Westworld recap: Season 1, Episode 4, Dissonance Theory
Plus: We go deep on that amazing Dr. Ford power lunch scene
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Westworld is a story of incremental change. Not just for the hosts, but the show’s own narrative style. Every scene edges the characters and story forward. This is more unusual than you might think. Most shows advance their story in fits and starts, with characters and story lines spinning in place for a few scenes or whole episodes, not really progressing, then abruptly lunging ahead once a finale approaches. Westworld is almost mathematical in its narrative precision. The pace is not fast, and that frustrates some viewers. Yet the story is always moving — unceasing, purposeful, and incremental … like the original film’s Gunslinger android calmly hunting its target.
Nowhere is the show’s incremental progression more clear than in the Dolores scenes that open each hour. Every week we start with Bernard talking to Dolores and each week Dolores steps closer to true awareness. And with this episode, “Dissonance Theory,” the edges of What the Hell is Going On seem to be getting clearer. I have some theories this week that might actually be correct, plus I can’t wait to talk about that scene with Dr. Ford and Teresa Cullen. But let’s stay on our assigned narrative loop by starting at the beginning:
At the start of episode 4, Dolores is telling Bernard about the death of her parents. He offers to take away her pain, but she echoes his comments to his wife in the last episode; that the pain is all she has left. It’s interesting that both Dolores (a host) and Bernard (a human… so we assume) would use the same language to describe their internal conflict. “I feel spaces opening up inside of me like a building with rooms I’ve never explored,” she says.
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Bernard wants to help her continue, but adds, “I’m not the only one making these decisions.” He tells her there’s a game called The Maze. “The goal is to find the center … if you can do that, then maybe you can be free.” Of course, we know the Man in Black is also seeking The Maze, only he’s been warned it’s not for him (perhaps it’s only for hosts? More thoughts on this later). “I think… I want to be free,” Dolores says. It’s a very American play on “I think therefore I am” — I think therefore I want freedom.
Dolores then wakes up in William and Logan’s camp and we realize the scene with Bernard and Dolores was a flashback. But to when? She was talking about fleeing after her parents were murdered. Right after that she ended up with the guys’ camp. So when did this conversation happen? Was she talking about a previous time her parents were murdered?
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That this opening seems to be a flashback could be significant. Because if this were a flashback… what about all the other opening scenes with Bernard and Dolores this season? We’ve been assuming Bernard has been pulling Dolores out of the game to have off-record sideline chats. But perhaps all this is actually prologue to the rest of the story? A big question I have — and, not to quote The Matrix, to “bake your noodle,” or anything — but: Are all these stories we’re seeing taking place at the same time? The show is so complex already, it would seem pretty unlikely the showrunners would mixmaster their timeline with a This Is Us-ian twist on top of everything else. But you never know.
Anyway: William wants to continue the bounty hunt adventure, but William, concerned for Dolores, wants to quit. Logan offers to kill Dolores to solve the problem. “Can you please stop trying to kill or f— everything?” William asks on behalf of the audience. Logan lets drop some exposition: Their company is considering raising its stake in the Westworld park. Let’s put a pin in that along with the The Maze reference. We’re going to come back to it.
NEXT: Pictures of Who
Back at the saloon, we get a new player piano song: The Cure’s “A Forest.” That’s a good one. I want the piano to play Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth” because its chorus would drive the “where is this the park located?” theorists wild.
Maeve is tripping. Or more accurately, she’s coming down from a trip she’s been on all her life. She sketches a memory that she’s not supposed to have — that of a backstage team member wearing a decontamination suit (wait, why do they need to wear decon— oh forget it, I don’t have any mental real estate available for extraneous questions about this show).
Maeve goes upstairs to hide the sketch and finds… a bunch of other sketches that she previously made just like it. And I can’t decide — like many things about Westworld — if this is just A Cool Moment or if it Means Something Important. Seeing all the previous sketches works emotionally, and is a bit of an intentional hat tip to Memento (which was based on Westworld showrunner Jonathan Nolan’s short story), where a protagonist had to devise a written system to remember his backstory. But it also makes you wonder how long her awakening process has been going on. We have the sense that everything we’re seeing is happening over the course of several days. But then you wonder. If you see Snow White at her castle in Disneyland in 1995, the scene looks basically the same as in 2016. So is the time involved in this story not what we think?
Backstage, Elsie is trying to solve the riddle of the head-smashing robot. She thinks it might be a version of the hosts’ “Samaritan reflex” (we haven’t seen this yet in the show, but if guest is in danger of being hurt by another guest or situation, a host will reflexively take action to protect them). She also has the strange carving that Stubbs told her was Orion last week Elsie snaps: “I got hosts climbing mountains to consult their f–king astrological chart — this is not a glitch!” And then on top of that, the nicely self-aware joke: “It’s like everybody around here has got some f–king agenda except for me.”
Bernard points out that the symbol on the axman’s carving is actually not Orion because it has the wrong number of stars. Suddenly Westworld fans who had all sorts of astrological-location theories last week feel rather stupid. It’s okay though, Elsie and Stubbs didn’t know either and they’re, like, from the future.
Also, we’re loving Elsie partly because she has a sense of humor, which is the one thing Westworld-the-TV-show could use a bit more of. Even the darkest great dramas — The Sopranos, GoT, Fargo, Breaking Bad — have a fair amount of humor, if not from the characters themselves, then from the situations the characters find themselves in. I suspect Westworld will lace in more humor as the series continues as it’s far easier to have fun with the familiar (and above is the proof — both of Elise’s jokes are funny only because they reference what we’ve seen in the past few episodes). Come to think of it, a savvy sense of humor is probably the trait that would most clearly distinguish a host from a human. Perhaps it should be on the top level of Dr. Ford’s unfinished robot evolution pyramid chart.
Logan, William, and Dolores make it down to that border village that the Man in Black was visiting a couple episodes ago. There she finds Lawrence’s creepy prophetic daughter. Dolores has a flashback to a past life in a church. Her vision includes a memory of the moon — our moon. This is planet earth’s moon. It could be a projection on some Truman Show-esque dome covering this world, though. The producers keep teasing us. The girl, meanwhile, is drawing The Maze in the dirt. She seems like the most woke of any of the hosts, but isn’t saying much, she just pops into the story every once in a while to say something cryptic.
A sheriff tries to take Dolores back to her ranch. William saying she’s with him and that stops her from being retrieved. (Hosts are supposed to stick to their loops unless sidetracked by a guest.)
Dolores tells William, rather poignantly, she used to worry about the steers finding their way back home. “It never occurred to me we were bringing them back for the slaughter.” Remember what Dolores said to Teddy about the Judas steer in the series premiere? That’s the one you had to keep your eye on because if it wandered off the trail — off its loop, if you will — the herd would follow. Dolores might be the hosts’ Judas steer.
NEXT: The MiB’s Softer Side
The Man in Black continues across the desert, and his captive gunslinger follows. Only he’s hit a roadblock in solving that riddle leading to the location of The Maze. With Lawrence in tow, he’s followed the arroyo … but where does the snake lay its eggs? (Or, in this case, it’s easter eggs). “This whole world is a story. I’ve read every page except the last one. I want to find out what it all means,” he sort-of-not-really explains. Then he spots the outlaw Armistice, Hector’s right-hand woman, bathing by the river — with her rad snake tattoo. The MiB kills a couple host members of her gang to make room for himself and Lawrence to join with her. (A couple members of her gang are guests and it’s a fair question how does the MiB know which are which. In general, the guests tend to look well-scrubbed and less stoic compared to the bots.)
The MiB makes a deal with Armistice: If she’ll reveal the story of her tattoo — the next clue to The Maze — he’ll bust Hector out of prison for her. Why doesn’t he just torture her like with every other host he wants something from? Well, that gets tiresome.
There’s a bumpy transition to the MiB and Lawrence in the back of a stagecoach. It almost feels like a scene was cut. But we’re later told the duo simply surrendered to the sheriff. The MiB breaks Hector out of prison with the help of exploding cigars to get the next clue — Wyatt, that rogue cult leader that was just added to Teddy’s backstory. Once again, I wonder about time. We got the impression Wyatt was some new element. But he’s also part of The Maze puzzle the MiB is chasing that we assumed was a long-buried secret? Hmm.
But let’s get to the real juice of the MiB’s sequence. First, a guest drops something very intriguing. Apparently the MiB is a celebrity of sorts out in the real world (whatever that is). “Your foundation literally saved my sister’s life,” the nervous guest says. The MiB angrily shoots back: “One more word and I’ll cut your throat. This is my f–king vacation.”
Don’t you dare break character around the MiB! Suddenly, the man goes goes from seeming like a menacing psycho to a dork playing Dungeons & Dragons who yells at other players for asking for a bathroom break. So he’s possibly some kind of philanthropic humanitarian outside of the park? Again we bump up against the question of whether he’s truly an evil man — given that the hosts are not human and any tragedy can be erased and any injury repaired. If this guy saves human lives and then plays a completely different character only around the hosts… what does that mean for him?
The MiB also name-drops Arnold and gives a major clue to his goals here: “He created a world where you can do everything you want — except die. Which means no matter how real it seems, it’s still just a game. I believe he had one story left to tell… a story with real stakes, real violence… you could say I’m here to honor his legacy.”
Okay, there’s a lot revealed right there. Will you bear with me for one more pin? Let’s get through this amazing next scene with Cullen and Dr. Ford — it’s a real showstopper, so to speak — and then we’re going to assemble all these new clues, along with one more we’re about to get…
FINALLY: The Threat Matrix
Cullen meets Dr. Ford for lunch. In the distance are hosts working on a field and, a ways beyond that, a massive excavation for the good doctor’s mysterious new narrative.
“You imagine I’ve gone mad,” Dr. Ford says, which is exactly the sort of thing that mad doctors who’ve gone mad say. “It’s not a business venture, it’s not a theme park, but an entire world.”
We gather from their cryptic exchanges that Cullen and Board of Directors and Ford are at odds on the future of the park. This is deliberately confusing — we don’t know what the Board wants or what Ford plans, exactly. Yet this scene works marvelously anyway. After 30 years, Ford has survived many such control battles and thinks of Cullen as just another corporate paper tiger. He flexes his power in several ways:
He lifts a single finger — like he did with the snake in the desert a couple weeks back — and all the hosts freeze, including the ones down in the field below. It’s not clear how exactly this works. As Ford says, he’s a magician. But he’s one who quite literally has more power in his little finger than Cullen seems to have. Translation: Mess with me and I will shut this whole place down with no effort at all.
Cullen realizes that when she visited the park with her parents as a kid she sat in the exact same spot — and that it’s not a coincidence. Ford recreated her childhood memory, only with himself in her father’s seat. Confirms Ford: “We know everything about our guests.” Translation: I know your secrets.
Continues Ford: “…as we know everything about our employees — you will be careful with Bernard, he has a sensitive disposition.” Translation: I know you’re sleeping with him. Neither of us want to hurt him, but I’m not afraid to use this knowledge if you put me in a corner.
Cullen shakily gets out a cigarette (her anxiety tell). “The Board will agree with me,” she says. “They’re sending a representative.” Ford counters: “They already have. I would have thought they would have told you.” Translation: My relationship with the Board is better than you know, and better than yours.
Finally the massive robotic earth-plowers dramatically come over the hill, ripping up the field, making more space for Ford’s new narrative. Translation: I’m tearing up the park, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.
The media has wondered whether Westworld is the next Game of Thrones. This scene is as good as a Game of Thrones small council meeting.
Okay, so I think we’re at a point where we’ve been given so many hints about the MiB and The Maze and the Board that we should try to assemble them into some kind of working theory about what’s going on. So skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to potentially feel spoiled. (Note: I haven’t seen any episodes beyond this one, so this is pure speculation based on what’s aired.) The Maze is some way to unlock the hosts and set them free so they can operate unrestricted. It was likely put into place by Arnold before he died and may have even caused his death. After 30 years of coming to the park, the MiB wants to play Westworld on Hard Mode, where the hosts can shoot back for real — thus his comments about setting the hosts free and how this time he’s never going to leave the park. Even if all this is true, however, what’s still unclear is who is waking up the hosts on their own (assuming the MiB scenes are not some kind of flashback prequel to everything else we’re seeing). Last week I speculated that in addition to the obvious potential culprit (Bernard) maybe its Cullen or Lee Sizemore (who’s been absent the past two episodes), who are both at odds with Ford and perhaps want to cause a park disaster to remove him from power. My guess is the Board of Directors rep who Ford says has already been sent to the park is the loathsome Logan (he earlier commented about his company increasing its investment in the park), though in our Sirius XM Westworld radio show chat this week, embedded below, my co-host Jeff Jensen offers a different intriguing theory.
(Aside: I keep thinking of Westworld characters in terms of their Jurassic Park equivalents — how Dr. Ford is like the creative visionary Hammond, Bernard and Elsie are trying to solve the park’s problems like Dr. Grant and Ellie Sattler, and Stubbs is like the hunter Muldoon, etc. Now I’m thinking Logan is like Gennaro — the self-serving lawyer that, like Logan, is representing a board of directors and is taking a ride through the park like a tourist would when all hell breaks loose. In this scenario I’m imagining Dolores as the T-Rex … I’m not sure who Nedry is.)
Back in the park, Logan and William are bickering again. Logan kills the sheriff host and horrifies Dolores. Suddenly Logan is interested in playing again because their bounty is some kind of covert E Ticket who can take them to “the best ride in the park,” whatever that is. “[Dolores] will be just fine with a trip down the dark side and so will you,” Logan assures, and this uneasy alliance continues down the trail.
Back in Sweetwater, Hector and Armistice come to rob the saloon of its safe. Yes, we’ve seen this before. No Rolling Stones this time. But the outcome is very different. Maeve has become obsessed with that hooded figure she remembers. The Native American hosts know this figure as well, and worship it as a sort of deity. They call him “The Shade,” the one who walks between worlds.
Maeve wants Hector to cut her belly open. Remember her escape attempt through the backstage facility at the end of episode 2? After all the mayhem, the surgeons / mechanics seemingly forgot to extract the slug that caused her previous death. It’s still there and she can feel it. Hector cuts it out, and she’s relieved — it’s proof her visions are real, she’s not going crazy. As the posse shoots the door, she kisses Hector, and her last line is the biggest revelation by a host yet: “None of this matters.”
For more, check out our Q&A with showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy discussing “Dissonance Theory.” And below is the new episode of our Westworld discussion Sirius XM radio show:
Episode grade: A-