Review: The ‘Westworld’ robots search for answers in ‘Dissonance Theory’

A review of tonight's Westworld coming up just as soon as I need one match, one pistol, and one idiot…

“This whole world is a story. I've read every page except the last one. I need to find out how it ends. I want to know what this all means.” -The Man in Black
The Man in Black dominates the action of “Dissonance Theory,” as he goes to great lengths – including staging a one-man prison break – to move forward on his quest for information about the park's hidden level. But while he gets to perform the most impressive derring-do, he's far from the only character this week searching desperately for answers within and without the park.

Both Maeve and Dolores continue to have memories that their programming should have erased, this time involving the presence of Delos employees. Dolores gets pointed towards the truth when Lawrence's daughter draws an image of the maze map in the dirt for her, while Maeve learns to her horror – in the show's scene most evocative of Memento to date – that she has been making the same drawing of a man in a hazmat suit over, and over again and hiding it under the floorboards of her room(*). By the episode's end, she's recruited Hector to help her out, including digging out a bullet fragment left behind in her abdomen from one of her previous deaths, which is the piece of physical evidence she needs to confirm her memories of the Delos offices and her theory that none of what she and the other hosts are going through is real. And among the staff, Bernard is still working hard to figure out what's making Dolores tick differently after all this time while Theresa tries confronting Ford about his secret new narrative, and instead bears witness to an impressive power move where he freezes and unfreezes a few dozen robots seemingly with his own thoughts, then calls in construction machinery to tear down the villa where Theresa once ate when she visited the park as a child.

(*) That she's been doing this undetected by Stubbs or anyone else on the staff suggests the employees don't have an omniscient view of what the hosts or guests are doing, which could give Maeve a lot of wiggle room to keep investigating now that she knows something is up.

This is all interesting, particularly if you enjoy viewing shows like this in the same way that the Man in Black views the park: as a puzzle to be solved (which we can attempt more of in this week's Fan Theory Corner!) more than a story to be experienced. But I tend to want more out of my dramas, and part of why I found earlier installments frustrating was that they rarely seemed to transcend the puzzle of it all.

As discussed previously, the only characters who feel fully-realized are the hosts, who at the start were too programmed and controlled to function the way you might want from the protagonists of a series. But by turning Maeve into someone actively questioning the nature of her own reality, and putting Dolores into a circumstance where she can't be brought back to the lab to have her memory wiped again, “Dissonance Theory” starts to evolve them to a point where they begin to feel like active participants in the drama, rather than passive, helpless victims of what the less interesting people are doing.

Just as importantly was the way there seemed to be an actual structure to the episode, rather than the Netflix-y “chapters of a book” approach, where we get a shapeless blob of continuous plot, taken by previous installments. The narrative's still on the sprawling side, but everything felt more linked than in the past, and there was a level of playfulness to a lot of what was happening – from Ford's pleasure at getting to play God in front of Theresa to the use of the score from Carmen when Hector's gang went on their latest massacre of Sweetwater – that both tied everything together and leavened what's been at times an insufferably grim show. Hell, I didn't even object to the Man in Black's usual smugly omnipotent badassery because it was presented with a lighter touch (and with victims the show hadn't asked the audience to invest in).

Still not in love, but this was easily the strongest of the four episodes HBO showed critics before the premiere, and it's always promising to see a young show improve as it goes along.

Some other thoughts:

* More Elsie, please. Shannon Woodward hasn't been given appreciably more to play than any of her co-stars in the Delos offices, but Elsie's straightforwardness makes her a refreshing counterpoint to all the wheels within wheels spinning around her. As she complains at one point: “It's like everyone around here has some fucking agenda except for me.”

* The Man in Black continues to get VIP treatment from Stubbs and company, here with them enabling his prison break scheme by turning his cigars into pyrotechnic effects to blow open cell doors and blow off the head of one of the guards.

* The Man also knows all about Arnold, and both he and Ford seem quite certain that Arnold is actually dead. I wouldn't put it past the show for them to be wrong, or lying, of course.

* Though Teddy isn't developing self-awareness the way Dolores and Maeve have begun to, he's smarter than he realizes when he asks the Man to put him out of his misery. Unbeknownst to him, that would give the staff a chance to repair him, wipe his memory of the torture Wyatt put him through, and send him back into Sweetwater with that smile on his face again. Instead, he's going to be roped into the Man's quest, which seems likely to put him in Wyatt's path again.


Evidence in favor of the idea that William is a younger version of the Man in Black and his scenes take place 30 years before the rest of the series:

* As Dolores travels through the wilderness with William and Logan, there doesn't seem to be a window for her latest conversation with Bernard.

* The Man in Black is identified by another guest as the famous head of a charitable foundation, which seems like the kind of thing William might aspire to be one day, and you can imagine William spending the decades learning to channel his worst impulses into his visits to the park while being a saint out in the real world.

* Logan keeps trying to frame the whole park to William as a game, which is how the Man in Black views it.

* Logan expresses a desire for their company to increase its stake in the park, while Ford complains to Theresa that he and Arnold shouldn't have sold out to the people of Delos, who never truly understood what they were buying.

Evidence against the idea:

* Dolores still has Rebus's gun, which means she crossed paths with William and Logan after escaping the massacre at the ranch, during which we saw her have a memory of the Man in Black.

* Stubbs, a character we know exists in the contemporary storyline, is told that Dolores is glitching and wandering far afield of her usual route, and he sends personnel to intercept her and bring her in for maintenance, after which we see a man try to take her away from the Mexican village, only to back off in the presence of William (a staff member not wanting to interfere with a guest's storyline?).

Ways to dispute various bits of evidence:

* The Bernard/Dolores conversations could be what's out of sync with the narrative, rather than the Dolores/William scenes.

* The Man in Black being a good guy in the real world proves little; it just fits the theory.

* Logan is far from the only guest to frame the park in gaming terms.

* We don't know that William and Logan are part of Delos; their company could, in fact, be minority owners looking to expand their interest.

* We appeared to see Dolores go through multiple iterations of the massacre, including one where she gets shot in the stomach and one where she doesn't.  So it's possible the memory flash came in the present, while the one she escaped was 30 years ago.

* Stubbs could be a robot himself? And/or this is more misdirection, and the security chief from 30 years ago also sent someone to intercept Dolores when she moved too far off her loop?

This week, the evidence seems weighted more against the theory than for it, but I look forward to a few hundred comments arguing strongly one way or the other.

(Also, one way the show could easily disprove the theory in the coming weeks: have William run into either Hector or Armistice, since the Man makes note that he has never met them before – him by choice, her by happenstance.)

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at