Review: In ‘The Stray,’ ‘Westworld’ asks how much the robots really remember

Senior Television Writer
10.16.16 116 Comments

HBO

A review of tonight's Westworld coming up just as soon as I use my employee discount…

“There aren't two versions of me. There's only one. And I think when I discover who I am, I'll be free.” -Dolores

Memory has been a very public fascination of Jonathan Nolan's going back to the short story that inspired Memento, so it's not surprising that the question of what the hosts remember – and what the Delos staff would like to forget – has been such a key part of Westworld. As Dr. Ford explains to Bernard, he and the park's co-founder, the mysterious Arnold, understood that the robots were there only to serve the guests, but that they could do them a kindness of keeping the hosts from remembering all the terrible things they experienced in the course of their duties. The problem is, that kindness is starting to fail, and the robots' recall is in many ways more horrific than if they simply understood what they were the entire time and were programmed to not care.

Elsie, for instance, realizes that all six of the robots that Walter killed during his malfunctioning rampage in the pilot had killed him in previous storylines, and wonders if he wasn't subconsciously seeking revenge. While running into Teddy at the brothel, Maeve recalls seeing his lifeless body in the lab when she was briefly awake during last week's episode, and Dolores keeps having PTSD flashbacks to what the Man in Black did to her in the pilot. None of this is meant to be happening, and all of it should be of grave concern to the staff, even if they're mostly letting it go because they believe the robots to be incapable of harming a guest.

At the same time, a good chunk of the episode is devoted to giving Teddy memories of things he never experienced, as Ford decides it's long past time to explain why redemption is required before Teddy can marry Dolores. (Never mind that, as Ford admits to Teddy in the lab, this marriage can never happen, because Teddy's primary function is to be killed by guests looking to prove their toughness against a stalwart gunslinger.) The new backstory involving the dangerous and borderline-mystical Wyatt feels like the kind of grand guignol violence that Ford would dismiss out of hand if Sizemore were to pitch it, but it at least adds more specificity to Teddy's usual excuses, even as his continued use of “someday” starts to bother Dolores on a level deep down far enough where she can realize he's been saying it to her forever.

Elsie tries explaining to Stubbs that the programmed backstories help anchor the hosts, but they can also cause trouble, particularly when the glitch of one host – like the star-watching woodcutter – prevents a group of others from working.

Are the glitches the result of Ford's constant tinkering? Is there somehow some code left over from his late partner Arnold, who was somehow on the phantom receiving end of a conversation with Rebus? Could Arnold be less dead than everyone assumes, or living on in some way through the hosts? Ford at least opens up a bit about the park's very real backstory, but it's clear he knows more than he's willing to tell even Bernard, while Bernard in turn is keeping his own agenda with Dolores a secret from Ford and everyone else. Bernard could easily wipe her programming and start her over from scratch without the recent memories, but he's too curious about what's going on with her, and the way she seems to be transcending her programming even when she's in an environment like the lab, where he theoretically has complete control of her. When we see Bernard in conversation with his ex-wife, she asks if he ever wishes he could forget about their dead son, suggesting there are some advantages to being a Westworld robot. But Bernard doesn't want to forget, and doesn't want to let Dr. Ford's oldest creation forget just yet, either, and that seems destined to cause many more complications as our story continues.

Some other thoughts:

* “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” is one of the most famous lines of dialogue from any Western ever filmed: John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (Here it is in context from the end of that movie.)

* During last week's discussion of the park's appeal, I didn't even really get into the idea that the fantasies contained within are stereotypically male ones. (The one female visitor of note we met in the pilot was traveling with her husband and seemed to be indulging him rather than excited to be there in her own right.) Here, though, we see Teddy partnering up with a female guest who not only enjoys shooting at bandits, but getting some time alone with Clementine at the brothel.

* Speaking of women comfortably carrying guns in Old West/sci-fi mash-up settings, that's Firefly alum (and more recent Suits co-star) Gina Torres as Bernard's ex-wife.

* Nice to see Sir Anthony Hopkins get the same digital de-aging treatment that Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. have received in recent Marvel films, as he got to resemble himself circa 84 Charing Cross Road or so in the flashbacks to the founding of the park.

FAN THEORY CORNER

Finally, I'm going to try something that worked pretty well with Mr. Robot this season, which is to put a separate section here at the bottom for dealing with a particular fan theory until it's either confirmed or disproven by the show, as a way to allow some discussion of it while also shielding anyone who hasn't thought of it and would rather be surprised if it turns out to be the case. (This stuff is fair game in the comments, though, so read at your own peril.)

So, the theory: William and Logan's scenes take place 30 years before everything else we're watching, and William will eventually age into being the Man in Black.

There is some evidence to support this, including the train station looking a bit spiffier when he and Logan arrive than when we saw Teddy and the guests pull into town in the pilot; ditto the slight changes to the Sweetwater script and cast of characters when each group arrives. And when William gets shot at early in this episode, it's with a non-lethal bit of ammunition with enough force to knock him down, whereas the Man in Black isn't hurt at all when Teddy shoots at him in the pilot.

But this episode seems to blow a huge hole through the middle of that theory, as William's path appears to cross that of Dolores while she's in the midst of a story that we know to be part of the action that's contemporaneous with the Man in Black. He runs into her right after she has escaped the latest assault on the family farm, which should be set in the show's present because she uses the gun she found buried in the dirt outside the house to defend herself against Rebus during this particular attack, and she has multiple memories of the Man in Black while handling the gun at different points in the episode. The inherent Groundhog Day of the show's plot – and the fact that we see Dolores go through several iterations of Rebus's assault – means we can't take anything 100% for granted, but there's a line between clever misdirection and outright screwing with your audience to conceal a twist, and if William is meant to be the young Man, the show is already getting really close to that line.

UPDATE: As several pointed out (and as was difficult to make out on HBO's screener), the gun Dolores uses on Rebus isn't the one she found buried in the dirt, but the one she took off of his holster. But the fact that she has another Man in Black memory in the midst of the encounter means the larger point still stands.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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