“Have you done something wrong?”
This quiet, childlike question gets posed to Bernard by Dolores early on in this second episode of Westworld during an unusual “therapy” session he was conducting. And it carries with it a lot of added baggage.
The implication is that maybe Bernard knows more than he’s letting on about the glitches that are causing the Hosts in the park to experience memories and a conscience. But the echoes of that question can be felt throughout the episode, onscreen and behind the scenes.
It’s a question that nearly everyone who visits the park is expected, nay, encouraged to answer in the affirmative. That is, in fact, why they visit Westworld: to do something wrong, something they might never have tried (or been legally allowed to do). It’s a feast of riches for the nouveau riche, who pay handsomely to, as one of the folks in charge of operations says, “rape and pillage.”
At the same time, the creators of the series want us to know that there can be a more serious psychological effect when we are allowed to act on our darkest fantasies. It can be liberating, yes, but can also cause great psychological upset. Or it can simply become addictive.
That’s when that original question comes back into play. Mostly, the writers and directors of Westworld aren’t doing anything wrong, per se. The story is compelling and filled with interesting characters. Their misstep is in telescoping the underlying themes in garish, bright bold text (metaphorically speaking).
They do achieve moments of subtlety, as when William, (Jimmi Simpson), a nervous newcomer to the park is ready to step out into this high tech Old West world and is given the choice of cowboy hats to wear: black or white, the traditional signifier in Westerns that allow viewers to choose the good guy from the villain. Westworld allows its visitors to try on the persona of their choosing, to play the hero or the outlaw. Most other scenes and characters, though, announce themselves, their intentions, and, with the Hosts, their symbolic underpinnings. The writers seem to trust the viewers, but keep us on a short leash just in case.
In this week’s episode, this responsibility falls primarily on Maeve (Thandie Newton), the madame of the fake town’s busy brothel. She has begun, however slowly, to malfunction. The main concern of the folks in the home office is how she is repelling customers instead of enticing them to indulge. In case you missed it, she and the rest of the androids are cogs in a vast machine and are finally waking up to their fate. It’s the class struggle in sci-fi form. That’s some rich material to work with. Yet they keep teasing and teasing and refusing to deliver on the promise of this message. There’s only 10 episodes to play with. Let’s go deep already.
The screenwriters for this episode, Jonathan Noland and Lisa Joy (they also co-created this series) are clearly in building mode right now, nudging us toward what will be some climactic episodes soon and very soon. It’s a notion that the creative director (Anthony Hopkins’ character) talks about towards the end of the hour: not simply giving the people what they want, but instead allowing a great deal of familiarity with subtle touches that only the customers can pick up on, bringing them back for another taste of the action.
That’s the formula that great shows like Six Feet Under, Better Call Saul, and Fargo had figured out from the jump. Westworld has flashes of that, as well. Their best character, The Gunslinger, is cutting through this theme park like a buzzsaw because he’s completely hooked. But like any addict, his tolerance is built up to the point where the thrills he seeks have to be grander and more intense. Hence, his search for “the maze” and wherever that might lead him.
At least, that’s my supposition about his motives. The small flash in the face of the security officer behind the scenes, who is letting this all play out in spite of its bloodthirsty qualities, belies that he may be The Gunslinger’s man on the inside. There could be something behind his actions that goes beyond simple kicks. With Ed Harris at the controls of this character, it’s going to be thrill to find out where this plotline is leading.
The writers are opening up another interesting thread by hinting at some kind of blossoming love affair between Dolores and William. A Turing test with real emotional repercussions for the human in the equation (as he explains to the prostitute trying to get him to loosen up, he’s got a lady waiting back at home). If the folks pulling the strings on this show can find a way to turn our philosophical struggles with the potential of artificial intelligence into riveting drama a la the 2015 thriller Ex Machina, they could have something pretty incredible on their hands with Westworld.
To answer the question posed at the top of this review, no, the folks behind this show haven’t really done anything wrong, necessarily. They just—at this point—have yet to get it completely right.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste, and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, available in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter.