A review of tonight's Westworld coming up just as soon as I ride a train of explosives through scalping territory…
"The hosts are the ones who are free. Free, here, under my control." -Ford
A trompe l'oeil is an artistic illusion that makes a two-dimensional drawing appear to exist in three dimensions. The title would fit almost any episode of Westworld, where the human characters go back and forth on whether the hosts are in any way real, but particularly this one, where it's revealed that Bernard is a host who has been programmed to believe he's human, while occasionally doing nefarious things — like murdering Theresa — on Dr. Ford's behalf.
Any show with this subject matter is going to inspire speculation about whether some — or even all — of the "humans" are in fact also robots, and Bernard always seemed the most likely suspect. The show dropped various clues — last week, Elsie noted that Bernard had been working there "forever," while in "Chestnut," a discussion of why the hosts talk so much led Theresa to ask if that was why Bernard did the same, and one of the staffers in this episode used to provoke Clementine was himself revealed to be a host programmed to think himself human — and the only reasons I doubted the possibility at all was because it seemed too obvious, and because I recalled Joss Whedon's regrets about similar plot twists on Dollhouse, where he later acknowledged that if any character could be revealed to be a doll, then it prevented the viewer from ever fully investing in anyone.
As a result, Bernard's transformation in the basement of Ford's "family home" wasn't particularly shocking, and it also served to turn Anthony Hopkins back into a smug serial killer, using the hosts to eliminate anyone who runs against his agenda. (When Theresa asks if this is how Arnold dies, Ford gives her the non-answer of saying that Bernard wasn't around in those days.) But now that we've opened this particular puzzle box, it creates a lot of interesting possibilities going forward.
Jeffrey Wright seemed the most overqualified member of the cast, based on what he'd been given to date, but Bernard's dilemma is now more tragic in many ways than that of the other hosts we've met. Teddy's a doll who has fully bought into the fictions around him. Maeve is a doll who knows she's a doll and is learning to take advantage of her situation, while Dolores for now isn't fully self-aware, but knows enough to be breaking away from the narrative she's been trapped in. (When William raves that being in the park is like waking up inside a story, Dolores replies, "I don't want to be in a story.") Bernard, though? Bernard is not only a doll who doesn't know he's a doll, but a doll who knows about the existence of other dolls, and thinks he's better and freer than they are. Admittedly, he has control over the official hosts, but he can also in turn be made to dance on a string for Ford, and even murder a woman he thought he cared about. Hopefully, we'll get to see Bernard develop his own self-awareness over time, and see Wright get to play the dawning, horrific realization of exactly who and what he is.
In another way that Westworld is turning out to be a lot like Dollhouse, we learn here what's been obvious from the moment the series started: the premise of the show reflects a very silly application of the technology in question, and the people writing the checks have something far grander and more sinister in mind. If technology exists to make robots who are indistinguishable from humans and can be programmed to do any task or follow any orders, would the best use of that really be in a Wild West theme park where the super-wealthy can act out their deepest fantasies of sex and/or violence? As Charlotte explains to Theresa — while, ironically, taking a break from acting out some of her own fantasies with Hector — Delos views the park as a research project to properly develop the tech, and all of the recent maneuvers have been about seizing control of it from Ford, who has spent decades keeping it confined to the park and largely inside his own head. As with the truth of Bernard's identity, the show becomes more interesting now that we know some of what's really going on.
Still, the best material again involved the two female hosts, and particularly Maeve, who witnesses Sylvester lobotomizing Clementine and decides that's all the motivation she needs to mount a prison break of sorts. At first glance, she seems much less imposing than the Man in Black, whom we saw bust Hector out of a park jail earlier n the season, but we know by now how tough and smart Maeve is, and how easily she can turn her programmed personality to her advantage in this setting. I fear that Sylvester's right about this being a suicide mission, but I look forward to seeing her try.
The William/Dolores arc remains separated from the rest of the show for now, and this week functioned as a mix of traditional Western adventure — Lawrence using Slim's nitroglycerin-filled corpse to stage a getaway from the Confederados was, like Teddy's use of the Gatling gun last week, a Western movie gambit worthy of the genuine article — and more commentary on the nature of identity. William and Dolores each feel like they're figuring out their true selves on this adventure, but it may only be one of them who is. Dolores marvels, for instance, at seeing the river she painted in her dream turn out to be real, but we know that dreams are just the hosts' way of processing memory, and as we saw last week when Felix and Sylvester diagrammed Maeve's sentences for her, it's possible that even Dolores' current burst of independence is just part of her code being used unusually. But we also know that she's been talking to someone (Arnold?), and they appear to be nearing the edge of the park: a place from which, according to Lawrence, no one has ever returned. It might be interesting to see both Maeve and Dolores getting close to an exit, in very different ways, as we head towards the finish line of this season.
(Speaking of which, I don't know yet if HBO will give critics advance screeners of the remaining episodes. If not, coverage of them may be pushed to Monday mornings.)
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org