Did you catch last night’s episode of HBO's 'Westworld?" Wow.
Titled “Chestnut,” the show’s second week quickly moved beyond the pilot to establish its deeper themes and its bold corporeal potential.
Caution: Story spoilers ahead…
Let’s recap for a moment what we learned in the pilot…
The Basic Rules of Westworld
- There are generally two types of people in the park at any one time, although sometimes you’ll see a third…
- Guests — paying human customers
- Hosts — androids
- Staff — who we’ve seen in the park cleaning up after the guest have gone
- Guests can’t harm other guests with weapons (more on this in a bit)
- Guests can harm the hosts (they pretty much can do whatever they want to the hosts)
- Hosts can’t harm the guests or any living thing (obeying Asimov’s “First Law” of Robotics)
- There are pre-set “adventures” that guests can join and the narrative will change, like a “Choose Your Own Adventure.”
- There is a reset button — hosts go back to a starting place and guests conceivably go home, yet there’s still a question of if this is relegated to a 12-hour or 24-hour clock (“Chestnut” suggests guests can stay longer than 24 hours)
- Sweetwater is the center of level one. The farther you move out from its center, the more intense the experience becomes
Primary Characters (So Far)
- Man In Black (Ed Harris) — A competent player of the game, he’s determined to find the next level after maxing out all the adventures possible in Level One.
- William (Jimmi Simpson) — A first-timer, William isn’t deeply motivated to play the game and seems to be going along to appease his “friend.”
- Logan (Ben Barnes) — A player who’s reached a degree of competency with the first adventures available and is becoming more reckless and sadistic the more time he spends in Westworld.
- Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) — As Logan seems to be losing his humanity in the game, Dolores is gaining hers. She starts asking deeper questions and is possibly infected with what I’ve nicknamed the “memory.”
- Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum) — Dolores’ father and potential vector of the “memory” virus playing on the word “host” to much amusement.
- Teddy Flood (James Marsden) — Seems to be a guide/tracker for the more intense levels of the game. He’s drawn to Dolores.
- Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) — As an aside, how awesome is it to see Thandie Newton front and center? She’s amazing! And since “Eve” is in her name, it will come to mean something. Maeve seems to be a catalyst for change and is clearly infected with the virus. Her role of “madame” in the saloon puts her right at the center of the action.
- Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan) — Other than the best moniker ever for a prostitute, she, too, seems to have a bigger role to play in the coming impact of the virus. My bet is that she’ll be the first one to kill a guest.
- Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) — Lawrence is the key to how The Man In Black is able to locate the Maze (second level). My suspicion is he is a fulcrum for the larger story. I think there are probably any number of ways to unlock the Maze, and violence isn’t always necessary.
DELOS (The Corporations that owns Westworld)
- Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) — Is the inventor of the robotics that make Westworld possible and is still CEO of Delos. He is the “dungeon master” and is about 10 paces ahead of everyone else. He has plans for expansion (that might involve religion) and is an infinite study of humor behavior.
- Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) — Sucks to be in middle management. Theresa is wedged in-between the Board of Directors at Delos and the onsite team at Westworld. She’s charged with employee productivity and the bottom line. She’s attempting to navigate corporate politics effectively.
- Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) — Is the head of tech and heir apparent to Dr. Ford’s work. He’s aware the virus is more dangerous, has spread faster, and has infected more hosts than is generally perceived. He still seems willing to play the long game in order to find out its source.
- Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) — Is head of security and checks all androids before they go back into the field. He’s part covert ops, part “field-hand” in the worst sense of that term. I think he’s going to be the one to make the horrible decision that makes everything worse, he just seems like that kind of guy.
- Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) — He’s the “showrunner” and is tasked with coming up with new and exciting adventures for the guests to experience. Yet his temper and poor ideas make me wonder how he ever got the job.
- Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) — Seems to have a fetish for the hosts and I think someone should get her a day-pass so she can go live it up.
- The Board of Delos — The mysterious group behind all of it.
If the “Pilot” put the pieces on the board, then “Chestnut” starts the game in motion.
Here are five themes and five questions that emerged from this episode…
- What does it mean to be human? — Hard to do a show about androids gaining consciousness and not explore what it means to be human. So far, the show is asking that question in more subtle ways. Specifically, how memory works in shaping our sense of self and how our treatment of others is also important to our humanity. The show gently implies that the more we treat others with disdain and cruelty, the more we lose of our humanity. Conversely, the more we treat people with compassion, the more we gain our humanity. It also suggests memory (past experience) is the bridge to current behavior. We’re told that the hosts have been programmed to self correct, always striving to be more human, and that they talk to each other even when guests aren’t around as practice. Isn’t that true of us as well?
- “Player of Games” & Game Theory — Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and The Man In Black (Ed Harris) seem to be on a collusion course – the dungeon master and the master player. Clearly Dr. Ford is also in the process of “creating” the Man In Black by shaping his experience in Westworld, which is pure meta-brilliance for how systems shape the individual. The Man In Black is obsessed, the ultimate user of the game, and is not unlike committed gamers around the world who are being groomed for something else entirely.
- Corporate Dynamics — I love the inter-departmental bickering, it’s so true to corporate life, and yet how Lee Sizemore got so far in his development before the story got nixed rang a little untrue. If Delos cares so much about profitability, it seems to be that there would have been a ton of meetings, really to the point where all creativity would’ve been driven out of the process, before any okay on a new storyline was given. But wow, should every MBA out there watch that scene to prepare for their own presentation in front of the CEO.
- The Singularity — The singularity is soon upon us, and the idea that a virus is what springs the hosts to consciousness is perfect. The proposition that the physical embodiment of memory (touching your lip in a moment of reverie) is the spark that leads to “awake” is beautiful to watch unfold. Westworld gets major accolades for depicting the Singularity not as happening all at once in a single moment, but rather a series of events over many cycles.
- The 4th Wall, We The Audience — Ford has wonderful dialogue near the end of this episode where he asks Lee what it is that people really want from entertainment. “What’s the point of it? Couple of cheep thrills, couple of surprises? It’s not enough to give the guests what you think they want…. the guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things (like the rape of Sansa) they come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine that no one had ever noticed before. Something they fall in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are, they already know who they are. They want a glimpse of who they could be.” Which is maybe the best explanation for our love of story and the power it holds over us. HBO may have just given away the secret sauce to the genius behind much of their programming.
Five Questions (So Far)
- The Future — What kind of world exists that would make Westworld both desirable and possible? It made a ton of sense when Michael Crichton wrote the original story that inspired the 1973 film of the same name. Then, and certainly now, people could unleash their shadow (sexual desire, rage). Will that still hold true in the future? Have we become more suppressed? Less? I’d like to imagine a world where we become more sophisticated psychologically where a need for this kind of “therapy” would be less pressing. And if technology has advanced to the point of android robotics, then it makes me wonder if part of the thrill is actually doing stuff to robots. Meaning, that some of the guests are motivated to be there, not to enact a fantasy about how they’d treat other humans, but rather robots. Maybe there’s stiff penalties for harming androids in the future (they’d be expensive) and so Westworld makes sense. Yes, I get we play games like “Grand Theft Auto” now, but can’t you imagine us growing out of that phase?
- The Maze — We see The Man In Black level up this episode, and I can’t want to see the entrance to the Maze. I have to admit I’m way more interested in what that game world is like more than Westworld itself. It calls to my imagination.
- First Murder — Did you notice that in Maeve’s dream sequence that the Ghost Hunter transformed into the Man in Black? And did you catch how that one dude (possibly a guest) was brought down by a bow and arrow and how when he was scalped the brain exposed looked shockingly human? Did the Man in Black kill a guest?
- Role of the Piano — The player piano might be an indicator to the hosts on which adventure to run, but it seems that the adventures are programmed at the individual unit level and each host has their own range of narratives and adventures. I’m thinking the player piano has something far more serious and sinister… maybe the source for triggering the virus. Music as the primary sensory trigger to memory makes sense. In humans, that falls to smell, but maybe hearing is the optimal trigger of self actualization in Westworld.
- The Can — I believe we’ve seen Dolores drop the can three times now. It is a trigger for guests to interact with her. A chance encounter to talk up a pretty lady like bumping carts in a grocery store. Teddy has his drink at the bar. The tall man who bumps into guests as they arrive seems to be begging for a duel, and there’s Maeve at the bar so maybe each host has their signature “invitation” if you will. That’s just endlessly fascinating on all kinds of levels… one host is designed to trigger empathy, another anger, another desire… this gets into territory that the brilliant movie, “Ex Machina” explored. How do you “feel” when interacting with the hosts? It’s not what you think, that matters.
“Westworld” packs more promise than any other show in recent memory. Right now, we’re seeing host after host get slaughtered. When the tables turn and the hosts start doing some killing of their own, the action may catch right up with the depth of the inquiry.