Westworld's "Trompe L’Oeil" Is a Placeholder Episode With a Jaw-Dropping Twist
Mid-season, Westworld may be marking time, but shocks and reversals still abound.
WestworldAirtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 7 – "Trompe L'Oeil"
Air date: 2016-11-13
Westworld's seventh episode, "Trompe L'Oeil" is a nuts and bolts episode that lulls the viewer with its narrative momentum until the jaw-dropping final moments. In some ways, this makes sense given that episodes six and seven follow a familiar industry production strategy in contemporary TV, in which a writer and/or director will helm back-to-back episodes to help shorten the production timeline while easing the creative burden a bit.
Halley Gross and Jonathan Nolan are again co-credited with the script while director Frederick E. O. Toye (Person of Interest, The Good Wife, Fringe) maintains a steady hand behind the camera. If anything, "Trompe L'Oeil" simply suffers from servicing the preceding episode's exciting plot shifts. Thus, several stories inch along with fewer moments that stand out from the pack; a similar padding trend impacts episode eight as well.
"Trompe L'Oeil" is a clever enough title that can be doubly read as a massive spoiler. The term reaches into art history yet again (as with episode five, "Contrapasso") and refers to "a style of painting in which objects are depicted with photographically realistic detail" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Certainly the meaning behind the title holds true to the hosts and the Westworld park at large, but in hindsight, this particular theme applies to the appropriate "illusion" played upon audiences up to this point in the series.
Repetition in Traumatic Memory
"Trompe L'Oeil" opens with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) having fallen asleep reading to his dying son. Notably, he reads an excerpt centering on the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, the same book he shares with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) several episodes back. The specific reference is also notable in its comparison to the bandage on his son's head, a marker signifying a brain tumor or something similar. The connection is tragic, and perhaps even more so given how the episode will unfold.
At work, Bernard examines Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) firsthand. This host uses un-cleared language in his behavior program but doesn’t seem to recognize imagery of the real world. Bernard asks a tech about Elsie (Shannon Woodward) and learns "the system" reports she's taken time off. Bernard suspects Teresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is behind Elsie's disappearance, but he must keep his cards close to the vest while continuing off-record duties.
Teresa visits a board representative Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), the mole that first flirted with Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) poolside in "The Adversary". Charlotte keeps Escaton as a pleasure prisoner bound to the headboard of her suite bed. She derides Teresa for getting cozy in her intermediary role. Charlotte clearly embodies the dark side of corporate culture in her self-indulgent power mongering; her tenacious scenery chewing includes smoking cigarettes and smiling through each cynical threat. The showy acting is ironically a step down from the wooden animatronic posturing emitted by the many park hosts.
A Train Headed Nowhere or Somewhere?
On a training heading to the border, William (Jimmi Simpson) and Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) play cards while they attempt to learn each other's social tells. They enter "Ghost Nation" when suddenly heavy armor lowers over the windows. William and Dolores seek shelter in the back of the train cart, where William confesses his looming marriage upon returning home. This couple's adoring glances smolder with regret and urgency for the present moment, and they consummate their adventurous partnership with unbridled passion: a perfect moment in time.
Diametric tensions of fates moving somewhere versus moving nowhere play out in a character exchange between Maeve (Thandie Newton) and fellow brothel hostess Clementine (Angela Sarafyan). Their conversation triggers a reverie that awakens Maeve from her programming. Meanwhile, Clementine talks about her life goals and plans to move on -- pure programming banter -- only to freeze mid-sentence along with the rest of the bar. This time, Maeve maintains her consciousness but chooses to remains still, horrified as white hazmat suits infiltrate the saloon and apprehend Clementine.
Abrupt Endings, Coy Misdirection
Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and Bernard are brought before Charlotte as part of a kind of formal security inquiry. One tech officer beats Clementine bloody before the two are both ordered to freeze (the officer is thus shown to be a host as well). When the security force restarts the session with altered settings, this time Clementine beats the officer into a bloody unconscious mess. When she refuses her command orders, Officer Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) puts a bullet through her heart.
Clementine becomes rendered obsolete in a kangaroo court that's meant to call Ford and Bernard into question, but as Ford remains too powerful to discharge, Charlotte fires Bernard on the spot. Clementine's execution is meant to convey a serious shift; that is, Clementine is put down for good. It almost works in the dramatism of the standalone moment, but only a short time later, she's lobotomized for future service. Again, the violence of the show, even outside the confines of the park, feels impotent. Perhaps a metaphorical extension to this deadened device will surface. Otherwise, it becomes a lazy plot device.
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Across the park, the train stops abruptly due to debris on the railroad. The Confederados wait on horseback prepared to ambush. They unveil another Gatling gun (or is it the same one?) and shower the rail carts in bullets. Lawrence sends out a white flag on horseback, carried by the nitro-filled corpse. One bullet ignites an explosion large enough to get away. Of course, the getaway isn't without its scripted plot conventions: savage Indians en route to a mythic landscape of unheralded beauty. The site produces déjà vu for Dolores and William. They chose to stay and go it alone, heading "West, to unclaimed territories".
Maeve awakens in time to force Felix to walk her to Clementine. They arrive just in time to witness a cranial lobotomy. Maeve scowls at Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum) for his role in the lobotomy and all the twisted males in the human/host repair service industry. "At first I thought you and the others were gods. Then, I realized you're just men. And I know men. You think I'm scared of death? I've done it a million times… How many times have you died?" Maeve then threatens their life if they don't assist her improvisational plan of action.
Across the hall, Bernard explains the "connections between memory and improvisation" to Teresa. He traces his fan theory about Ford's early intent and Arnold's mysterious disappearance. He leads her down the elevator shaft to the old cabin in the woods from "The Adversary" (harbinger one). Then Bernard inadvertently leads her to a "Remote Diagnostic Facility" beneath the cottage (harbinger two), before Teresa discovers paper schematics for hosts including Dolores and … Bernard (harbinger three). These teasing moments arguably offer the biggest (or perhaps most intimate) reveal of the series. "They cannot see what will hurt them," Ford proclaims, as he steps out of the shadows. Ford not only reveals himself but also his own counter-insurgency strategy: Bernard.
Bernard struggles to gain self-awareness in this moment of cathartic crisis. Ford monologues an epic justification coated in figurative language and fanciful allegorical allusion; the malevolent mastermind marking his territory. Teresa listens, shocked to silence, the endgame of her parable well under way. "I have come to think of so much of consciousness as a burden, a weight. We have spared them that: anxiety, self-loathing, guilt. The hosts are the ones that are free. Free, here, under my control."
"Arnold and I designed every part of this place. Did you really think I would let you take it from me?"
And with that, Westworld finally delivers a bona fide literary death, tragic in scope, surprising its reveal, maliciously cold in execution. Ford callously looks away, unwilling to observe Teresa's blunt force execution at the hands of her confused host-lover Bernard.