Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Ford

‘Westworld’ Continues to be a Cerebral Examination of Consciousness and Story

"The Stray" deepens the narrative as both story and characters move forward in unexpected ways.

Westworld‘s third episode, “The Stray”, deepens the show’s narrative pulse while teasing out additional strands of narrative momentum and character development. If anything, episode three forges ahead to further establish the series as a cerebral spectacle. In effect, the show appears less and less about theme parks of the future and more about immersive media like gaming and Internet culture in general. While the monotonous repetition of theme parks remains intact, it’s the little wrinkles and the hints at the birth of consciousness that root Westworld in a cerebral realm.

For example, one freedom the series benefits from is abandoning stakes that exclusively depend on a “who lives, who dies?”-type format associated with so many thriller dramas. Instead, the “who lives” question can be understood as an existential meditation concerning human existence, and one queered by the technologization of humankind and the looming onset of artificial intelligence as no longer a technological fear so much as a contemporary reality. With a script co-credited to Daniel T. Thomsen and co-creator/showrunner Lisa Joy, the show’s emphasis on philosophical dialogue and moody pauses never loses momentum under the gifted hands of veteran director Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones, Hannibal, Black Sails).

Violence and Repetition

Westworld‘s ultraviolence becomes a kind of secondary issue within the narrative, a non-factor in moving the plot forward. In some ways, this narrative shift represents positive momentum away from violence-laden storylines from shows like Game of Thrones or Sons of Anarchy; however, the ultraviolent displays tell another story altogether. Taking in these scenes is almost too easy for a couple of reasons. First, there’s low investment in characters, and second, the Groundhog Day effect of AI hosts returning to “life” (or duty) isn’t a question of if but when. Thus, bloodshed as spectacle becomes just as Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) calls it, mere “titillation”, or window dressing to get users (and audiences) into the park, buying into its atmosphere, and hopefully returning for the long hall. In essence, I’m not tuning in to see “who dies”, I’m tuning in to see “who lives“?

Doctor/Patient Confidentiality

“The Stray” opens with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) once again holding a private conversation with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). Yet with this visit, Bernard’s tone and temperament edge closer to interrogation rather than tinkering. Perhaps he’s becoming paranoid, as the episode soon suggests.

He presents Dolores an elegant hardcopy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (always with the classics, these prestige drama writers). She reads, “Dear dear, how queer everything is today…” Indeed, with the slow awakening of sentient consciousness among hosts a hovering possibility, marked passages like these serve as narrative harbingers as much as literary callbacks. Dolores uncharacteristically asks about Bernard’s deceased son. Stunned silent, Bernard interrogates how and why she redirected her programming toward personal inquiry. Evolution’s been set in motion at an interpersonal level; I won’t tell if you won’t.

William (Jimmi Simpson) continues to search for deeper meaning and purpose within the park. He stops a wanted fugitive that breaks free in Sweetwater (a town name that offers direct homage to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West). In the crossfire, he’s hit with the equivalent of a rubber bullet from the fugitive. While William has no problem gunning down the fugitive in short order, the scene works to demonstrate how visitors can be partially injured as an extension to experiential immersion … non-fatally, of course, at least for now.

William’s traveling partner Logan (Ben Barnes) hounds him about fulfilling the wrong kinds of needs. Logan emits virulent hound dog tendencies, as his insatiable lust comes into opposition against William’s gentile self-control. Their dual oppositional qualities compliment the classic Western formula, visually coded with William having chosen the white hat, while Logan adorns himself in all black. Incidentally, Logan also reveals that William recently married his sister, and yet he has no qualms tempting William repeatedly toward infidelity. Their interactions on this level speaks to class distinction and often-reported willingness of real-world upper class to place less importance on monogamy than those morally and financially restrained by lower-class systems. It’s subtle but also pinpoint accurate. Or perhaps Logan simply contends that intimacy with an AI represents an amoral act and thus holds no moral consequence.

Astrological Anomalies

Behind-the-scenes tensions continue to mount with pressure from the “board members” to increase capital gains. On the tech front, Bernard and Elsie (Shannon Woodward) discuss abnormal reveries surfacing around the name “Arnold”. A host named Walter is monitored for killing six other hosts in seemingly random narrative-based fashion. However, they realize each victim was connected to alternate roles served in previous narrative assignments. In tech terms, the updates don’t seem to fix all bugs related to the objectifying actions undertaken daily by hosts.

The anomaly sets up an onsite investigative pairing between Elsie and the security officer Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth). The two trek into Westworld to locate the proverbial lost sheep host, who’s essentially offline and out wandering the desert. The duo encounter a group of wranglers “caught in a loop” because they lack “weapons privileges”.

This even includes the ability to build fire, which is a nice touch when visualized onscreen. The little adages like these, hosts stuck in mannequin-like mid-motion obedience, represents one of the more fascinating narrative recurrences. The black sheep runaway leaves behind a table full of woodcarvings, but additional etchings suggest the problem may extend beyond a mere reset. Indeed, Stubbs is quick to identify the scratched pattern as a star chart for Orion’s belt.

The duo finds their host stuck at the bottom of a ravine. Stubbs turns him off and starts to saw his neck off. The camera stays on the gruesome visual and quickly the host comes back online. He climbs out of the ravine and rather than attack Stubbs or Elsie, the runaway bashes his own head in with a small boulder. Do androids dream of Stone Age suicide? Has this Orion lost its proverbial eyesight, only to regain it in “death”?

In the HBO “Inside the Episode” feature, writer-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy discuss the ramifications of the episode and the primitive nature of the wanderer host that they specifically describe as going off the reservation in order to stargaze. They consider the act primal and in the human tradition of looking up at the sky as a sign of questioning the Self and its significance. In other words, human consciousness. While this intent isn’t entirely clear from watching the episode, the insight and its ties to primal instincts and questioning reality offer addition depth to “The Stray”.

Visual Culture/Retina Reboot

During a saloon interaction, Teddy’s (James Marsden) visual presence triggers a significant reverie for Maeve (Thandie Newton); however, this time her memories aren’t of a previous storyline but instead from awakening during surgery in the tech bowels of the parks. Thoughts include the murderous laboratory imagery as she stumbled from the operating table and over onto piles of host bodies under service for repairs. Maeve freezes in thought, creating the window for Teddy to spot his hopeful future-love Dolores. He and Dolores return to the outskirts where a preprogrammed script takes over. This time, however, Dolores seems to push for progressive resolve. She catches Teddy’s “someday” phrasing and asks that he change his script to today, now. He resists with tragically naïve chivalry, since his destiny is to die under gunfire back at the family farm.

Oh Teddy

Teddy tragically meets his fate once more. (Side note: there’s also a recurring deadness of sensation in watching these characters “die”. I suspect other viewers might feel this way, even unconsciously, as part of the producers’ intent. This question may warrant more qualitative research.). When Teddy is shipped to the cold dark laboratory, director Marshall tightens in on an extreme close up that highlights a beautiful 3D printing of a “host” eyeball.

Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) waxes Shakespeare to Teddy as he sits perched atop a table undressed. They discuss Teddy’s ubiquitously unknown past and then Ford taps his finger to the digital tablet in his hand. Instantly, a backstory uploads into Teddy’s cognitive mainframe. The little details (most of them come out of Hopkins contemplative performance beats) add depth to an otherwise hollow social condition (for geneticists and hosts). Ultimately, the scene proves pivotal for providing a name that will haunt Teddy and others within Westworld: Wyatt (Sorin Brouwers).

It’s the Little Things in Life … that Lead to Big Things

Cut to the next day’s narrative cycle. Teddy now attempts a shooting lesson out on the range with Dolores. Due to her programming, Dolores is unable to pull the trigger, even when aiming at tin can targets (Of course, this is mere setup for Dolores’s foreshadowed transformation later on, but the scene is a nice character beat that harkens back to so many westerns, including George Stevens’ Shane.). Their exchange includes what John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett identify as a core component of the American Monomyth, whereby the hero renounced sexual advancement until justice can be served and/or he retires from his mission (The Myth of the American Superhero, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2002).

Just as Ford introduces Wyatt into the game world narrative, he also introduces a supposed real-world character of origin in Arnold. Ford tells a secret origin of Arnold, an original scientist he’d initially worked alongside, but who became a dissenter that the board “scrubbed” from the record books upon his release. As Ford puts it, “When the legend becomes fact, you print the legend.” Arnold’s early work includes a cognitive pyramid for artificial consciousness starting at the base with “memory, improvisation, self interest”, and an unfinished conceptualization of “the bicameral mind”.

Ford recounts privately to Bernard that, “His search for consciousness consumed him, totally…In his alienation, he saw something in the [hosts]. He saw something that [pause] wasn’t there.

Ford seems to be testing Bernard, and reminds him “don’t forget [that] the hosts are not real. They’re not conscious… [Bringing up Bernard’s dead son, Ford warns] “I know that his death weighs heavily on you”. If anything, their encounter now feels less cordial and more akin to an unwanted trip to Human Resources. In addition to the syncretic chess game that commences between Ford and Bernard, director Marshall brings a keen eye for lush visuals when displaying the Machiavellian-esque grandeur of glass walls and Westworld relics in Dr. Ford’s secret office.

Tales of Two Selves

Indeed, Ford spooks Bernard and he almost immediately heads back down the inner bowels to converse with Dolores, fully intent on deleting his experimental tinkering. He impatiently requests she switch her responses from pre-scripted reactions to “improvisation” (the second tier in Arnold’s consciousness pyramid?). Dolores’s words start to communicate un-programmed ideas, “evolution”. Is this the birth of consciousness? Bernard asks Dolores to stay on her narrative loop but wants to see how the experiment progresses nonetheless. The toyman cannot help but tinker. He’s of two minds. Back in Westworld, when Delores is next confronted with a marauding posse, she practices self-defense, including gunning down her would-be rapist Rebus (Steven Ogg). Freed from even the smallest of remote programming, Dolores exhibits agency in the form of self-defense. Dolores, like Bernard, fragmented into two selves.

RATING 9 / 10