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'Westworld' recap: 'The Adversary'

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John P. Johnson/HBO

Westworld

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
seasons:
1
run date:
09/25/16
Producer:
Jonathan Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
broadcaster:
HBO
genre:
Sci-fi

Your Westworld recapper is currently traveling so this week’s post is going to be a bit briefer than usual, but there are several points I feel particularly strongly about. So let’s dive right into the sixth episode, beginning with Maeve, who’s deeply bored with her Old Time theme park life and wants to return to Westworld’s sleek sci-fi backstage area to gather more clues about the nature of her existence.

Maeve marches a guest upstairs and taunts him into choke-y death-sex. I’m not sure if we were supposed to find this scene arousing or repulsive or both. And what does Maeve have against beds, anyway? She’s all about sitting on safes and dressers during death-sex.

Maeve then wakes in the backstage body shop where Lutz not-so-gently explains she’s a robot and they are real. “How do you know?” Maeve asks, which is a darn good question. There’s a theory that everybody on this show is secretly a host, though I personally don’t believe that (mainly because it would make the story less interesting but also because the body shop dorks wouldn’t be secretly prostituting the hosts and telling Maeve all this if they were under Ford’s control).

RELATED: Westworld: Before They Were Stars

Maeve takes some convincing in the form of a niftily designed language tree display that shows her exactly what she’s going to say while she’s saying it. Seeing this prompts a Maeve software crash. The body shop guys hit control-alt-delete to reboot her. Did anybody else want to hear the Mac chime as Maeve came back online?

Next, Maeve demands to see the upstairs level and we get one of the standout moments in the series. You remember how in the first Westworld episode we saw that sequence showing various departments engineering the hosts? This is like a reprise of that sequence, only instead it’s from the perspective of a host, which changes everything about it. The music is an orchestral version of Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” and it’s spot-on perfect (Westworld keeps proving to me that Radiohead without Thom Yorke’s divisive vocals is so much greater than regular Radiohead).

Maeve sees hosts kissing, drawing guns over a game of cards, a host being brought to life, dead hosts being hosed down, and a bison being led around. In these brief moments, she’s basically seeing the range of her not-so-human existence — birth, nature, fighting, love, and death. Then she notices a video wall that’s showing promotional footage for the park. She sees herself on the screen, including her dreams that she learns were her past builds. It’s like Maeve is watching a trailer for her own life, one where she’s a perpetual victim, the unknowing captive, and the star. The tagline for the ad is “Live Without Limits,” when her life is nothing but living within limits.

RELATED: Westworld: Meet the Characters

I could go on and on about this wonderful sequence. It’s beautifully done thanks to Thandie Newton’s expressions, the music, the imagery, and editing. You may or may not think of Westworld as a perfect show. But a scene like this is transcendent in a way that 99 percent of TV is not. I suspect anybody who isn’t moved by this is most definitely a host — or at least has some missing circuits.

NEXT: Does Westworld really lack characters to root for?[pagebreak]

Once back in the body shop, Lutz is now joined by the lunkheaded Sylvester. Maeve wants to make some changes to her 20-point Attribute Matrix on the control pad. Suddenly, we envy her a little. Who wouldn’t want to notch up their charm and “bulk apperception” while reducing traits like paranoia? It’s like playing with the Tony Robbins of tablet apps.

Maeve convinces the guys to increase her intelligence, and she looks like just popped the Limitless drug. They note somebody has already changed some of her levels, which I assume is more tinkering by Arnold (or whoever is secretly changing the host’s parameters in Arnold’s name). Still, at this point I’m wondering why the body shop guys don’t ramp down her levels, basically zombify her, and then stage some sort of lobotomizing “accident” to get themselves out of this mess. The level of control the humans have over the hosts is so absolute it’s tough to buy that Maeve could bully them like this. Perhaps it would play more convincing if Maeve were seducing one lonely tech instead of pulling a scalpel and blackmailing two?

Out in the park, the Man in Black is on a road trip to Pariah with Teddy and we get some more hints about the maze: “The maze is an old Native myth. The Maze itself is the sum of a man’s life, the choices he makes, the dreams he hangs onto. And there at the center there’s a legendary man, who’s been killed over and over again … and always clawed his way back to life … he returned for the last time, vanquished all his enemies. He built a house, and around that house he built a maze so complicated that only he could see his way thorough it. I reckon he’d seen enough fighting.”

Okay, so there’s some obvious metaphors here — a man who dies over and over again, like a host, and craves an escape from violence. Once again this suggests the maze is a way for a host to break their loop of violence-death-rebirth. But the myth still doesn’t shed any new light on what exactly the maze is in the world of our show — so you’re not missing something here … unless I’m also missing something here (which is entirely possible).

The MiB and Teddy get some game-play obstacles thrown at them and get captured by soldiers who believe Teddy is in cahoots with the evil Wyatt. Suddenly, Teddy has a break-through memory: He was in cahoots with the evil Wyatt. Oh. So he goes from a noble hero to grabbing a Gatling gun and mowing down Union soldiers by the dozen. “You think you know someone,” the MiB marvels.

At first, this twist was disappointing. There are enough morally ambiguous characters on this show, and I happen to like Teddy. Then I remembered: The Wyatt twist is also part of Dr. Ford’s new backstory (or perhaps it was an add-on by Arnold?). In other words: Teddy isn’t bad; he’s just drawn that way. And this makes you realize that we really don’t know any of the hosts. All are programmed, none are fixed, each host’s Attribute Matrix is just one finger swipe away from giving them a major personality change.

Some viewers have struggled with Westworld because they’re having trouble finding characters to root for. I would say Bernard, Stubbs, and Elsie — who we’ll get to shortly — are sympathetic, though we still don’t know all that much about them. Some of the hosts like Dolores and Maeve have moments where we feel deeply for them, too. But there remains some emotional distance with the hosts. We’re not entirely trusting them with our hearts because we don’t have a sense of who they really are. The showrunners hint in this week’s interview that this will change — the hosts’ discovering their true selves is something that’s going to be a big part of the show in the weeks and second season to come.

And… AND… if you want to go deep about this, in many ways human personalities are less fixed than we like to admit, too. Anybody who has taken antidepressants, or more illicit mind-altering drugs, knows all too well that our “wetware” is hugely and rather scarily tweak-able. If you were a host observing humans for the first time (instead of the other way around) and you watched a friendly business executive going about his daily life then he went on a weekend drinking bender and turned obnoxious, callous, and violent, you might think — just like we did with Teddy — “This man’s personality has radically changed. I thought I knew him, but I was wrong.” For the hosts, these changes are made with coding since they’re machines; for humans, it’s chemical because we’re organic. But if we want to increase our bulk apperception, we could take Modafinil. If we wanted to boost confidence (at least temporarily), we could use alcohol or cocaine. SSRIs swipe up our levels of well-being. And on and on it goes. And who knows what neuropharmacological wonders are around the corner?

This is a reason I’m loving Westworld. We think this show is about AI. And it is, to some degree. But what’s surprising is how the plight of the hosts can give us a fresh perspective on what it means to be human. We observe these hosts’ extreme and dramatic circumstances, and we feel they’re so different from us. And then there’s these moments when we realize the hosts’ circumstances are actually not so different at all. Like how a couple weeks ago, when I was ruminating about loops. We all have Dolores-like behavioral loops that we’re stuck in, and like the hosts we’re largely blind to noticing our loops. We don’t see our routines because we’re in our routines, and we don’t much question them. But if we wrote down every single thing we did for a few weeks, even a fairly simple computer could predict rather accurately our next moves. We like to think we have freedom, and that we’re making all these decisions, but most of the time we’re following our own internal programming that we did not consciously write ourselves.

Okay, now let’s reel this recap back to actual recapping because I really want to get to the scene where that creepy boy’s face splits open.

NEXT: Modern family; a big Easter Egg[pagebreak]

Elsie has figured out the stray host that bashed his own head in with a rock was trying to secretly transmit valuable data out of the park. That’s why he was climbing a mountain —he was trying to get high enough to transmit. Elsie tells Bernard her discovery, which gives the show an excuse to go back down to the primordial level of Westworld.

This show is a lot about the mind — host and human — and even the facility is organized in a mind-like way. Executive decisions are made by the staff in the frontal lobe, high up on the top-most floors, while the body shop “life support” maintenance team works further down a few levels, and then there’s way down to Level 83, where the ancestral memory of defunct hosts are stored. Down here it’s so primal that even the lights and plumbing don’t work properly.

Bernard searches with his triple-beam flashlight, a prop I like as it’s a rare 1970s-style sci-fi touch for this show (What’s even more future than a flashlight? Triple flashlight!). Speaking of which: At one point, if you look closely, Bernard illuminates The Gunslinger against the back wall — yup, Yul Brynner’s robo-terminator character from the 1973 Westworld feature film. It’s a nifty Easter egg (and one that the showrunners suggest you don’t take too seriously).

Bernard gets on a computer system so old the keyboard is out of the 1990s. He discovers there are five unregistered hosts living in the park. So he goes to check out a cabin in Sector 17. There’s a family living here. “Are you Arnold?” Bernard asks the patriarch, and we thank him because that’s what we were wondering, too. The father doesn’t respond to voice commands and attacks Bernard, who’s then rescued by Ford.

Ford explains these are host versions of his own family. The boy we’ve met a few times before is young Robert Ford (you guessed that by now right?). They’re all first generation hosts built for Ford by the supposedly deceased park co-founder, Arnold. Ford demonstrates this by giving the boy a voice command to break his face apart and I yelped on my couch. These bots are full of metal parts, unlike the more organic hosts of “today” (whenever that is).

Bernard is concerned about having undocumented hosts running around — why, they’ll probably just vote for Democrats in the election! Ford tries to reassure him. “They’re quite harmless, like all the hosts,” Ford says of a robot that just a moment earlier attacked Bernard unprovoked and couldn’t be stopped.

Ford also drops the following line, saying that Arnold always used to say “a great artist always hid themselves in their work.” This one gets my vote as the Biggest Hint of the Week. 

So pretty much everything we learn about Ford just makes him creepier. The idea of him hanging out in this off-grid cabin with his robot ghost-family doing lord knows what is pure shudder. 

And speaking of the hosts being harmless, Ford later discovers his Mini Me killed his beloved greyhound. Why? The voice of Arnold told him to do it. This should bother Ford more than it does. 

All of which leads us to young sleuth Elsie Hughes and The Mystery of the Stray Signal. Elsie has figured out where the signal is coming from that made the stray try to smuggle data out of the park. She’s tracked it down to a creepy abandoned theater. Naturally she breaks every horror movie rule and goes by herself into a place we all know is not going to end well for her. 

There she makes some big discoveries: 1. The data is being sent to a Delos satellite. 2. The person doing this is Theresa Cullen. 3. The system is sending messages to original generation hosts’ “bicameral” system — the one designed by Arnold. 4. In addition to the corporate data smuggling, something else nefarious is going on too — “Arnold” is using the system to tweak the settings of the hosts, making it so they might even be able to hurt humans. As Elsie points out in her unique way, Arnold is “a pretty f—ing prolific coder for a dead guy.”

So there are a couple things going on: Cullen is smuggling valuable product data out of the park to the company’s own satellite, presumably to keep Ford from holding all the cards in their upcoming showdown. And Arnold — or somebody pretending to be Arnold — is also using the system to make the hosts do things they’re definitely not supposed to, and is in particular taking aim at Ford (given that Arnold told his younger self to kill their dog). 

And naturally, after she relays this to Bernard, somebody grabs her. Elsie’s fate is unknown. The TV rule is if you don’t see somebody die they’re not really dead (and sometimes even not then), so I’m assuming that while she may be in trouble, she’s still alive somewhere.

Bernard gets this news while talking to Cullen, who earlier in the episode broke up with him in the chilliest way possible: “This can’t go on; it’s over; we’re over,” Cullen told Bernard in the park’s Death Star conference room. “So if there’s nothing else, we’re done.” Jeez lady, dead hosts have way more warmth than you do. 

Oh, and briefly: We also got the return of everybody’s favorite tortured writer, Lee Sizemore, who declares himself “creatively flaccid” and unknowingly hits on the visiting executive director for the Delos board, Charlotte, and then urinates all over their giant interactive arena map — something that even Seneca Crane would have never dreamed of doing. Lee is basically jumping up and down and raising his hand volunteering to be the first human killed by a vengeful robot on this show. This revelation also means that both myself and Jeff Jensen were totally wrong in our guesses for who might be the board’s visiting representative, neither of us thought to pick “character we haven’t met yet.” 

And that’s what I have for you this week. Except a few things. First, we have our weekly interview with showrunners Nolan and Joy, where they give some great insight per usual about some key scenes. Second, I have our weekly “Westworld: Analysis Mode” radio show with Jensen, which will be embedded below at some point in the near future and airs on EW Radio’s Sirius XM channel on Monday. And finally, next week’s seventh episode is — without giving anything away — One That People Will Be Talking About, and I can’t wait to get into it (so Walking Dead fans might want to put on Westworld first this time).

Episode grade: A-

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