Shannon Woodward
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)

We’ve talked before about how Westworld doesn’t have a particularly high view of humanity. There’s nothing wrong with that—plenty of great shows and books and movies and all sorts of art has been made that used our general crumminess as a main theme. The trick is that things have to be interesting even when they aren’t particularly likable. It’s also important that the people behind the show have some understanding of the perspective they’re presenting. If it turns out the writers’ room was convinced the series was an ultimately optimistic vision of the human race and its ideals, that cognitive dissonance would eventually become too much to bear.

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There’s not much chance of that happening here, though, given how many times various characters—Ford and the hosts—have gone out of their way to mention just how shitty people are. Ford is back this week, which means we once more get a number of monologues from Anthony Hopkins about suffering, free will, and the cruelty of our species. We also get some examples of that cruelty, in case we were in danger of missing the point. Bernard’s identity is discovered in the “present” when Charlotte and the others find a secret room in Ford’s private lab with several (presumably) older variations of the Bernard model; Charlotte’s response to this information is to start torturing Bernard for information via an iPad and simulated waterboarding. (A clever, creepy touch.) In the earlier timeline, Charlotte is also more than willing to rip into Peter Abernathy’s head if it will get her her precious backup data. She doesn’t have much concern for hosts or humans if they get in her way.

But then, it’s not as though the show wasn’t already full of examples of people being assholes to robots. Time and again (this episode included), we’re informed that Westworld (the park) allows people to be their real selves, and, wouldn’t you know it, it turns out most people’s real selves aren’t particularly nice. That’s William’s whole arc—and it’s also one of the places where the show betrays the fundamental shallowness of its perspective. The most interesting thing about William is that he’s played by Ed Harris. As an actual person, he’s barely an idea; the possibility that he drove his wife to suicide with his repressed cruelty is interesting, but vague (and largely irrelevant so far, given how little we’ve seen of him outside of the park), and we have no sense of what drives him beyond the fact that he read a lot of books as a kid, and he’s kind of pissed off at Dolores for being a machine.

I’m over-simplifying a little, but it’s telling that the human character who should be the most interesting after Ford keeps circling around the same small handful of ideas—he wants consequences, he wants deeper meaning, he wants some sort of purpose or victory. (Ford also tends to circle around a small handful ideas—everyone has their loops—but at least his have some practical meaning for the characters around him.) It’s possible this is intentional commentary on how we delude ourselves about the existence of deeper truths in order to ignore what’s actually important in our lives; and I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if the end point of William’s journey is some sort of archly ironic statement about how easy it is to overlook what’s right in front of us.

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But while that would be a fine pay off for a movie or a short story or, hell, even a single season of television, we’re still dealing with William’s bullshit two seasons in, and only one person (his daughter) has managed to call him on it. This week he at least had to face some of those consequences he’s been deluding himself he wanted for so long, as first Maeve and then Laurence manage to get some shots in, but it’s weirdly anticlimactic; instead of their delayed vengeance playing like the climax of a storyline, it’s more like a handful of characters happened to show up in the same space and oh, well, I guess we should do something about that. Both William and Maeve end up riddled with bullets but neither of them end up dead, which makes sense. Given how much time the show has invested in both of them, taking them off the table now would be a waste. And yet having them meet and not having one of them a corpse by the end of that meeting robs the scene of a considerable amount of potential impact.

Then there’s Ford’s return. Given the kind of show this is, the fact that he uploaded himself to the mainframe makes sense. (Look, I know it’s slightly more complicated than that, but let’s not get bogged down.) And at least there’s some lingering impact from his death last season; he’s a sci-fi version of a ghost now, and he ends the episode literally haunting poor Bernard, back once again to giving orders and assuming those orders will be heeded. And of course they are—at this point, Bernard’s most defining characteristic is his fundamental passivity, his desire to do good (or at least, to do what his Arnold self considered good) constantly disappointed by his role as a pawn in several different games. I suppose there’s something to be said there about how Ford, in trying to recreate his old partner, made sure to build someone who could never betray him the way the real Arnold did. But there’s something unbearably sad about seeing Bernard muddle through another yet another situation, able to almost grasp what’s going on, but helpless to take any action that might prevent it.

Sad and dramatically inert, even with Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Hopkins doing their damndest to keep things interesting. There are some good scenes here (I particularly like the one where Ford chats with Bernard while everyone in the Control room is murdered), but the revelations inside the Cradle aren’t particularly revealing (Delos is trying to make people immortal; Bernard will have to lose his free will for a bit if he’s going to survive), and it’s hard to shake that “just moving things around until the actual conclusion arrives” feeling.

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There’s also the other side of the “humans are terrible” coin: the idea that the hosts aren’t terrible. That they are, in fact, everything wonderful that we are not—an idealized version of ourselves who deserve their own chance at freedom and life. It’s certainly true that Dolores and Maeve and a few of the others seem more alive than the actual people on the show; but it also feels like a philosophical argument foisted on us to give what is essentially a fairly old story a gloss of pretense. Just like William’s search for deeper meaning, Westworld keeps digging toward something new level of profundity; and just like William, it’s hard not to wish the show would relax a little and just have some fun for once, instead of making such a big damn deal about everything.

Stray observations

  • This review ran longer than I intended, which means I didn’t even get into the Charlotte vs. Dolores showdown at the Mesa, where Dolores gets the control unit from her father and Charlotte barely escapes with her life. Angela dies, blowing herself, the Cradle, and an idiot soldier up on her way out. Oh, and we see how Coughlin gets it: Teddy basically beats him out of existence.
  • Is this the first episode of the series to feature a cold open? I suspect we’ve had at least one before this, but still, it’s striking.
  • Heck, William might die next week, given that he hid himself from the Delos security team that saved his life. I’m not sure you can home-treat that many bullet wounds. (Or maybe we’re building to a twist where William is actually a robot himself.)
  • We learn that the scene from last week with Bernard and Dolores was actually set inside the Cradle; Ford used Dolores to test Bernard’s “fidelity,” in much the same way William tested James Delos’ in a previous episode.
  • “We weren’t here to code the hosts. We were here to decode the guests.” —Bernard (Okay, so here’s my question: Ford tells Bernard that Delos was looking to find ways download human consciousness into a host. Yet if the park was designed to study its participants without their knowledge, doesn’t that suggest other, shadier motivations? I certainly hope so.)
  • “I keep telling you, Bernard. It’s no longer my story. It is yours.” —Ford. What the hell does that even mean? Is the Ford in Bernard’s brain just an illusion? Is Bernard’s supposed passivity just an act? Because it certainly doesn’t seem as though he has any control over what’s going on.
  • The control unit is in Sector 16, Zone 4, aka “the Valley Beyond.”

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