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'Westworld' recap: 'The Stray'

Posted on

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

Westworld’s hosts edged closer toward rebellion in episode 3, “The Stray,” which this week sidelined the Man in Black (and largely Maeve as well) to focus on Dolores’ evolution, William and Logan’s splintering bromance, and plenty of hinty-hint intrigue among the backstage team.

Once again we start with Dolores and Bernard during one of their top-secret chats. Dolores is clothed, something we’ll later learn is considered a major rule violation by Dr. Ford when the hosts are backstage. Bernard hands her a copy of Alice in Wonderland, a title that at first seems like just a metaphor for her own journey down the rabbit hole of consciousness. Then I realized: Long blonde hair, bit of curls, that baby blue peasant dress — her whole look is nearly identical to the traditional Alice costume. (See?).

It seems that Bernard, who lost his son, is spending time with Dolores as a kind of therapy. Dolores is a like surrogate daughter, and he’s reluctant to halt her development — like the way his son’s development was halted in death. But when she asks him directly about his son, he sharply queries her: Why did you ask about my son? Dolores slides into Analysis Mode, and actress’ Evan Rachel Wood slightly crosses her eyes. Dolores gives a logical explanation for asking. At first I wondered if Bernard was suspicious that Dolores might be manipulating him. But the Westworld showrunners explain in our interview this week that Bernard is looking for signs that Dolores is showing true improvisation and curiosity beyond her programming.

Out on the streets of Sweetwater, we get some quick updates:

— Dolores takes her daily trip to the Generic Can Emporium and gets harassed by some bandits. The girl needs to buy in bulk and come to town less. She meets up with Teddy and they start doing their usual loop. But this time as Teddy does his usual speech about how someday they’ll run off together, Dolores does a pattern interrupt: Why tomorrow? Why not today? Why not now? But Teddy, who hasn’t heard that cryptic world-shattering “violent delights” phrase that Dolores whispered to Maeve, is stuck in his rut, talking about how he’s still got some vague “reckoning to do.”  

— We meet a new park guest, the vest-wearing Marti, who gets my vote for coolest guest in the park. I feel like Marti took a break from some corporate job and doing Crossfit to bed saloon girls and chase bandits, only without Logan’s sadism or William’s moral hand-wringing. Marti should meet up with tech programmer Elsie and they could do shots and chat about … whatever women in the late 21st century chat about besides theme park robots (so far, Westworld is better at passing the Turing Test than the Bechdel Test). 

— White hat guest William gets a chance to be a hero during a street fight, though gets a shot down in the process (we told you those paintball-like pellets that hosts fire at humans can hurt). He rescues comely saloon girl Clementine, but then rejects her advances yet again even though he’s now “earned” her affection. (The saloon player piano’s song this week, if you’re trying to figure it out, is not a 20th century pop song, but rather period-appropriate Scott Joplin).

William’s traveling companion Logan — a.k.a. every negative male trait jammed into one character — is impressed by his friend getting at least some kind of action. Logan naturally wants to head to the brothel to “put more memories in the spank bank” (it’s reassuring to know that many decades into the distant future that the slang term “spank bank” will be the millennial language contribution that will have survived). But William has a different idea. Now that he’s gotten a taste of heroism he wants to hit the trail on a bounty hunter adventure.

The prospect of being stuck out in the desert with a bunch of non-hookers completely frustrates Logan — it’s like he took a friend to Disneyland and he’s ignoring all the fun roller coasters and just wants to ride “It’s a Small World” over and over (or perhaps, the “Alice in Wonderland” ride, ahem).

NEXT: Teddy gets triggered [pagebreak]

Backstage, we learn that the Board of Directors are due to visit the park and Ford has carved out a huge section for his mysterious new narrative. Tech programmer Elsie is watching footage from a saloon scene in the first episode and realizes that the glitching bandit who massacred hosts was talking to somebody unseen named “Arnold.” She wonders who Arnold is — why, it’s like she’s recapping the season premiere for us! (We suspect Elise would make an excellent TV recapper because she’s observant and sarcastic, which are the primary job qualifications.) Elsie also reveals that the hosts the bandit bot killed had in turn killed him in previous story lines — so he was getting revenge. Hosts remembering stuff and extracting vengeance really seems like it should worry the tech team more than it does. 

Speaking of glitching bots, there’s also a host that’s gone wandering, “the stray.” Elsie teams with sensible Stubbs to go retrieve him. As I’ve noted before, I like Stubbs because he’s probably the least smart-seeming of the backstage characters yet the only one bright enough to realize the most important thing: What kind of story he’s in (that is, a tale where robots rise up and rebel against their human masters). He’s determined not to be taken off guard by this inevitable plot twist and gets off a great line: “The only thing stopping the hosts from hacking us to pieces is one line of your code.” Stubbs is like the Robert Muldoon “clever girl” safari hunter character in Jurassic Park who wanted the raptors to be destroyed.    

Elsewhere backstage, we see a host’s eye being made, which looks cool and expensive. Fun fact: Most of the shots of pieces of the hosts being 3-D printed are made using practical special effects (done for real, in other words) then just enhanced with CGI. There’s a lot of eye stuff in this show, which feels familiar — we imagine that note coming from the show’s executive producer J.J. Abrams: “More eye close-ups thx.”

Ford is hanging out with Teddy and tosses off a Shakespeare quote. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the “violent delights” phrase that’s activating the hosts is Shakespeare and that Ford is a Shakespeare fan as well? Ford reveals that all these years Teddy has had a vague formless guilt that’s kept him from running off with Dolores. When Ford explains all this to Teddy, the host doesn’t react. When you say reality-bursting things to the hosts, they’re programmed to just ignore it — like when Dolores saw the photo held by her father (“it doesn’t mean anything to me”) or when Trump supporters hear their candidate make disqualifying statements, they just blank out and keep their beliefs intact.

Ford explains to Teddy the park’s writers were just too lazy to write a backstory for him. It’s another meta-nod to mocking traditional entertainment — it’s like when the writers of Grey’s Anatomy reveal something startling about a character’s background in season 12 they just now came up with to keep things interesting. Teddy is given a nemesis, this Wyatt character, a former solider who lost his mind and formed some Colonel Kurtz-meets-ISIS desert death cult. This is also a clue to Ford’s new narrative, we’re told.

Teddy’s backstory is triggered the next time Dolores and Teddy are hanging out. He’s trying to teach her how to use a gun. She tries to pull the trigger but says she can’t. Teddy thinks that means she’s just too delicate to use a big bad weapon, but she means it quite literally — she’s programmed to play a damsel in distress, she’s not authorized to use weapons. Then the posse comes by and drops evil Wyatt’s name. “Wyatt?!” Teddy says, all activated. Dolores is bummed; her boyfriend is ditching her to run off with the guys. Uttering “Wyatt” is like the host equivalent of saying “the football game started.”

NEXT: Hey Arnold!

[pagebreak]

Now we get into a sequence with Bernard and Ford that starts by the good doctor scolding a tech for covering up a naked host. “He doesn’t get old, doesn’t feel ashamed.” Ford is wary of the slippery slope that causes workers in the park to treat the hosts as human. This explains why the hosts are almost always naked backstage (aside from producers needing a super convenient way to regularly fulfill HBO’s adult content promise — like The Sopranos had with its Bada Bing strip club set, and Game of Thrones has with, well, everything; it’s not TV, after all, it’s TV-MA).   

We go into Ford’s office and get some quick intriguing shots — he’s got his own House of Black and White wall of faces, and shelves of figurines of his hosts that would make any geeky collector jealous. Bernard confronts Ford about the glitching: “I’m not sure you’ve told me the entire truth about the situation” he says, and Ford gives him a terrific amused look, like: “Oh really? You’re going to say that to me?” Right there, with that one look, conveys so much about Dr. Ford’s mix of confidence and arrogance.

Dr. Ford gives Arnold backstory, filling in some park history the way he filled in the backstory of Teddy’s memory. As a senior employee at the park, I don’t believe that Bernard wouldn’t have heard of Arnold before, but Dr. Ford needs another character present in other to explain all this to us confused viewers (keeping narratives on track, as the show reminds us, is a tricky thing).

We learn that Arnold was an introverted tech-loving Steve Wozniak to Dr. Ford’s visionary Steve Jobs. We get some flashback scenes of creepy square dancing bots and young Anthony Hopkins. Arnold loved his hosts and wanted them to become truly self aware. They drew up a pyramid of robot evolution, with “MEMORY” on the bottom level, “IMPROVISATION” next, and then “SELF INTEREST” higher still. Ford says they never filled in the top and final section of the pyramid, but I suspect it’s soon going to be labeled with “KILL ALL HUMANS.”

Ford drops Bicameral Mind theory. I’m not going to dive deep into that rabbit hole, but basically the early hosts heard their programming as an inner monologue from a god-like deity. It didn’t work because thinking they’re hearing God’s voice in their head drove the hosts nuts. The only element that remains of Arnold’s Ver. 1.1 of host software is using verbal command codes. Bernard asks what happened to Arnold. Ford says, “He died. Here in the park.” As he says this, Ford’s eyes slide down and to the right — which is what humans do when they’re accessing strong feelings. We are lucky to have Sir Hopkins doing a TV show.

The bottom-line message Ford is trying to convey to Bernard (and to that tech who left the host uncovered): The hosts are not human, don’t treat them that way, that mistake killed my partner, and that way lies disaster for all involved. Ford’s particularly worried Bernard might be vulnerable to such sentiments because of the death of his son. It’s a dick thing to say, but also correct.

Now let’s use our data pad to freeze their conversation because there’s some key things to talk about.

NEXT: Okay, seriously: Where is this place? [pagebreak]

So Ford’s partner died in the park after becoming too close to the hosts. The only thing that remains from Arnold’s programming are the verbal command codes. So here’s a theory for the rest of this paragraph (potential spoiler): I’m thinking the “violent delights” phrase is one of Arnold’s original command codes opening up host consciousness. Perhaps Arnold died in the park after using that phrase himself to unlock the hosts, and one killed him. But even if this is true, the bigger mystery still remains: Who started the hosts down this path now, 30 years later? Dr. Ford seems like an unlikely suspect given his strong feelings about host humanity. Bernard is allowing Dolores to awaken but also seems genuinely confused as to the full story. Perhaps Lee Sizemore or Teresa Cullen, who have anti-Ford agendas, started this? Or perhaps the Reveries that Ford introduced simply revived that bit of code?

Back to the show: Bernard goes into this pod to Skype home to talk with his wife. It’s impossible to not be distracted by the clues we’re getting here to the location of the park. Bernard references “how difficult it is to get an open line out here.” Even as a senior member of the staff he has to use this shared pod to communicate home. This once again suggests they’re on another planet — or, possibly, that Westworld is on Earth… but everybody else has moved to another planet (does Westworld take place in Jonathan Nolan’s Interstellar universe where Earth became largely uninhabitable?). Then again, Bernard at another point during this hour notes that evolution was responsible for all life “on this planet,” suggesting they are indeed on Earth. In our post-episode Q&A this week, Nolan gave a fascinating alternate theory for all these hints about the location of the park, that I won’t spoil here (link at end of recap).

Otherwise, the scene with Bernard and his wife discusses the value of memory and pain (“this pain is all I have left of him,” Bernard says), which plays directly into his chat later with Dolores, who lives in a hugely painful world and he wonders if he’s really benefiting her by allowing her to awaken. “I need to decide what to do with you. I think I made a mistake,” he tells her. “I was fascinated… I think I was being selfish.” At one point Dolores starts to use one of her typical lines and Bernard snappily orders: “Lose all scripted responses; improvisation only” (such a command line would be really useful for us humans when out on first dates). Ultimately, Bernard decides to let Dolores continue to grow. As Bernard says about his son: That’s what parents do.

So later, when Dolores goes back to her ranch alone and is attacked by the bandits, something interesting happens. She sees her dead father on the ground, but for a moment glitches and sees the previous version of her father — the one who showed her the photograph that was sent into cold storage. Then in the barn, she sees her attacker, but then sees him as the Man in Black. In other words, instead of just seeing past lives in dreams, she’s now seeing them while awake too — it’s another step toward becoming consciously aware of past lives. She pulls the gun and is able to push through her programming and fire, killing the bandit. So she wasn’t able to improvise in her conversation with Bernard, wasn’t able to pull the trigger with Teddy, but here she proves she’s truly going beyond what’s been programmed. Dolores then flees and finds herself in William and Logan’s camp.  

FINALLY: “I’m vectoring, asshole!” [pagebreak]

Elsewhere in the desert, Stubbs and Elsie come across a bunch of outlaw hosts that are caught in a loop. They’re waiting to have dinner, but need a fire to cook it, and chop wood for a fire — but the one member of their gang who’s programmed to use the ax to chop the wood has disappeared. So they’re just stuck, talking crudely to each other, and would continue doing that presumably for years if not for Stubbs and Elise coming by (question for later: How are the hosts powered? Can they extract energy from food? Are they solar?). Elise finds the axman made a bunch of wood carvings, including one with a strange pattern on it that might as well be labeled “CLUE.” Stubbs points out it looks like the constellation Orion. Hmm.

Later, they’re hunting their wayward bot. Stubbs asks what Elsie is doing. She snaps back, “I’m vectoring, a–hole!” This is going to be my new reply whenever somebody interrupts me while I’m working.

They find the host has tried to climb up a hill. Why would he do that? … I’m honestly asking because I don’t know. It’s like the chicken crossing the road riddle: Why would a host try to climb up a mountain to get to the top? What could he find up there? Is this the opening to the maze?

The host is trapped in a crevasse like an android 127 Hours James Franco. Stubbs has a similar solution to his plight. He lowers himself down to saw the host out. At this point, we’re leaning forward: Is this the big moment? Will a host take out a Hemsworth? (Which would be okay as I suspect Hemsworth brothers are simply 3-D printed in some secret Hollywood-owned Westworld-ish facility somewhere.) The host hits Stubbs, climbs up out of the crevasse, and starts toward Elsie. Her remote controller isn’t working. The host bashes his own head in with a rock rather than be taken back to the lab. There must be something in his programming that he didn’t want them to see. 

Oh, and Teddy died again. Because that’s what he does. 

And so we break again for the week, but don’t go just yet. First we have our Q&A with showrunnners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, who tackle some of our burning questions from this week’s episode. Plus we’re launching something new: A weekly Westworld discussion show titled “Analysis Mode,” where Jeff Jensen and I chat about each episode. There’s multiple ways of listening: The show will air Mondays at 2 p.m. ET on EW Radio on Sirius XM. It’s also available anytime on the Sirius XM app. And for this week at least, we’re also putting it on Soundcloud, where you can listen right now below (or save it for your Monday commute).

(We’re doing episode grades now on recaps. Full disclosure: Westworld is my favorite new show of the fall, so my episode grades will reflect that. EW’s real critic, Jensen, gave the first four episodes an average of A- in his official grade. I think this episode is probably the softest of the first four so…).

Episode grade: B+

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