Unpacking ‘Westworld’: Dolores Abernathy And The Role Of The Flies

HBO’s Westworld premiered Sunday, and in five days, it’s become one of the most talked-about pilot episodes in a long while. Jonathan and Lisa Joy Nolan’s sci-fi drama has already amassed a large following, inspired a number of theories, and left many asking a lot of questions.

On its surface, Westworld is a compelling sci-fi drama with plenty of action, violence and intrigue. But there’s a lot percolating underneath. It’s a dense pilot episode that reveals more with each viewing. There are Easter eggs, Chekhov’s altered guns, and foreshadowing clues that won’t likely avail their true meaning for many more episodes. For the purposes of this post, and in the interest of keeping this a manageable length, we’re going to focus only on Dolores Abernathy, the flies and what they can tell us about both the episode and the future direction of the series.

The Nature of Dolores’ Reality

“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” is the question that Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) poses to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in the opening scene, and it’s that question that drives her narrative for the rest of the episode. “No,” she says, as a fly crawls across her eyeball. She doesn’t react to the fly the way a human would, because she’s a machine. She is not self aware and thus does not question her reality.

That, however, begins to change in subtle but perceptible ways over the course of the pilot episode.

There Is an Order to Our Days

Dolores re-enters Westworld and picks up her storyline. The first sequence of events sets the baseline for Dolores. She follows the same pattern day after day, but her story can change depending upon the way the guests interact with her world. There’s “repetition” in her life, but her “whole life can change with one chance encounter.” Westworld is “a place with unlimited possibilities.”

Those possibilities — like our own in the real world — can hinge upon the smallest of changes. One day, Teddy Flood (James Marsden) bumps into someone in the park and it sets him on a path to Dolores’ home, where he witnesses her father being shot by bandits. The next day, Teddy Flood bumps into that same man but loses his hat in the process and has to pick it up. That half-second changes the course of Dolores’ entire day. She doesn’t see Teddy. She instead sees the Man in Black (Ed Harris), and instead of going back home with Teddy, she spends the day painting. Her father lives. It’s a butterfly effect.

The Judas Steer

In her first encounter with Teddy, he asks Dolores why all the cattle travel together. “That’s the Judas steer. The rest will follow wherever you make him go,” Dolores tells him. That’s not a throwaway line. A Judas steer is specifically trained so that the herd will follow, usually into the slaughterhouse (hence the name Judas). The Nolans could be signaling the presence of a Judas steer within Westworld. Could it be Dolores, the oldest host in the park? If she began to question the nature of her reality, would everyone else follow suit?

Note, too, that when Ford updates the hosts, he gives them the ability to access their subconscious, which allowed them the “reveries” tied to specific memories. No one has more memories in the park than Dolores. Based on what we know from the Man in Black, he’s been interacting with Dolores for at least 30 years, 30 years in which she has seen her father gunned down by bandits on many a night. Access to three decades of traumatic subconscious memories will almost certainly do a number on Dolores. “Don’t you see? Hell is empty,” Dolores’ father tells her later in the episode. “All the devils are here.”

If watching your father die violently every night isn’t hell, then I don’t know what is.

Color Theory

A brief aside here because it’s important to understanding Dolores and the flies, but it’s also a cool aspect of the show. There’s a lot of black and white on the show, and the white seems to represent the hosts while the black seems to represent the newcomers/guests. The two colors are juxtaposed frequently throughout the episode, including the title sequence. The hosts, who drink a lot of milk, are also molded from white liquid.

Meanwhile, the guests come in on the “Black Rail.” There’s the “Man in Black.” And note the two songs played on the piano in this episode are “Paint It Black,” and “Black Hole Sun.” That’s likely not a coincidence.

This distinction will be important when we get to the flies.

You’re Not Real

“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” a kid ask Dolores on her second pass through her storyline in the episode. “You’re not real.” All credit goes to Evan Rachel Wood’s performance here, but when the kid asks that, Dolores gives him a perceptible look of recognition. She almost looks wounded by the suggestion, which she dismisses before making excuses to leave. It’s another sign that Dolores is waking up, that she is questioning her reality.

Would You Ever Hurt a Living Thing?

“Would you ever hurt a living thing?” Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) asks Dolores right after he asks if she would ever lie. Dolores answers “No,” to both questions, but when she re-enters Westworld and begins her day again, she does exactly that: She kills a fly. How do we know the fly is a “living thing”? We can assume, based on the fact that it is black and therefore falls on the “guest” side of the color theory. Or we can refer to Westworld terms of service on the the website.

(d) All livestock within the Delos parks are Hosts, with the notable exception of flies. All humanoid and animal Hosts within Delos parks work to keep guests safe, even when the narrative calls for them to appear to endanger guests.

Every other animal in the park is a host except “notably” the flies. They are living things, and at the end of the episode, Dolores kills a living thing. That’s not a “reverie,” because even movements tied to specific memories wouldn’t allow her to override her programming and kill a living thing. No, killing a fly could be the first step in the revolt of the hosts. Computer programming doesn’t make a distinction between living things. If Dolores can kill a fly, she can kill the Man in Black or any other hosts.

Perhaps Dolores is sentient. Perhaps she’s the Judas steer, and she’s going to lead her herd to slaughter.

Waking Up

There’s one more piece of evidence illustrating that Dolores is now sentient. She wakes up four times in the episode. Disappointingly, no one has spliced those moments together into a YouTube video yet, but viewers who go back and rewatch the episode will notice that there are small, subtle differences in the way she wakes up each time. The first time she opens her eyes, there’s no affect to it. By the time she opens them for the fourth time in the episode, she seems more aware. There’s almost a weariness in the way she opens her eyes, as though she was waking from an actual sleep. It’s one of the many small but fascinating details in the episode.