Monday, October 24, 2016


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Ed Harris's Man In Black has been presented as the ultimate blackhat, but so far he’s the one character that wants the same thing out of Westworld that I do: real stakes.  He articulates this in one of the oh-so meta moments the show traffics in, but as is frequently the case, identifying the problem is not the same as solving it.  As Elsie points out in another such moment, “it seems like everyone here has some fucking agenda except me!”  Which would be great...if I understood what any of those agendas actually are.  Unfortunately everyone is playing things so close to the vest that while intrigue abounds, actual conflict fails to take root.  The shootouts are solidly constructed action scenes, I suppose, but there’s no sense of excitement when the outcomes are so expressly predetermined.  

Not to be a total ingrate, as the intrigue is still largely intriguing.  I don’t know what the hell Hopkins is up to, but his creepy puppetmaster antics and progressively-less-veiled threats to Theresa punctuated with the arrival of the giant earthmoving machines to literally tear up her conception of the park as a resort were the best kind of teasing - ominous and frightening in scope.  Similarly, Thandie Newton does excellent work selling the nightmarish realizations that Maeve the madam is going through, even if the power is leavened by already having gone through similar beats/revelations with Dolores.  Part of the problem is that the show has been so successful at placing our sympathies with the robuts that it quickly becomes frustrating to see them continue to grope toward the understanding of their existence which we already have.  Dramatically, it’s a problem of understanding wants; the robuts have our sympathies but they don’t currently know what they want. While the humans seem more sinister but we don’t currently know what they want.

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What this human wants is to get on with the robut uprising, at which point everyone’s priorities will become clearer by necessity and those stakes that the MiB is looking for can become legitimate matters of life and death. But it is looking increasingly likely that this will not occur until the close of the season.  Again, and maybe it’s not entirely fair to blame the show for this, but knowing the property it is based on makes the slow build feel less like laying groundwork than dragging feet.  Watching Ed Harris condescend to robuts has its charm (more so than watching him nonchalantly slaughter them, though the staging of the “rescue” from the firing squad was nice), but I want to see what happens when they really can fight back.  Not least because it seems like Ford and co. really built the seeds of their own downfall into the hosts themselves.  They could have built versions of Teddy and Dolores, et al., that understood their purpose was to be abused and perhaps even embraced it.  Sexual abuse is often said to be an affront to our inherent humanity, but that’s not something a robut has.  As alien as such a concept may seem to us, is there really a reason why a robut would find being raped more degrading than any other aspect of its functionality?  

But we’ve seen enough of the design process for host personalities to understand how they are programmed specifically to feel fear and pain and violation.  Ford would say that they only simulate such feelings, but if simulation is all they ever know, do they feel it any differently than we do?  Or as the hostess answered when William asked if she was real, if you can’t tell the difference, does the answer matter?  The question of why God chooses to allow suffering to exist in the world is an eternal one, but for the hosts we know that their creators chose to give them inner lives and values, all to better lend verisimilitude to their sufferings.  Could they have made hosts that would figuratively whistle while they worked at being ragdolls for the vicissitudes of the guests?  Probably.  But they decided that Teddy needed a real sense of justice and dignity in order for the guests to get off on trampling it, and that Dolores needed actual innocence in order to be ravaged properly.  The hosts were not only created solely to be abused, but they also had to be deliberately programmed with precisely the values and capacity to feel aggrieved and vengeful once they realize that.  I wonder if the show will explore this possibility that the reckoning on the horizon may have been avoidable, except for the humans' insistence on creating them in our own image.

Once again, I try to write a review about Westworld and barely touch on any of the actual events of the episode. You could spin that as a positive sign of all the thematic heft being packed in, but it's also a reflection that it is not a great show yet.   There seems to be great versions of it lurking around the corner and peaking out from all the cracks, though, so hopefully it will get there soon. 

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Except you, bae.  You were completely awesome right out of the gate.

  • Even if the show remains more a vessel for heady ideas than a legitimate drama with conflict and stakes and such, it’s a damn purty one.  Vicenzo Natali directed the living daylights out of this episode.
  • Interesting that William and Logan are the only guests to receive names, and only first names at that.  I think there’s a reason for that in William’s case (see below for speculation based on fan theory), but it’s also a telling wrinkle that the handlers differentiate between the guests with even less specificity than they do the hosts.  It’s a subtle way the show works to keep our sympathies from drifting from the robuts to the hu-mans.
  • It’s becoming increasingly clear that William is the Man In Black, on his first trip to the park.  This raises a couple questions, including where Dolores is in the “present day” when she ran off after shooting the bandit.  But I’m also becoming more certain that we’re going to learn his last name is Wyatt, that his adventure with Dolores is going to lead him to encounter Arnold, and see the first attempt at a robut uprising claim his life. 
  • Bonus speculation:  MiB is the representative of the Board of Directors (which he controls himself) that Ford references as having already been sent.  He did indeed bump the stake of the family company (Delos) after the first trip, and has been coming back and digging deeper into the game ever since. 
  • The most intriguing hint dropped this week is the Native robuts apparently having developed a religion incorporating latent memories of park's clean-up staff.  Hopefully that gets developed more in the future.
  • For reals, Ingrid Bolso Berdal nearly steals the whole episode as Armistice, the tattooed desperada that I’d gladly watch as the star of a straightforward, pulpy western show.  I’d like to request much, much more of her, please. 

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