incentives for a situation where you effectively hand someone else your brain than to trust a lobotomized Clementine to somehow determine whether Ford had swiped the right command on a tablet she couldn't see — well, it seemed like a thin bit of plotting. So thin it reminded me of Maeve's leverage against Sylvester. What's troubling about it is that Ford played along, which might mean he's playing along with Maeve's game too (remember, Sylvester and Felix noticed that someone with higher administrative privileges had already been messing with her code).

In "The Well-Tempered Clavier," the system, which seemed like it was falling apart at the seams, suddenly looks worryingly solid. But the ingredients for chaos are there: Peter Abernathy is about to receive three decades of park data, Dolores is squaring off with the Man in Black, and even the title of next week's 90-minute finale, "The Bicameral Mind," suggests that a "very serious unscripted incident" — an incident that hopefully even Ford doesn't know about — is long overdue.

Read more Westworld recaps:

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