Westworld fourth episode, “Dissonance Theory” performs a bricolage of narrative duties that both conceal and reveal the show’s unfolding purpose. With a script co-written by series co-creater/showrunner Jonathan Nolan and Eisner Award-winning comics scribe Ed Brubaker, “Dissonance Theory” runs amok with key twists and continuances that suggest this show has greater ideas to offer beyond the fertile visual spectacle and the raunch-focused window dressing typically associated with HBO’s standard fare. Director Vincenzo Natali (The Strain, Luke Cage, Hannibal) orchestrates fewer optical illusions than offered in previous episodes, but does block a couple of razzle-dazzle action set pieces in addition to strategic close ups during key character moments.
Intertwining Social Psychology with Philosophical Allegory
“Dissonance Theory” opens with the now recurring trope of stoic interrogations between Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) and her handler, the meddling technician Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright). Their interactions carry deep poetic resonance surrounding the show’s progressing literary meditations concerning existential questions on humanity, identity, and consciousness. “I may be losing my mind,” Abernathy tells him. This of course is both true and untrue. In a sense, Abernathy’s “sanity” (like Maeve Millay’s [Thandie Newton]) is unraveling; however, they both regulate within faux realities, preprogrammed for the purposes of others.
In addition, they’re technically not sane beings, at least in our understanding of their sentience at this point. As non-humans, they are nonetheless dehumanized, as are all “hosts” in Westworld; however, the beginning and end of humanity or humanness necessitates around consciousness. Abernathy, like some others, is slowly arriving there. At the risk of borrowing (or introducing) another literary reference, season one applies the logic of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, with greater emotional affect than similarly themed pop culture artifacts like The Matrix films or even this show’s televisual parent Lost.
The episode four title “Dissonance Theory” takes its premise from the famous scholarly work of psychologists Leon Festinger and J. Merrill Carlsmith (1957, 1959), who theorized “cognitive dissonance theory” (CDT). According to cognitive dissonance theory:
1. Humans are sensitive to inconsistencies between actions and beliefs.
2. Recognition of this inconsistency will cause dissonance, and will motivate an individual to resolve the dissonance.
3. Dissonance will be resolved in one of three basic ways: change beliefs, change actions, or
change perception of action (see: Richard H. Hall, PhD, Texas Christian University, Missouri University of Science & Technology)
Blending the qualities of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” with Festinger’s CDT, it’s clear to see that the writing’s on the wall in terms of the show’s progressive narrative agenda. If anything, this was already promised in the closing seconds of episode one, “The Original”, through Abernathy’s simplistic yet morally complex swatting of a housefly that lands on her person. The enjoyment to be had, thus, isn’t in the “what” so much as the “how” and the “when” things will continue to unravel in decadent disarray.
Fortunately for those less inclined to addition research duties for every line of dialogue or visual reference, Lowe’s words pull Abernathy closer toward the growing mythology that surrounds Westworld‘s labyrinthine core:
Lowe: There’s something I’d like you to try. It’s a game, a secret. It’s called, “The maze”.
Abernathy: What kind of game is it?
Lowe: It’s a very special kind of game, Dolores. The goal is to find the center of it. If you can do that, then maybe you can be free. (Again, very Matrix-y)
Abernathy: I think… I think I want to be free.
At this point Westworld pivots toward a significant reveal for the first time. Abernathy doesn’t reawaken in her farmhouse bedroom. Instead, she stirs on the dirt floor of the open desert, with visitor William (Jimmi Simpson) gently observing her. The shift suggests a new wrinkle in the plot, specifically that one or more of Abernathy’s interrogational conversations with Lowe either didn’t recur nightly, or rather, that they don’t recur at all; instead, they’re the cognitive manifestations of nocturnal dreams. Has Abernathy’s conscious awakening occurred by way of unconscious slumber? To use a folksy phrase, this isn’t nothin’. There’s certainly research to suggest some of the most potent theorizing comes in the liminal state between deep sleep and waking up, between the unconscious and conscious mind. Thus a new mystery hypothesis emerges: How much of Lowe’s influence is programmed, and if so, when does/did (t)his influence take place?
Changing Beliefs via Mythic Misdirection
Lowe and the tech team assess “the stray” host that caved in its own head after wandering off the reservation in episode three. To recap, this stray carried a wooden carving that Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) attributed as being the Orion constellation; however, Lowe dismisses her case altogether as a political gesture to get the Security Council’s focus dissuaded away from their work (and his secret machinations especially). Lowe tells Hughes, “The hosts don’t imagine things, you do.” A clear indication (to the audience) of the “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy of exceptionalism. He notes, “There are three stars in Orion’s belt, not four”, yet one of the more prominent Greek myths recount tales in which Orion both loses and then ventures to retrieve his eyesight. Which is to be believed, logic or myth?
Inside the park, William and Logan (Ben Barnes) argue over whether to leave Abernathy behind on their bounty mission. William wants to protect Abernathy (preserve her innocence?) while Logan questions his sympathies. “Do you really think its coincidence that the only thing you even smiled at back at Sweetwater (the town) just happened to drop into your lap?” Logan underscores the cynicism marked by surveillance state culture, while William toggles between some type of idealism toward hosts like Abernathy as well as a general naïveté about Westworld.
In a security correction, a park office comes to apprehend Abernathy for fear yet another host has gone astray. But William intervenes on her behalf, which helps keep her on course (inadvertently?) toward the maze (as per her dream vision). She later confesses to William, “I used to believe there was a path for everyone. Now I think, I never asked where that path is taking me…”. Open discourse on narrative structures is an interesting meta-message embedded into Westworld‘s superstructure.
The writers seem keen on using the text as a meditation on a cavalcade of open-coded ideas. The only logic seems grounded in the mish-mashing between overlapping genre conventions, literary fictions, storytelling mediums, and so on. There exists an inherent danger in overloading the system with too many competing narrative strands, and yet the sophistication of the contemporary audience is one that yearns for dense continuity, or as TV scholar Jason Mittell calls it in his book of the same name, Complex TV (New York Press, 2015).
Changing Actions via Serpentine Signifiers
“This whole world is a story. I’ve read every page except the last one. I need to find out how it ends. I wanna know what this all means.” – The Man in Black (Ed Harris)
To touch on an earlier assessment, The Man in Black (TMIB) has been theorized as a hardcore gamer, inhabiting the worst tendencies in gamin and Internet culture in general (as I suggested in my episode two review). In “Dissonance Theory”, TMIB locates the “red serpent” he was directed to by the bandit Lawrence’s daughter (Izabella Alvarez), a plot point teased in “The Stray”. Less symbolic marker than human host, a woman that goes by the name Armistice (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) bathes in a river and can be distinguished by a large red serpentine tattoo that wraps around her body. The head of the snake rests against the right side of her face. In effect, she functions as a semiotic roadmap in motion. For viewers that did not recognize her at first glance, a later scene confirms this female henchmen plays a role in the “Wanted” bandit Hector Escaton’s (Rodrigo Santoro) gang.
Another reveal gives a bit of answer to earlier ambiguities concerning TMIB character. A member of the outlaw posse approaches him by campfire light to “thank” him for his (real-world) foundation’s work saving his sister. In response, TMIB is all business (or pleasure … or both), cutting him off completely. “One more word and I’ll cut your throat, you understand?” He’s on “vacation”, as he explicitly communicates. Fascinating.
With this small but effective reveal, we come to gather more information about the world these visitors come from, or rather, the types of people allowed to immerse themselves in such a lavish experience (at one point, Logan references the price point to William at $40,000 a day). In a conversation with the red serpent woman Armistice, TMIB brings up the myth of the man known as “Arnold” (a fact previously revealed in private by Dr. Ford [Anthony Hopkins] to Lowe). Clearly this co-creator of Westworld and his subsequent demise within the park perpetuates a mythic fascination, a riddle that must be solved. The riddle thus situates TMIB as audience surrogate as a byproduct; an amusing gesture, considering his heinous demeanor and coldly diabolical actions so far in the series.
He does agree to a ludicrous (and terrifically staged) mission, in exchange for information; “I want the story behind your tattoo”. As a bargaining chip, he reveals by firelight the scalped hair with the underneath circuitry in the shape of a maze, the same shape drawn in the sand by Lawrence’s daughter (now seen by Abernathy as well). He continues that, “Arnold had one story left to tell … A story with real stakes, real violence. You could say I’m here to honor his legacy, and your tattoo is the next piece of the puzzle.”
So we’re left at guessing the connection, if any, TMIB has to Arnold or Ford. Do they share history? Is he just another CEO that needs to get his rocks off through the most exotic immersive experience available to the highest bidders? Is this a gamer’s dance or a corporate raid? Could TMIB be a vigilante detective-type with a unrevealed soft side? Fat chance, since he’s already shown a propensity for mass murder and rape within the “game”; desire is a funny thing.
During his Hail Mary mission, TMIB meets Escaton inside the prison. Paths cross and crisscross with increasing frequency in ways that seem ludicrous, except for the notion that Westworld is a closed-circuit user game with repeating patterns and characters that continually play key host roles. He tells Escaton upon release, “That thing you’re looking for … you’re never gonna find it in that safe.” As promised, TMIB fetches information from Armistice, specifically info on “The head of the snake … Wyatt”. This info only matters because of what the audience just learned one episode prior: Wyatt is the villainous name propelling Teddy Flood’s (James Marsden) newly updated origin story. Thus, the Armistace tragic origin intertwines with Flood’s, and somehow they both fold into the mythic lure of Arnold, a myth both concealed and (now) revealed by park (co-)creator Ford. Tinker tinker.
Changing Perceptions of Actions via Nightmares and Dreamscapes
Back at the bar, madam Millay stares aimlessly into the contemporary melodies reappropriated through the saloon piano. The music and Western ambiance trigger a violent reverie, only this time Millay recalls the haunting visuals of futuristic hazmat suits entering to clean and reset the bloody scene. Like many restless artists, inventors, or researchers, Millay scrambles to her room to scribble down her haunting memory. (The gesture brings to mind the often-practiced ritual of dream journals in early and modern psychology.)
Millay is haunted by her “dreams” as well, but also by the psychoses of her illustration, so she moves to hide the image under a wooden plank in the floor. The only problem there, she uncovers a pile of similarly drawn images, evidence of recurring traumatic experience and the deletion of said experiences. Director Vincenzo Natali does a masterful job shifting between mid-range close ups and extreme close ups of Millay and her illustrations. The scene feels intimate, and a direct result of the tight camera work creates claustrophobia for Millay and the audience. Alternating close ups and mixed focus help visual a sense of conspiracy at work.
Millay later sees a young Native American girl drop her dolly in the dirt. The doll eerily resembles the hazmat illustration. A yokel tells Millay, “That thing’s part of their so-called religion”. Indeed, the dolly plays a pivotal role connecting tribal myths with native seers; prognosticators that blended visions into myths to forecast future interpretations. Like the dream-catcher talisman, the dolly functions as cultural relic and visual signifier. These people have seen the same ugly truths as Maeve—myth intertwines with dream logic and repetition, and the combination ignites a death drive that fuels the “Dissonance Theory” climax.
Escaton’s gang rolls into town in a scene that replays their violent robbery at the season’s start. Millay promises the combination to the safe in exchange for answers, the key link being that Hector lived with “the savages” and knows of their folklore. Indeed, Escaton recognizes Millay’s scribbled image as what his people fittingly call “the dreamwalkers”. The legend carries religious overtones, which is a fascinating ontological wrinkle among Westworld’s tribal inhabitants.
“The dreamwalkers said, there was someone [that] could see them. It’s a blessing from God.” She reaches for Escaton’s knife and gouges herself to retrieve a bullet with no visible wound. Millay’s dissonance is resolved through a combination of changed beliefs, then actions, and now a perception of action. A hail of gunfire blasts through the door, seemingly sealing their fate, at least for the day. In order to live, they must die to Self. As co-creator/showrunner Lisa Joy shares on the HBO: Inside the Episode feature, “When they find that bullet, it is empirical proof that she is not going mad.”
Creator as Architect of a Dissonance Drive
Ford moves from recent position as benevolent creator to a malevolent judge. As always, he waxes poetic in ways that suggest his own spoken words are scriptural. “In the beginning I imagined everything would be perfectly balanced … ” Ford then shows a most vindictive side when he meets chief security officer Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) for lunch. They congregate at the construction site for his newest envisioned creation. Heading to lunch, they pass by dozens of hosts dressed in elegant post-Victorian formal attire, staking away ditches in the filthy dirt with pick axes. Rows of gardens lay beneath a massive structure that resembles an Old Spanish villa. “I have always seen things very clearly,” the Creator (Ford) opines from on high. Beneath him, migrant workers flood the fields in all white garments reminiscent of the Mexican villagers in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven.
“We do know everything about our guests, don’t we, as we know everything about our employees.” Ford’s tenor is implicitly calculated with cold indifference. He brings up the (we assume) private affair between Cullen and Lowe. Ford is leveraging his power against the growing concern by board members (and we can assume shareholders); future shock hints at the dystopian pressures created by a post-globalized world. We know nothing, yet we can imagine everything. His message? “Don’t get in my way.” If Ford’s warning isn’t overt enough — what with frozen hosts in complete submissive obedience — an impossibly large demolition structure rumbles toward the villa where Cullen once visited the park as a child. This world’s creator isn’t only the benevolent New Testament-type he fancies himself, but rather he also encompasses violent judgment, as his will desires. How foreboding.