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Westworld May Never Explain All Its Rules, And That Would Be Outstanding
On the small Ford moment in S01.E02 that encapsulates what Westworld is doing right.
In a highly entertaining second episode of Westworld, which gives us an even richer understanding of both how the theme park works and what's happening as the hosts become self-aware, I keep coming back to a quiet little scene in middle of the episode.
The scene isn't bloody, like the moment when Logan -- an experienced guest who loves bisexual orgies with the hosts -- stabs a grizzled old prospector through the hand rather than go with him on a treasure hunt. Logan gets stabby because he wants to focus William, his future brother-in-law, on what he thinks really matters in Westworld, which is less about searching for Curly's gold and more about throwing bone.
But William isn't interested in all that. He's got a fiancée at home that he loves so much he will even turn down sex with a comely robot hooker. Nor is he attracted to violence, as his grossed-out response to Logan's knifeplay makes clear. In fact, it's not yet clear what William does want out of this place, but it seems obvious he's going to be a moral balance to Logan's unchecked id. The episode even makes a big show of William choosing a white cowboy hat, so...I'm pretty confident in that analysis.
Logan, nataurally, wears a black hat, as does Ed Harris's unhinged gunslinger, who has been coming to the park so long that he's now on a mad quest to learn its deepest secrets. He scalps a host to uncover some kind of circuitry patten on the underside of the dude's head-skin. The pattern resembles a maze, and now the gunslinger's trying to get to the maze and whatever lies at its center.
And all of this is great! I'm totally here for archetypal figures of good and evil, and if this series becomes overtly, unapologetically metaphorical, then sign me up. Similarly, I'm also down for the careful way they're handling the hosts' awakening. We've seen Dolores and her father start remembering things, and now it's Maeve Millay, the saloon madam played by Thandie Newton, who is coming closer to consciousness. Apparently, the hosts have been implanted with the ability to have nightmares, which is meant to explain any random memories of previous encounters with guests that the programming team might forget to wipe clean. And that's telling, right? The guests abuse the hosts so frequently that their actions have to be rationalized as nightmares. But somehow, Maeve has internalized the phrasing the techs use to turn the hosts on and off. We hear techs saying things like, "When I count down from three, you'll be back online," and that has also become Maeve's strategy for escaping her nightmares. It's tantalizing to imagine when she first "remembered" that she can alter her mental state this way.
Anyway, the episode ends with Maeve in a terrible nightmare: the gunslinger arrives and murders both her and her young daughter. To escape, she counts down -- three, two, one -- only to "wake up" on a technician's table. She looks down to see herself naked and cut open, since the techs are tending to a MRSA infection she contracted from a nasty guest.
Out of one nightmare and into another, like an HBO sequel to Inception. In a panic, Maeve grabs a scalpel and runs. Along the way, she finds all sorts of "dead" hosts, including James Marsden's Teddy Flood, who was recently murdered by guests. Thandie Newton's acting is fantastic here as she registers panic and terror, but also confusion and a certain amount of awe. There's no way she's going to forget all this.
Still, this is not the scene I keep recalling. Instead, I return to a moment when Ford, the park's creator, is wandering out in the desert with a little boy. Ford has gotten some alone time to examine a secret project he's developing -- it involves an ominous-looking church poking out of the sand -- and also reflect on how the "story team" at Westworld is focusing too much on empty spectacle instead of writing rich inner lives for the hosts. When the boy shows up, with his charming British accent, he seems to be visiting the park with his family. Ford takes time to show him around and also compliments him on his obvious intelligence. (Anthony Hopkins does a great job seeming like the kindliest grandpa in this entire scorched earth.) And then Ford wows the boy by effortlessly controlling a robot snake.
It's a hypnotic moment, and even though you know Ford can probably control this thing because he created it, it still seems magical. Ford's absolute confidence, the ease with which he makes the snake do his bidding, speaks of an enormous depth of power.
Ford's snake-charming also gives us another blatant symbol of good and evil. Add this to Maeve running around naked as she gains knowledge, and you've got a sci-fi Garden of Eden. And "Maeve" is basically "MAchine EVE," right? And don't forget Ford's line about how playing God means you eventually meet the devil.
But I digress. Back in the desert, after Ford controls the snake, he then controls the boy. He tells the boy to leave, and the kid immediately complies. The way his head droops and his eyes change, it seems clear that he's a host himself -- a little robot child who wanted a friend. Or maybe he's just a real, weird kid who wisely listens to the old man who controls snakes.
THAT is what I keep coming back to -- the shiver of excitement I get when I realize I don't exactly know if the boy is real or robotic. That mystery seems essential to the series: what is life? What is reality? These questions get posed and teased about a hundred different ways in the first two episodes, and I love scenes like this because they remind us that those questions can't ever be answered. Even if we learn exactly how the hosts are becoming "human," there will still be some ineffable spark of life that can't be explained by a writer's room. Because we can't do that in reality, either. For all our scientific knowledge, the unknowable, undefinable thing that makes us alive is still hanging there, and we can't pluck it off the tree.
Ford and the boy make that mystery feel very real, and I hope Westworld keeps that sense of the unknowable, even when the black hats and white hats inevitably face off.