Review: How ‘Westworld’ may be acting too clever for its own good

10.30.16 1 month ago 169 Comments

HBO

A review of tonight's Westworld coming up just as soon as my humanity is cost-effective…

“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.” -Dolores

For the last few reviews, I've segregated out discussion of a particular fan theory so that it came at the very end of the review, the better to spare anyone who hadn't yet heard it and would rather not know in the event it turned out to be correct. This week, I can't do that – not just because “Contrapasso” offered by far the biggest support yet that some version of the theory is right, but because it's impossible for me to discuss my concerns about the episode, and the series to date, outside the context of the theory. If you've managed to avoid it thus far and don't want to know, click away now, and perhaps next week's discussion will be safer for you.

All clear? Good. Let's go down the rabbit hole together, and hope we can find our way out later.

So, just to refresh: the theory is that William and Logan's scenes take place 30 years in the past, and that William will age into becoming the Man in Black. Previous episodes have offered some evidence in support of the theory, some evidence against it (primarily that Dolores runs into William in the desert right after what appears to be an incident where she flashes on a memory of the Man in Black raping her), and the ambiguity of the robots' time-looped behavior to complicate matters.

After “Contrapasso,” I feel more confident than ever that this is what's happening.

And I'm less happy about it than ever.

Let's start with the new evidence. As William and Logan enter the bandit town of Pariah, Logan talks about Arnold's death and the park's financial woes as if they are very recent occurrences, and suggests their company could keep the place afloat if they up their investment; later, the Man in Black tells Ford that Arnold's death almost brought the park down with him – “Almost, but not quite, thanks to me.” And when William and Logan finally get to meet Slim's infamous boss, it's none other than Lawrence, who admittedly is available to be placed back into circulation now that the Man has killed him to use his blood to revive Teddy, but who appears to be part of a very different storyline from the one where we met him, in the same way that Maeve was once a mom on the frontier, and other hosts have had their roles switched. It's not impossible that this is all happening in the same timeline – the prison guards from last week's episode, after all, know of Lawrence as a dangerous criminal in need of immediate execution – but it's increasingly hard not to see this as the plan.

Which, after an episode like “Contrapasso,” is pretty frustrating.

It's not just that this kind of twist-driven storytelling no longer works in the Reddit age, with the exception of shows that release their entire seasons at once. Fans have become too conditioned to anticipate twists, and too skilled at finding places (including the comment sections of these reviews) to crowdsource their theories, and as a result we wind up getting way ahead of the shows. Sometimes, the creators (like Sam Esmail with Mr. Robot) claim that they want their viewers to figure things out before it's revealed on-camera, while at others (the Edward James Olmos season of Dexter, the whole dumpster mess on The Walking Dead), they are caught completely flat-footed, watching helplessly as the surprise they built their whole season around is figured out weeks or months ahead of time. A streaming show, or a movie – like several of the ones that Jonathan Nolan has had a hand in writing – can get away with some narrative sleight of hand because they have a captive audience, and/or because viewers are consuming the story too quickly to stop and discuss whether Character A is a figment of Character B's imagination, or a younger version of Character C, or a shape-shifting alien from Planet D. So traditionally-scheduled shows that try to do this game will inevitably suffer as the audience solves the puzzle after they've only seen a few pieces.

But even if you think that Nolan and Lisa Joy expected their viewers to figure it out and have structured the narrative accordingly, it's still aggravating, because it puts the puzzle ahead of the characters. Suddenly, William isn't so much a person we are watching be changed by his time in the park, but someone on a fated path to becoming this smug, two-dimensional killing machine in the present.

And Dolores, who is the show's most sympathetic and interesting character, goes through a huge burst of character growth this week as she learns how to change the role she's playing without benefit of rewrite from Dr. Ford or anyone else back at headquarters. Ordinarily, this would be a thrilling development, since until now she had been trapped in the same sadistic loop, largely oblivious to her own victimization. The idea that she could go from damsel to gunslinger, and also that she is secretly working for someone else – perhaps a bit of code left in her by the late Arnold? or whomever planted the transmitter inside the woodcutter? – should be exciting. But if her swap of wardrobe and identity is happening decades in the past, then that means that we're not watching her go on a journey where she genuinely, irrevocably grows and becomes stronger, but one that will eventually be halted and reversed until she's back to being the doomed girl in the blue dress. There's a tragedy to that, obviously – as with so many parts of the series, reflective of Memento and the way that Leonard's condition made it impossible for him to truly learn or change – but one that, as with twist-based storytelling itself, becomes harder to take from many hours spread out over many weeks, as opposed to watching a film in one sitting, where it's especially cruel on a show that already has more than its fair share of that emotion.

It's entirely possible that Nolan and Joy are aware of how all dramas get the Reddit treatment these days, and that this is all a double-switch, where all the action will turn out to be contemporaneous and put William and the Man in Black into the same scene together. But that would be them cutting off their nose to spite their face, narratively, because it would train the viewer to trust the show even less than they already do, and it would undermine a perfectly good Dolores arc just for the sake of proving that point. And the clues have become so blatant by now that it doesn't seem possible that we are all just reading in something that's not actually there. Like Maeve after she finds all the drawings under the floorboard, I can't look at the show any other way at this point, and I wish that wasn't the case.

Puzzles can be fun to solve, even in the context of a serialized TV drama like this. But they can also become more trouble than they're worth, and if we're all correct about what's happening here, than I feel like Westworld is reaching that point.

Some other thoughts:

* Because the Maeve story is explicitly contemporary, it's at least satisfying to see her sitting up on the lab table, playing with the robot bird and casually greeting one of her caretakers. Someone's on the verge of getting some answers, it would seem, from a Delos employee who's too terrified of his standing within the company – where the staff are stuck in roles as rigidly-defined as what the hosts have to do – to alert the proper authorities that one of the machines has gained sentience.

* Like a lot of aspects of the show, the orgy scene in Pariah is the kind of thing that probably would have felt shocking 5 or 10 years ago, but now just seems numbing in the wake of shows like Game of Thrones and all the debauchery on display over on Starz.

* That Logan appears to be on the verge of being killed without benefit of gunfire brings us back to the question of what safeguards the park has built in for its visitors. We know bullets can't harm the guests, but if William hadn't stepped in to save the day during the wagon robbery (one of the series' best-looking sequences to date), would that soldier have choked William to death? Do blunter or sharper instruments of violence have any safeguards built in? Or is the idea that guests sign an elaborate liability waiver, with the understanding that the further out from Sweetwater they venture, the more personal risk they're assuming? Logan seems to smile slightly as William declines to save him, suggesting he's proud of the brother-in-law whose lack of aggressiveness he mocked only a few scenes earlier, but it could also be because he knows he's ultimately not in any danger.

* That Dolores sees another version of herself marching in the Day of the Dead-style revels in Pariah is most likely a hallucination, much like her trip to see the fortune teller later in the episode. But some viewers have also speculated on whether there are multiple copies of certain hosts – particularly an old and very popular one like Dolores – wandering through the park.

* Ford is playing Debussy's “Clair de Lune” on the player piano at the bar where he goes to talk with the Man in Black and Teddy – once again turning an automated, self-sufficient machine into something he can control and direct for a few minutes. As soon as he's gone, the piano goes back to a more Western-appropriate canned tune.

* A couple of episodes back, Elsie and Stubbs joked about the Delos employee discount for going into the park. Here, we find out that some employees don't even want to pay that much to take advantage of the robots, as Elsie blackmails one of the techs with footage of him abusing one of the “dead” hosts while it's in for repair.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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