Review: ‘Westworld’ welcomes new guests and revisits old traumas in ‘Chestnut’

Senior Television Writer
10.09.16 92 Comments

HBO

A review of tonight's Westworld coming up just as soon as I have a little fear of clowns…

“When you find yourself in a bad dream, close your eyes, count backwards from three, wake yourself right up.” – Maeve

The Westworld pilot threw its audience into the deep end of the pool, starting us inside the park, and from the perspective of Dolores and the other hosts. And even as the story pulled out to introduce us to the staffers running the place, there wasn't a lot of narrative hand-holding. We were going to simply watch how the park ordinarily functions, within and without, before we started to see what it looks like when things start to go awry.

After that immersion experience, “Chestnut” pulls back slightly and gives us an audience point-of-entry character in William (Jimmi Simpson), a guest who's never been to the park before, and who needs everything explained to him by the staff and his buddy Logan (Ben Barnes), who knows the place well and revels in its many delights – the literal black hat to William's white hat(*). There's never a “John Carter's first day at County General” level of exposition, but we get to see more glimpses of the technology and architecture of the world outside the park, get to see how guests are greeted and outfitted before they arrive, and get that very disorienting moment when William steps through a door in the staging area and is somehow on the train leading into Westworld itself. The show has been vague about exactly where – and even what – the park is, and while a later scene where Dr. Ford rides his private elevator from his office up into the park makes clear that it is a physical space attached to the headquarters, something isn't quite right about all of this. We're not with William and Logan the whole time, but when you're introducing us to a strange world like this with a complicated set of rules, it can help to have a newbie around.

(*) William and Ben are, essentially, stand-ins for the Richard Benjamin and James Brolin characters from the movie.

And “Chestnut” contrasts William's arrival with subplots focusing on a pair of park veterans who have seen and done it all, even if only one of them fully remembers and understands what they've experienced.

The more interesting of the two subplots involves Maeve the madam beginning to recall past traumas, including a time when she wasn't a madam at all, but a frontierswoman with a home and daughter to protect until a group of Native Americans and the Man in Black came to massacre everyone around her. As Elsie explains to two of the newer technicians (again, newbies are valuable for clarity purposes), the memory wipes of the hosts aren't always perfect, so Ford and others programmed them with the idea of dreams, so that any memories that don't reconcile with their basic programming can be written off as nightmares. If the hosts were all functioning as designed, they would be trapped in a never-ending nightmare and not even realize it, but we're seeing Maeve and others starting to recall far more than they should, and in her case she even wakes up when she's brought in the lab to clean out the MRSA infection she received from one of the guests, and briefly gets a chance to wander around the lab and even get a look at the “dead” bodies of Teddy and other hosts waiting to be repaired and put back into service. In that moment, she is Neo being pulled out of the Matrix to see what the real world looks like, only she's destined to be mind-wiped again and reinserted. Before the infection is diagnosed, there's talk of having her decommissioned – even robots can outlive their usefulness (though we know that Maeve is a newer model than Dolores, because all the hosts are, even if she looks younger than most) – and perhaps she would have been better off that way.

The Man in Black crosses Maeve's path in her nightmares, but in the present, he's continuing his quest to figure out the hidden level of the park which here involves rescuing Lawrence the bandit from the hangman's noose to force him to play scout. The Man views this place as a game, but it's one that he gets to play in God Mode. Not only can none of the hosts do him any harm, but he has some kind of VIP status that prevents park officials from intervening when he does things like massacre Lawrence's wife, cousins, and friends, to force an answer out of his daughter about what the maze means. Though the show does some clever things with how it films the Man's badassery – say, focusing on Lawrence's blindfolded face as we hear gunshots and dropping bodies all around him – it's monotonous to watch him (and unpleasant), and seems like it would be monotonous for him to experience after 30 years of coming to this place, even if he's on a new mission at the moment.

For that matter, the show hasn't done a great job of articulating the appeal of what appears to be an incredibly expensive place to visit. Yes, you can have your way with the hosts in terms of sex and violence, and at one point we see one idiot tourist shoot Teddy and other people at the brothel in the head, just because he can, cheering, “Now that's a fucking vacation!” Maybe there are enough people who harbor power fantasies to this degree – and have the means to come here – or maybe Nolan and Joy are trying to argue that humanity is so fundamentally awful that we all fantasize about being able to kill or bed whomever we want without consequence, but so far, the place feels like it would appeal to a very select clientele, and not enough to keep it going for all the decades that the Man in Black has been coming by to smugly slaughter and rape whatever's in his path.

When Sizmore proposes a new storyline involving Native Americans and tons of blood and guts, Ford shuts him down and argues that their guests come for a deeper experience than that, and that the park offers them “a glimpse of who they could be.” For the most part, who everyone could be when they visit here is a sociopath. That William chooses the white hat, seems uninterested in sex with Clementine and horrified by Logan stabbing the prospector in the hand to shut him up, suggests that not every guest feels that way. Which is another useful service he may provide before the end: explaining why the outside world (whatever it really looks like) would be so interested in becoming part of the never-ending nightmare for Maeve, Dolores, and the other hosts.

Some other thoughts:

* Points to all of you who noted last week that I hadn't properly articulated the meaning of Dolores swatting the fly in the final scene of the pilot: it's not just that she notices it, but that she goes against her programming to harm a living creature. Asimov would not approve.

* While they bicker professionally, it turns out that Bernard and Theresa have a sex buddy relationship (a pretty familiar TV drama trope, going back at least to Furrillo and Davenport on Hill Street Blues). As he attempts to engage in some post-coital chat, they get into discussing how the hosts keep talking to each other even when guests aren't around, which he explains is part of how they learn to seem more human, which prompts her to ask if that's what Bernard is doing by always being so talkative. If this were Dollhouse, I would begin wondering if this was a clue that Bernard is really a robot who has been put to work behind-the-scenes. Who knows? Maybe that's where this is all going.

* It's unclear whether the boy Ford spends time with out in the desert is a guest or a host, but for at least part of their time together, I began wondering if the boy was meant to be Ford building a younger version of himself.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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