Westworld’s fifth episode, “Contrapasso”, is in some ways difficult to describe. On the one hand, it represents a pivot in the narrative, or rather, the further winding delineation of narrative threading. In an ironic juxtaposition, Westworld‘s story threading is actually about stories unraveling, and “Contrapasso” tackles this issue on both a visual and narrative front. Co-creator/showrunner Lisa Joy is credited with the teleplay (with shared story credit with Dominic Mitchell), and she pulls strings that ignite several pivotal reveals. While several previous episodes relied strategically on above the shoulders close ups of nude hosts in laboratory settings, Director Jonny Campbell intentionally pulls back throughout the entire episode. The raw flesh on constant display evokes a clear mood of dehumanization throughout “Contrapasso”.
On the other hand, “Contrapasso” is about the most HBO-ized episode of an HBO drama ever produced. Perhaps it was a strategic marketing gesture to release the episode amidst the most white-hot political melodrama in US political history. Given the volatile 24/7 news coverage — itself a narrative that seems too sensationalized ever to be taken seriously as fiction — Westworld producers slipped past one of the most flaccidly erotic hours of television ever. To be clear, this is a second ironic juxtaposition that has some clear intent behind it.
To claim Westworld aspires to “high art” is an understatement. Westworld‘s writing team is obsessed with the classics, but unlike a lot of popular shows, the genre interests exhibited expand beyond literature and pop culture; it borrows heavily from classical mythology, psychology, philosophy, and theology. In tune with meditations on Enlightenment (a movement predicated on cultural blending religion and philosophy through artistic expression), the episode title “Contrapasso” summons thematic imagery and resonance from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. In effect, the hosts represent dehumanized products in a hierarchy to service human visitors and programmers. Brought back to life only to suffer fantastically fatal atrocities over and over, they literally embody a livelihood comparable to the endless suffering of eternal damnation Dante envisions (e.g. Dante’s Inferno). Because the hosts are both human-like and nonhuman, however, they exist in a liminal state betwixt and between the supposed virtues (and vices) of humanity. For this reason, the contrapasso comparison also registers with the theological identification of purgatory (see also Dante’s Purgatorio).
Naturally, the purgatory argument is perhaps one reason some critics continue to draw comparison between Westworld and Lost. The other comparative reason being the show’s reliance upon complex, if not poetic, emotion experienced by visitors like William (Jimmi Simpson) and maybe even The Man in Black (TMIB) (Ed Harris) as well, although the cracks are suggesting hosts like Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) are not too far behind. Also, it would seem that alleged humans like William, or even technician Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), find themselves investing more and more with lower caste AI due to an overall dissonance and dissociation with whatever world they otherwise inhabit.
Purgatory Holds (No) Purpose
I’ve teased the sub-genre of future shock in “Chestnut”, and it’s noteworthy that “Contrapasso” continues to feed ideas that the outside world visitors come from is lacking. In a rare conversational showdown that’ll benefit from repeat viewings, TMIB is joined at a saloon drinking table by none other than the chief architect of Westworld himself, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Ford has been increasingly tossing the name “Arnold””around as of late, the newest open signifier MacGuffin for explaining, nay teasing the park’s origins. In the conversation, Ford and TMIB make passing reference to how outside culture has become so pacified by the mass meeting of social needs. In other words, society largely lacks purpose.
The same lack of purpose sentiment is echoed more covertly when Logan (Ben Barnes) insults William’s rise to executive vice president at their company. Compound these two examples with Bernard’s alienation from his wife, or TMIB’s dark actions coming in from a CEO-type status, and the outside world resembles a number of broken and dissociated anxieties that arguably add contemporary resonance that’s distanced for comfort. Similarly, Lost featured a collage of characters bound by postmodern identity crises while searching for purpose or a more primal understanding of Self.
Hamlet Meets Frankenstein
“Contrapasso” begins with Ford back in the damp bowels underneath Westworld. Specifically, he meets his old “friend”, the animatronic Old West barkeep with the handlebar mustache and thin sharp goatee. As viewers will recall, this character was briefly teased back at the season’s beginning. It’s clear from his jittery robotic posture shifts that he’s more than an old cowboy. He’s a Model 1-type machine, with industrial ticks, limited vocabulary, and short-term programming. It’s a fascinating figure, all the more so that Ford chooses to visit him anytime he’s feeling nostalgic. Indeed, that’s exactly where we find Ford focused as of late: in the past.
Ford essentially monologues about a childhood story involving an incident with a greyhound. The point of the story is that this fierce, elegant, beautiful racing dog prizes itself by instinctually chasing a material gray rag (at the race tracks). However, when the hound finally goes off script and devours a gray cat, its bewildered reaction renders both confusion and a step too far in its primal uncovering. The story is a clear metaphor for where this show is headed, and more intuitively, Ford’s melancholy ambivalence toward this endgame. As the creator of t/his universe, he certainly bears responsibility, and yet he’s more than willing to tinker with and observe the chaos to come. The scenes where he talks to his creations (the Western barkeep, the boy in the desert, Dolores [Evan Rachel Wood], etc.) are all the more haunting and pivotal to Ford’s villainous hubris.
Regarding technical execution, these scenes do a brilliant service for effectively refashioning the mad man soliloquy to appear as if it were character interaction and conversation, while in fact, it’s a single being of agency communicating to an inferior being programmed toward subservience and obedience. A flickering in the foreground, perhaps some type of gaslight furnace, lights this particular scene, as the background stays dark except for industrial backlighting. It’s a soliloquy, a fireside chat for a party of one.
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The Profane Underworld
At the outskirts of Westworld, Dolores stands amidst a graveyard of stick crosses. She seems to experience an internal voice, a male that commands her to “find me”. Is this Bernard, who previously encouraged her to journey toward the center of the maze? It’s close, but I highly suspect the voice is dissimilar. It also doesn’t sound like her father or Teddy (James Marsden). Instead, I suspect it’s the voice of Arnold, the unseen co-architect of Westworld, a character subject to digital and historical erasure.
The group comprised of William, Logan, Dolores, and an outlaw prisoner arrive at the outskirts of a town referred to as “Pariah” (Or Uriah, I can’t quite tell after listening a handful of times. It also sounds like he says Orion, which is, of course, a theme the show’s tapped into a couple of times.) Logan describes the location as a, “city of outcasts, delinquents, thieves, whores, and murders”. The town looks less like an authentic western village and more so like an exaggerated adobe superstructure rendered by the Game of Thrones VFX team. This is no coincidence, as the depictions of life within its walls would make the saloon-brothel in the town of Sweetwater blush by comparison. Pariah is an antithesis to idyllic paradise (Dante’s Paradiso). It might be better described as a hedonic den of sensual nonsense: an oasis of lust so over the top in visual aggressiveness; a hyper-sexualized haven where women literally walk the streets nude painted in gold. I can’t tell if it’s a parody of HBO’s worst instincts, or a desperation grab in the event that thinking too hard about the sci-fi-isms and whether or not putting up with the western motifs turns off viewers.
In Some Alternate Universe, Stanley Kubrick’s Never-made Western Feels Complete
Regarding the elephant in the room when the group gets to Pariah, I originally thought I’d gloss over this as best I can. The series is all about visuals and digital culture and television as a medium and how technological upgrades are steeped in visual culture, so overlooking Pariah’s sensuous design seems disingenuous (like the town itself). In terms of Pariah’s storytelling function, the way the town (and specifically its inhabitants) are presented both making sense and seeming completely ludicrous at the same time.
I’m going to try to leave as much to the reader’s imagination here as possible, but suffice to say: imagine an entire town where everyone comes to engage in seedy business, and the most obvious business exchanges revolve around the world’s oldest profession. I can absolutely see the male park patrons — which seem to be the dominant hegemonic presence in Westworld — buying into such low-hanging fruit. Perhaps that’s part of the point, as an extending allegory to William’s ongoing temptations within Westworld. The majority of men here seem to fall prey to its vices. It’s window-dressing but cranked up to an 11 on the overt scale. There’s nothing left to the imagination in “Contrapasso” when it comes to the focus of intent in Pariah.
(I take that back, one thing left to the imagination is whether hosts can transmit STDs. I mean, this is going to be answered by some pseudo-science tech in a throwaway conversation, right? If Westworld patrons shell out $40k a day, does this include vaccinations for syphilis, or is another component of dangerous excitement in the Old West experience?)
Many critics spoke out against the rape politics depicted in Game of Thrones, specifically how such repetition (or even production design mismanagement like focusing on Theon’s reaction shot in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” or Cersei’s level of consent in “Breaker of Chains”) and the perpetual need to insert lead characters into these positions. I might suggest a similar vibe at work here, in that the narrative storytelling becomes too distracted by the visual storytelling.
Stanley Kubrick’s infamous cloak and dagger orgy in Eyes Wide Shut feels tepid by comparison, as does the over-hyped opioid party in True Detective‘s much-maligned second season episode “Church in Ruins”. As a person that grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, I might have to freeze-frame the closing credits to see if Paul Verhoeven at least receives honorable mention in the “thank yous”. I just don’t know what to make of it, other than they sure do a good job leaning on excess in a series of scenes meant to convey how Westworld is a pleasure dome that caters to mostly privileged white men at an extremely steep buy in (I mean, if you process it on that level, there’s clearly a lot of real-world criticism you can unpack…if you can stay focused, that is.).
Notably, Lisa Joy is credited with both the teleplay and co-scripting duties. There’s a bit of an exception that goes with this terrain, in which the female authors are given more of a pass on hyper-sexualized content. One example is the delicate touch brought to Starz’s Outlander, where loving contact is gently presented and not overly stylized. Outlander then contrasts sexual abuse onscreen that carries deep ramifications and haunts abusers and abused across many episodes.
This isn’t the case in Pariah. Perhaps part of the problem is the overt artificiality of it all. The hosts are so perfectly sculpted (a nod to da Vinci’s David and the contrapposto subject position?) that they in no way fit the Western motif. These bodies are in direct contrast to the warehouse full of standing offline hosts — presumably retired for various reasons — that were teased in “The Original” when Ford met his saloon favorite (a double callback is highly suspicious). Regarding social significance, I’m left to the following conclusion: Westworld has the same dehumanization problem as the extra-textual real world. Not Westworld’s “real world”, Westworld‘s real world. Anything perceived as ugly, please hide out of sight. All things visually seductive be on full display and to excess. A metaphor for the digital age and the entertainment industry? Got it. Moving on.
Medieval Poetics as Postmodern Plot Mechanics
The most criminal element here is that the overt eye candy almost distracts from one of the most pivotal reveals yet on Westworld, and therein lies a potential rationale of intent with Pariah’s distracting ways. Borrowing heavily from the Game of Thrones “sexposition” playbook (see Myles McNutt, Cultural-Learnings.com, 2011), Logan contextualizes Pariah in real-world corporate interest terms. “The further out from Sweetwater we get, the more grandiose, the bigger the narratives become.” (Notably, he’s describing the act of world-building itself.) Dolores stoically takes it in, “It’s beautiful, in its own way.” Logan constantly breaks character to analyze their situation within the context of a consumer experience. (He’s the worst kind of fanboy, and someone you don’t want to sit near in a movie theater.) Logan describes Pariah as contrapasso (or suffering the opposite) to Westworld’s otherwise “market-tested” experiential design.
War Games and the Circles of Hell
Suddenly chock full of industry gossip, Logan notes how, “Out here, it’s more raw, but it doesn’t come cheap. Rumor is they are hemorrhaging cash. We’re considering [the firm Logan and William work for] buying them out.” Logan recalls the myth of an unknown original partner that “killed himself” before the grand opening. Notably, this continues the slow reveal of Arnold, a figure who’s quickly becoming a mythologized icon for park producers and consumers. William’s response? “Whoever designed this place, you get the feeling they don’t think much of people.” Whether he’s referring to Westworld creators or Hollywood producers remains a mystery. Who says William isn’t fun?
They come into contact with “The Army of New Virginia” (or “The Confederados” for short). Breaking character again, Logan emphasizes how the Confederados are “the key to this game”. As William inquires further, Logan clarifies, “the biggest game there is…War.” Once this concept is presented with Logan’s focus, aspects like the episode title and Pariah’s aggressive quirks take on new meaning. Contraposso alludes to Dante’s Inferno, a book that mythologizes a poetic interpretation of the nine circles of hell. These circles, when assessed chronologically, feel like a loose architecture to Westworld itself.
The first circle is limbo, which is essentially the loop cycles or programmed roles that hosts have been repeating for unknown decades of times. The fact that this term is referenced so frequently by technicians, park patrons, and even by some hosts, is a clear harbinger of significance. The second circle is lust, a titular description for Pariah and the drive encoded in so many park visitors. This would cater closer to the avarice shown by so many entitled visitors thus far, saving Pariah as the apt descent from Sweetwater and into the third circle of hell, gluttony.
Naturally, Westerners (US Americans in particular) are quick to identify gluttony with obesity (particularly among those coded by a visual culture steeped in beauty’s definition as youth-centric), but the interpretive sin of gluttony references all manner of overindulgence. On one hand, this could be read as any bodily pleasure (food, drink, intimacy, etc.), while on the other hand, it certainly could be drawn as a parallel to the American spirit of consumerist excess and the social, culture, and political strain of global capitalism. Then again, this is probably just my imagination running away with me (Arnold, is that you?).
Back to the narrative key, Logan’s emphasis on “war” and how this starts to play out by episode’s end points to yet another link in the chain, the seventh circle: violence. Violence is already a central cog in the Westworld machine, with gunplay, massacre, and the like as regular fixtures for park visitors. The double emphasis on the Confederado’s and their stock-and-trade warmongering suggests a more focused circle to come later. Ultimately, what “Contraposso” may reveal is a roadmap that’s similar the labyrinth pattern that keeps reappearing to drive the audience to the core of the textual maze just as characters converge toward the narrative maze. If that’s the case, then audiences can clearly embrace Dante’s Inferno as a paratextual pretext for ideas to come.
Meta-Textual Heroin for Reddit Users
While the Westworld plot may or may not be unfolding in a chronological fashion in relation to Dante’s nine circles of hell, the series continues to swerve alert viewers with nonlinear suggestions. I previously touched on the big reveal that Dolores may not be meeting with Bernard for nightly chats in real time so much as dreaming about Bernard in an ongoing fashion.
In addition to dream logic as an unnerving layer to the present, it appears a major arc on the show thus far has been occurring in the past all along, disguised by the set motif that all things happening in Westworld have the same Western future-past look. While convoluted to average viewers, I suspect the digital age audience and the many paratextual mouthpieces on sites like Reddit are feeling quite nourished by the intense literary tinkering and genre mixing performed by the producers and writing staff in particular.
The MTIB is at it in full force throughout “Contraposso”. Hot on the trail to the maze’s center, TMIB drags along the bandit Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) (bound with a noose around his neck to boot) and a nearly beaten-to-death Teddy. When stopping for a short break, suddenly the lone boy (Oliver Bell) — previously seen in the desert — suddenly appears; TMIB sends the boy to fetch water across the way. He then turns to Lawrence and dumps out a second pouch of water before slitting his throat. (All of this seems so random at first but quickly comes into focus.) He scrambles to hoist up Lawrence in the ropes, hangs him from his feet, and sets the empty pouch beneath to catch his blood (take a life to save one). By association to Wyatt, Teddy is now the valuable puzzle piece worth saving. Lawrence has become expendable.
There’s something else, however, that TMIB tells Lawrence before his demise. “There’s another old friend of mine that likes to say, ‘There’s a path for everyone’. Your path leads you back to me.” This phrase has definitely been uttered before if not multiple times. The who and when is now quite valuable to know; as another piece in the audience’s puzzle, it then sends both forward and backward in time to revisit old episodes (or simply plug in the cheat code by looking at Reddit where someone quicker already has). I’d like to think I’m a purist (no, not like William, more like TMIB) in that I’d like to rummage around myself for answers, playing a syncretic chess game with the text and its architects.
This clever bit of storytelling is nothing next to the formidable reveal to come in Pariah. When the outlaw escorts Logan, William, and Dolores to his bandit boss, the seated figure slowly raises his cowboy hat to reveal Lawrence, alive and well. The scene is a fantastic narrative maneuver. It of course puts everything into question and upends what the audience has to this point assumed as linear narrative threading. Now two key questions emerge: which timeline is later vs earlier, and how long is the gap in between?
Exploitation as Narrative Convention
I mentioned sexposition as a narrative convention rendered commonplace by Game of Thrones during its inaugural season. Similar shows have continued this strand; Westworld appears to be the heir apparent proper. If Pariah is the sunny side of lust and gluttony, then the halogen lit technician labs represent an underworld of exploitation. Evidence of this is on peek display (peak display too) throughout “Contraposso”. One set of scenes shows two male surgical techs at horseplay while they clean up a bullet-ridden Maeve (Thandie Newton). These are the two techs that previously operated when she awoken mid-surgery. Felix (Leonardo Nam), the more effeminate of the two, has his own secret. He keeps a small bird in his locker that he pulls out to work on during two work breaks. The interpretation to his secrecy is that he’s queering the lines between legal life giving and illegal tampering with “corporate property”. He aspires to goodness, but has to do bad to get there.
Similarly, Elsie (Shannon Woodward) has to be bad in order to get something she wants. Elsie blackmails another young male tech with video evidence of human-to-host necrophilia. Again the question sprang to mind about the cleanliness of the hosts, because if the techs fixing them behave this way, who’s cleaning up after them? Ick. Fortunately, she’s successful in her barter, the exchange being alone time with the headless stray corpse from two episodes back. As a visual identifier of the show’s narrative threading, Elsie pulls a small string of skin-wire that leads to her pulling a long unidentified surveillance tracking system from the flesh of the arm. Thus, we’ve ventured from the objectification of Kubrickian fashion to the fleshly displays of Paul Verhoven to the body horror of David Cronenberg; it looks like we’re skin deep in the nine circles of Hollywood hell if you ask me.
There’s a third lab sequence featuring Dr. Ford and Dolores. The key connective tissue between these three scenes is the display of bodies in more of an exploitative fashion than previous episodes. The bruised bodies are meat; the unconscious bodies are pleasure. The un/conscious bodies are objects, not subjects. This is especially true for Ford. He has no trouble keeping his eye contact cordial when interviewing Dolores. I suppose she’s both object and child to him. I also keep wondering whether the lead actresses have their heads digitally placed on body doubles, like Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister? It’s fascinating how artificial that process has become. Digitally manipulate this, Photoshop that. I don’t know that I’d call it less exploitative, however, but given the population of Pariah, I’d say the Hollywood casting couches have deep benches, and the Adonis look may represent a crossroads between fitness worship and cultures of social display.
The Ford/Dolores exchange is a telling one. One thing that isn’t certain (now) is when these exchanges are occurring, and whose perspective do they represent? Dolores’s evolving dreams toward free will? Ford’s anxieties? Both? His genteel conversation switches to outright interrogation on the topic of Arnold. Ford wants to know her last contact with him, 34-plus years dating back to the day of his death. Ford seems to be asking questions that ensure Dolores’s obedience, but there’s something about her minimalist responses that’s off-putting. Ford finally paces off uneasy. In the darkness, Dolores speaks out loud to herself: “He doesn’t know. I didn’t tell him anything.” Is she talking to Arnold? Did Arnold somehow stow away his consciousness into non-sentient life? New mysteries abound.
Western Tropes: From Convention to Invention
Lawrence requires the group retrieve (e.g., steal) a wagon shipment of nitroglycerin. This sets up a rollicking desert heist and that goes south. When a cavalry soldier moves toward Dolores gun drawn, William makes the decision to break from his honorable code. He guns down the pursuer and then must shoot the other two as well. Saving Logan, they return for a proper trade. Here Lawrence suggests they team up with the Confederados. If these mechanical plot exchanges start to feel gimmicky, don’t worry, it isn’t lost on those involved either. Logan reads the team-up as a means to the war game, a deeper immersive experience (the logical road to deadening the senses and having giving in to all impulses). William resists and they tussle. Logan derides him, marking clear class subjugation. During this exchange Dolores disappears down the hall, hedonistic acts aplenty throughout the background.
Dolores finds her way into a tarot card reader’s tent, a seer being another form of contrapasso to the ancient world. Dolores hallucinates seeing her doubled self. She’s experiencing an epoch in identity crisis. Fleeing the room, Dolores happens upon a double cross. Lawrence fills his friend’s carcass with the nitro. She’s too late getting back to William and Logan. When William tells her to “run” (flight), she instead quick draws on the gang (fight) and cuts them all down. William asks, “How did you do that?” and Dolores remarks, “You said, people come here to change the story of their lives. I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.” They dash to board a train headed for the border. On board, they find Lawrence and call a truce; caskets adorned with the maze insignia.
Is the Mad Scientist Trope a Misunderstanding of Introversion?
Ford’s been looming in the shadows for several episodes, threatening outsiders and staffers when he’s not malevolently scheming to himself in the form of one-sided conversations with several of his distinct creations. To suggest Ford’s mad-scientist God complex has something to do with his introvert tendencies is worth filing away for future consideration. I wonder if he’s left-handed as well?