Dualities, Glitches, and Playing God: Just Another Week in Westworld.
Here lies the Creator's plan for his world, overtly displayed and covertly ambiguous at the same time.
WestworldAirtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Ed Harris
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 2 - "Chestnut"
Air date: 2016-10-09
While relatively artificial in stilted emotion, writer-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy extend the next strand of narrative layering to their Westworld design. Director Richard J. Lewis does a masterful job capturing a duality of visuals throughout episode two, "Chestnut". In contrast to episode one's focus on Western mise-en-scène in way that communicate visitor immersion into Westworld, "Chestnut" organizes several key behind the scenes looks at the world outsiders come from: clean and sterile in the instance of the train, cold and dark and hollow and gothic in what we've seen of the engineer buildings. In effect, "Chestnut" teases the kind of world visitors enter from, including a continuation of psychotic fantasies, perhaps suggesting more about the need to generate escapism in the first place. Thus, "Chestnut" and Westworld extend the text's allegorical polemic on real-world anxiety and catharsis or arguably a lack of real-world solutions that drive publics toward deep media immersive escapism.
Duality One: Asleep / Awake
"Wake up Dolores", calls the voice of Dr. Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright). "Do you remember?" Episode two opens with the omniscient over the head camera shot of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) resting in her bed. The shot communicates her sleeping state, the voiceover both real and subconscious. An omniscient cutaway shot teases Dolores walking the field outside her house at night, ambiguous confirmation she dreams (and in Westworld's diegetic space, I would assume ambiguity qualifies as close to "truth" as audiences can surmise).
The dream fades to a window reflection toward another restless person trying to relax in William (Jimmi Simpson). William sits on a sleek futuristic train. His male traveling companion harasses him about the beautiful assistant that stirs him from resting. "She's a two," he boasts between sips of scotch. The two men are dressed in close to professional attire, clear markers of an elite class status. A woman in a white dress meets Jimmi at the train station; more so an interior subway station that leads to the above ground park. Her slim but buxom body type and unicolor white dress suggests futurism and androgyny, two visual signposts of the future shock genre.
Duality Two: Virtue/Vice
The woman escorts Jimmi separately to a changing room, where he’s instructed to get into character for his immersion into Westworld. The two exchange flirty banter when, of course, the woman comes onto him:
Jimmi: I thought you can’t get hurt here?
Pre-park Tour Guide: Only the right amount.
Jimmi's also shown rooms for costuming purposes: boots, chaps, black and white hats. He's developing a user profile prior to entering the game. The female hostess exists as a guide for Jimmi (and the audience). He glances over her in quiet curiosity. She responds, "You want to ask, so ask." Jimmi inquires, "Are you real?" The response is appropriate in tone with the series: "Well if you can't tell, does it matter?"
In the case of Westworld, the answer to this series-long question is ultimately "yes". Yes, we want to know. Yes, like Jimmi, we don't want to pry away complete answers, not yet anyway (I take that back, apparently users on Reddit really want to uncover the show’s master narrative before season one can even complete half the season). For the traditional viewer that shares Jimmi's patient disposition, we want the tease to unfold slowly, the ambiguity to accompany the mystery. Yet, because Westworld hinges upon existential meditations concerning carnal desire and dehumanization, the scene cannot help but confirm such a question. It also tells us something about Jimmi, who chivalrously denies his tour guide's come-ons.
Following a plot thread similar to Crichton's original movie, Jimmi and his traveling companion Logan (Ben Barnes) enter the park as a couple a playboys with dualistic intents: hedonism and syncretic curiosity. They later elucidate their differences over dinner. Jimmi embodies (Self) control while Logan expresses chaos. Logan stabs a one-eyed snake oil adventurer with indifference and the scene quick cuts to a hedonistic bisexual foursome. The scene is contrasted with Jimmi, who politely rejects one of the saloon seductresses. He tells her, "I have someone waiting for me", before she finishes, "Real love is worth the wait."
Duality Three: Omniscient Observer/Willing Participant
In the dank industrial nether regions beyond the park, Bernard and the female lab tech Elsie (Shannon Woodward) discuss the reverie glitches in conversation with the park's narrative upgrades. They debate whether Dolores's "father" experienced an "existential crisis" or a cognitive programming virus. Bernard does his best to dissuade her, a second such suggestion (after the opening voiceover) that Bernard is keeping some secrets to himself.
In the park, a male voice in Dolores's mind tells her to, "Remember". Suddenly, her Groundhog Day sunny disposition melts into stoic remembrance. She utters to madam Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), "His violent delights have violent ends." Dolores, per her unconscious re-programming (unknowingly) spreads the virus of dissent. Their briefest of interactions sets off an episodic shift focusing toward Maeve's character. Entertaining another guest inside the saloon, she becomes distracted by memories of Native Americans raiding and scalping, a lost reverie resurfacing.
Elsewhere within the park, The Man in Black (Ed Harris) (or TMIB) continues his dark quest to locate the center of "the deepest level of this game". He kills a posse set on hanging the outlaw Lawrence (Clifton Collins, Jr.), and then takes Lawrence to his home village. Lawrence's family comes out to greet him, including his young daughter, but TMIB sadistically sets his bullets out on the table and begins loading his revolver. He blows away the bartender to show he means business. He threatens Lawrence to give him information on "the maze's center", then takes out the whole town in an ultraviolent display similar to episode one's rabble-rousing by Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro).
Lawrence only seems partially shaken by the murder, so TMIB executes his wife in front of his daughter: “because when you're suffering, that's when it's most real". In this small window of silence, the daughter speaks out automatically, as if unlocking a kind of hidden narrative:
Daughter: The maze isn't meant for you.
Man in Black: What'd I tell you … There's always another level.
Daughter: Follow the blood arroyo to the place where the snake lays its eggs.
As savvy critics, like A.V. Club's Matt Gerardi, have already pointed out, TMIB exhibits the worst kind of online gamer tendencies, suggesting that regardless of whether he's a "host" or a "visitor', the real character is a critique of a type of prosumer audience.
Frankenstein and his Lab Assistant
A clandestine meeting occurs between Bernard and master architect Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) in the creation room. The room's symbolism is significant. Muscular skeletons are suspended within a mechanical device that evokes the look of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. The Vitruvian device dips unfinished bodies into a kind of genetic pool filled with a white formula. An amalgamation of baptism, mother's milk, and Vitruvian magic converge to create new hosts.
Bernard: We retired the two hosts in question. You taught me how to make them, but not how hard it is to turn them off.
Ford: You can't play God without being acquainted with a devil. Is there something else bothering you?
Bernard seems convinced a saboteur exists in their midst, but Ford is quick to dismiss him (like Bernard with Elsie in the scene before). Ford tempers Bernard's concern through causality: "You imagine someone's been titilling with our creations? …The problem … is that what we do is so complicated. We practice witchcraft. We speak the right words, and we create life itself out of chaos." It's clear even this early in the series that dialogue offered by Wright and Hopkins are always meant to function as meditations by the architects of the series itself, meta-messages to be chewed on by audiences, and digested and dissected by websites and message boards, the true unfinished center to any show’s labyrinthine core.
Coding Abuse Between Creator and Created
A later scene backs up to the possible conversation (or interrogation) between Bernard and Dolores that overlaid her opening dreamscape. The setting appears in the laboratory, Dolores clearly in her blue prairie dress (in contrast to the humiliating stripped down status hosts are typically subjected to). Bernard talks to her as both Subject and Object. "You haven't told anyone about our little talks?" Like an abuser, he starts and stops conversation with programming commands, advising which details to obey versus which to erase. Scenes like this highlight the ambiguity of "playing God" as Ford says. Bernard is both attempting to find something and imbedding something else. He's tinkering, a toyman, but his intent or motive remains cloudy. Is he the Deceiver, the architect of destruction? Or is this incumbent creator (the Son?) the one to ignite a revolution among the host kind?
Conversations between "God, the Father" and "God, the Son"?
As one scene reveals Bernard's mischievous secrets, another teases Ford's. The old man wanders his own desert, walking the outskirts only to be found by a young boy adorned in similar Victorian costuming. The boy asks, "Are you lost?" to which Ford politely responds, "No, I've just strayed a bit too far from where I'm supposed to be." With the piling on of open-coded exchanges like these, its easy to see why critics like Vox’s Culture Editor Todd Vanderwerff and Vulture’s Lindsey Romain have already compared this show (in slightly negative tones) to TV’s Lost. Metaphorical mysteries can be a good thing when strategically laid down, but too many can suggest the whole thing is but an expensive distraction meant to keep visitors coming back for more. Sound familiar?
Yet, there is something going on in this scene. We can't ever fully surmise what's entirely "real" from what isn't. Indeed, the nature of authenticity seems to be a through line that'll haunt the series, encoding Westworld with a philosophical bend that may befuddle audiences as much as cause them to question their own existence (as audiences?). The similarly dressed little boy complains, "We're on holiday. It's boring." Ford responds, "My father used to say, 'Only boring people get bored'." The boy's reaction? "Mine too." Hmm… Ford continues, "I used to think it's only boring people who don't feel boredom, so [they] cannot conceive of it in others." Ford invites the bored boy on a walk. Is their encounter a mirage? A mirrored memory? Is the boy either real or "real" (the latter two less likely). They arrive at "Nowhere Land". Ford directs him to hear an imaginary church bell ring, and Ford advises, "You see what a bored mind can conjure?"
The sound of a rattlesnake then interrupts them. Ford stops its hiss mid-rattle. The snake's face in striking position freezes mid-air, to the attention of its creator, specifically silenced by his extended index finger (the Architect's hand of dominion). The lad remarks, "How did you do that? Is it magic?" Ford reminds him what social linguists, scientists, and theologians agree upon without agreeing upon: "Everything in this world is magic. Except to the magician." Ford then glances off into the distance and stoically looks over a charred church steeple in the distance, buried to its neck in the desert sand. Of course, Ford goes on to tell the boy to "run along now", to which the lad promptly drops his walking staff, turns in animatronic fashion and walks away in a straight line. So much for ambiguity.
Sacred and Profane in Constant Tension
Following multiple scenes that depict dualities between virtue and deviance, Maeve is brought into the lab for a software check after her previous breakdown in the saloon. Lab tech Elsie -- who conjures attitudinal temperament of the exploitation fem-Nazi of the same name -- derides Maeve as she processes her, but Maeve's quickly back in action, regurgitating the same entitlement speeches that are meant to emptily motivate visitors. She waxes philosophical with Teddy (James Marsden) at the bar shortly before another unhinged park visitor playing outlaw blows him away. The blood spatter on her arm doesn't faze her; however, that night a movement by her mirror reawakens Maeve’s reveries; she experiences a prairie home massacre, full of memories of fear and loss and suffering, scalping and bludgeoning.
As the Native Americans corner her and her daughter in their small cabin, in walks TMIB. Maeve closes her eyes to recite the cognitive auto-reset, "3…2…1…". She then awakens on a surgical table, her midsection cut wide open. Maeve emotes pure alienation as she slips off the table, grabs a scalpel (touché), and backs out of the glass room. The host stumbles out of a dark corridor and across a large exterior area. The sterile futurism provides pure shock to her senses, but the living nightmare comes to a head when Maeve happens into a clean-up area. Bodies of hosts lay limp and colorless in piles. Some are being worked on or pulled apart. Another room hoses the blood off those "killed" in Westworld. The future shock brings Maeve to her knees. The two surgeons recover catch up and program her off. Crisis averted.
In a symmetrical bit of storytelling, the scene cuts to Dolores sleepwalking at night outside her country home. She walks several paces, then stops to kneel, moving the soil beneath her feet. She unearths a revolver, a plant. Another embedded Easter egg in the narrative, only this time it’s intended for a host. The wheels turn, not in Dolores's head as she's unconscious, but the audiences'.
Similarly, the cocky Westworld story designer Lee (Simon Quartman), who I previously compared to Damon Lindelof, touts a bold new narrative direction he's crafted. The problem is, Ford rejects his ideas just as he's reached his own verbose climax. Ford lectures Lee's "garish" ideas as mere "titillation". Ford prefers "something [visitors] can fall in love with … a glimpse of who they long to be". Fuel for future confrontation, or as TMIB would say, "There's always another level".
With Lee's proposal publicly rejected, Bernard paces with Ford through the desert, master and apprentice. Bernard stresses the board’s concern with no new experiential storyline; however, Ford brings up the project he's "been working on for some time … something quite original". The camera then slowly cuts back to the base of the burned and buried church steeple. In a wide shot of the background, the camera slowly raises on the steeple in the foreground, settling in on the crucifix at the apex. Here lies the Creator's plan for his world, overtly displayed and covertly ambiguous at the same time.