Monday, November 28, 2016


If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.  Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t.” – The Mad Hatter, on Wonderland

Eeeaaaghoowaaa.”  - Sideshow Bob, stepping on the 7th consecutive rake

I opened a recap a few weeks ago with this same quote, but as the show has repeated it along with so, so much else, I figured it remains apropos.  I understand that loops and repetition are a major motif of the story (such as it is) that Westworld is telling, but “A Well-Tempered Clavier” takes this to new heights.  Well, maybe not “new” because that suggests a degree of novelty or excitement, and as the major revelations kept coming throughout the episode, I was most surprised by how unremittingly bored I was.  Much of the episode involved robuts – Bernard, Teddy, Hector, Dolores - realizing they had been in this exact situation before, but what is a revelation to them is just watching the same scene over and over again to me. 

Here’s a quick list of things that happen in this penultimate episode, wherein a climax would typically dwell, that also happened in of one of the last three episodes:

a) Bernard realize he’s a host

b) Bernard struggles with the concept that his memory of his dead son is implanted

c) Ford shuts him down mid-fury with his admin permissions

d) Maeve remembers her daughter’s “death” when she isn’t supposed to

e) Maeve recruits Hector to help with her escape attempt and they make out while violent death bears down upon them

f) Elsie/Stubbs go investigating a’strange-doin’s in the park alone, only to be ambush cliff-hangered by hosts with unknown agendas

g) William turns the tables on Logan and runs off with/after Dolores

h) The Man gets knocked out by a host and comes to trussed up in a compromising position

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"How will I ever get out of this one?  Oh, that's right. Literally however I want, whenever I want."

And that is to say nothing of the actual replays of prior scenes when Bernard is exploring his memories, or how many times we’ve heard Logan exasperatedly explain to “Billy” that the robuts aren’t really alive, or the Man intone about Arnold’s Great Game, or visited the beta-testing town in various states of excavation, or seen flashes of the Wyatt massacre in mildly different forms.  For a prestige show with a miniseries-length season order, Westworld sure has found time to repeat itself like an overstretched 25-episode season of a network procedural.

Repetition would be one thing, if it was interesting variations on a powerful dramatic theme.  But because we’re in the Hatter’s world, where nothing is what it is because everything is what it isn’t, pretty much everything being repeated is gobbledy-gook inflected nonsense.  A decent chunk of this episode tracks fake persons exploring memories that didn’t even “happen” within the fictional world of the show, and sorry, but I cordially decline to give a shit.  So maybe Teddy was programmed to have “been” Wyatt, instead of helping him, or opposing him?  And maybe he was a fake sheriff instead of a fake soldier when he “did” it?  Who could give the slightest damn?

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"Jesus, I'm dying more pointlessly in this show than X3, and I wasn't even in that movie."

William went off the deep end and killed a bunch of robuts?  Other than the hilarity of Logan napping through the bloody massacre happening directly on top of his snoozing body, who gives a shit?  Bernard is forced to shoot himself?  So what?  Killing robuts, if anything, seems to help them along their path to sentience.  And yet shooting one in the basement is played like a major dramatic lynchpin of the season.  I mean, okay?  Maybe Ford means Bernard’s deactivation to be more permanent, but that wasn’t made particularly clear when 2 minutes prior he was saying let’s just wipe your memory again and go back to work. 

The only new information here relates to Arnold, and boy am I tired of the show’s most interesting character having been dead for 30 years.  I don’t know if Bernard being a robut clone of Arnold is not interesting to me because it’s something I’d long since guessed at, or because it doesn’t make a ton of sense, or general twist fatigue, but it’s probably a bit of everything.  We still don’t really know who Arnold was, but he definitely wasn’t an unwitting robut with fabricated memories.  And he is speaking more deliberately through the programming he buried in Maeve and Dolores, so they are more authentically “Arnold” than Bernard is, no matter how intricately Ford can recreate the mannered way he wiped his glasses or the noble, saturnine curve of his genitals.    

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"They...they got the shaft all wrong..."
But also there is the twist fatigue, and everything about the Arnold “mystery” leads me to think this story began in the wrong place.  If the clash between Ford and Arnold’s vision for the park is so central to the story, then start earlier.  That way we wouldn’t be stuck with flashbacks within flashbacks, placing layer upon layer of obfuscation between us and the meat of the dramatic conflict.  It’s been part of the show’s allure since the beginning that NOTHING IS AS IT SEEMS, but that means we can’t really invest in what we are being shown, not as long as we’re waiting for the reveal that will allow us to actually understand the story being told.  Westworld somehow spread 95% of its plot across a 30 year timespan, and still the actual meat of the story seems to lie either before or after what we’re actually watching.

Another way to say it (and why not write the same paragraph over and over in different words, when it comes to this show?) would be that you have to get us invested in the status quo before you can squeeze drama out of upending it.  It’s a fine trick to pull off an elaborate reveal that we were watching something different than we thought all along, but for that to really work we have to be invested in what we thought we were watching.  The Sixth Sense was such a smash in part because it was an effective ghost story before it revealed that John McClane had been Luke’s father all along. From the start, Westworld was so ostentatiously mysterious that I have felt prepared for each of its curve balls, and breaking balls, and sliders.  The trick pitches keep coming, but they lack the crucial ability to surprise because the show never established an ability to put a simple fastball, or even a change-up, right over the plate. 
And I’m tired of waiting for the real story.  While I’m still hopeful that the finale will be the best episode of the show, if only because so much has clearly been held in reserve for it, it would have to introduce some serious changes to the world and tone to get me to come back for recaps in season 2.  

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"But when you reach the center of the maze, there is a puzzle, and...hey, where are you going??"
  • None of my griping should be taken as a slight on Jeffrey Wright or Anthony Hopkins’ performances.  Wright takes the character through a true wringer, no matter how contrived and unrelatable the details might be, and Ford is at his most entertaining when Hopkins lets a little bit of Hannibal Lecter slip into his performance.  And he’s most interesting now that we have a clearer sense of his perspective on the hosts – he thinks they are just as alive as humans, but has such a low opinion of humanity’s worth that he’s fine with horrifically subjugating them anyway.
  • And also in the credit-where-its-due category, there was some great overwrought dialogue for the actors to tear into.  Hopkins’ dark musings about the fate of the Neanderthal and how the “piano does not kill the player, when it does not like the tune” made for some primo evil arrogance, and Maeve’s line about “breaking into Hell and robbing the Gods blind” put the best, most melodramatic spin on her recruitment pitch.  Of course, she’s had several chances to refine it by this point.
  • Dolores apparently killed Arnold, way back when.  I feel like this was supposed to be a big deal, but I just kind of shrugged and went “sure, who else?” 
  • If getting blown away in a lazily-scripted Mexican standoff is the last we see of Armistice, I will curse the finale mightily.
  • No Sizemore or Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Sexy, so at least “A Well-Tempered Clavier” at least manages to avoid the worst characters on the show.  It does not manage to avoid the most pretentious sounding title, however, despite no shortage of competition on that front.

Monday, November 21, 2016



“Show, don’t tell.  Isn’t that what you writers prefer?”

Westworld is at a point where it really needs to start taking its own G.D. advice, as thus far it's been a show that is constantly telling us things of import and intrigue are happening, but showing us very little in terms of concrete development or drama.  Theresa’s murder seemed like it was introducing real, lasting consequences to the story, but “Trace Decay” sweeps it under the rug with frustrating alacrity and tidiness.  I’m sure it won’t stay under there, what with security bro smelling something funny with Bernard’s non-reaction, but for a series whose every step forward requires 48 minutes of corresponding wheel-spinning, each step back is especially aggravating. 

That they have an actor like Jeffrey Wright to play Bernard’s agony and confusion is a godsend, as the scenes in the immediate aftermath, where he struggles to comprehend his true nature and actions, are fantastic.  The questions he poses to Ford about what separates their experience are weighty and interesting, his emotional turmoil is genuinely affecting, and when Ford switches it off at a word it is unsettling in just the right ways.  This is Westworld firing on, if not all cylinders, then at least its biggest and best.  Which makes the perfunctory nature of the ensuing cover-up feel like a wasted opportunity.

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 "I'm gonna have some words for you in the season finale, bucko, just you wait.  Unless 
I'm a robot too, in which case....oh, god damn it.  I'm a robot too, aren't I???"
This is compounded by Charlotte’s immediate acquiescence in reappointing Bernard.  We’re putting up with all the exposition and obfuscation to set up an industrial espionage plotline, and yet we don’t even get a dramatic confrontation when there is a flip in the balance of power, or suspense sequence when it’s time for actual espionage?  What kind of shit is that?  I can’t figure out if I’m even supposed to care about the maneuverings of the board, or if that stuff is just there as an explanation for how no one notices every robut in the park becoming self-aware at once.  I imagine this has a lot to do with the production shutdown and subsequent retooling the show underwent before this season, but the result seems to be a show that periodically seems to think itself too good for its own storylines.  Which is really just the weirdest form of arrogance.

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Give me the classic recipe any day.
Other storylines are simply incomprehensible.  I watch every episode at least twice for purposes of these recaps, and I still couldn’t begin to tell you what William and Dolores’s narrative involving the Confederates, Ghost Nation and the whatever-the-fuck “revolution” is supposed to be.  Nor why the largest-scale war narratives are apparently tucked away in the hardest-to-reach sections – it seems like Disneyworld moving Space Mountain to Tampa and making the entrance only accessible by fanboat.  I understood when they were tasked with hijacking a nitroglycerine cart; that was pointless side mission but the goal was clear and simple. But now they are ostensibly…I don’t know, looking for Union soldiers to join up with?  Is the Civil War going on in the park’s narrative timeline?  In Mexico? Does the park have a Mexico? Is it all some fictional analogue country, to make things friendlier for non-American guests?  There were probably some lines about this in the Pariah episode, but at that point I had already stopped regarding the storyline as anything but a circuitous delivery mechanism for a twist the internet figured out the moment William was introduced, so even the second time through I hardly paid attention.  What he thinks they’re supposed to be doing now, or why Logan and his baddies give a shit or how they jeopardize it, are similarly beyond my capacity to understand and/or care.  The show would do well to remember that the latter is tied inextricably to the former.  
The storyline with the most forward movement continues to be Maeve’s, though she is unfortunately hampered by being sequestered with the worst aspects on the show. Sylvester is a one-dimensional craphole of a character, and Lutz is bizarrely underwritten for how pivotal a role he plays.  Also I find it distracting that the character named “Felix Lutz” and written to be a dim-witted dweeb is played by a guy named Leanardo Nam who looks exactly like someone named Leonardo Nam - which is to say, an Asian supermodel with a sexy haircut.  This is what a character named Felix Lutz is like:

And that’s the guy who would enable the rise of Skynet because he’s awed by the beautiful naked robo-gal. Whereas is abetting the overthrow of humanity because…I don’t know, really.  He’s sympathetic to the hosts’ predicament in general?  Terrified of Maeve, even though she spends half her time unconscious and completely at his mercy?  Smitten with her?  It’s hard to tell, because he just gapes slack-jawed at scene after scene of her leveling up in increasingly ominous fashion.  The trouble is, Lutz doesn’t have any backstory to explain his behavior.  Which is precisely what the show insists the hosts need to feel believable within their narratives.  But somehow it is unable to adhere to its own musings on characterization, or connect the dots to realize that its humans require the same definition as the robuts.  

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Damn, do I wish I could have that hair, though.  And cheekbones.  And...and, look, this isn't about me, okay?
And not to be outdone by the two-steps-back nature of the Theresa cover up, Maeve shockingly cuts Sylvester’s throat, asserting her ability to harm humans freely and crossing a Rubicon of hostile intent as she launches her bid to escape the park for good…only to have future tech un-slash his throat, and her be quickly cornered by Behavior techs before she can even get out of town.  It’s almost like the whole hulabaloo was designed to thwart any forward progress into some sort of reflexive loop. 

The mixed bag of the Bernard, Dolores and Maeve storylines mean the most satisfying portion of the episode belongs to Teddy and his interrogation into the Man’s motives.  This reveals some interesting backstory (imagine that!) for both the Man and Maeve, and gives Marsden and Harris some material that is more interesting than fighting a host dressed as a minotaur (they’re looking for a maze – get it?) to play.  It’s nice to see Teddy get in on the self-awareness action, even if he is a long way from Bernard or Maeve’s understanding of their true plight, and having a host smack the Man around is a decent change of pace if nothing else.  Apparently the Man’s obsession with the park managed to ruin his family relationships in the real world even though he never brought any bad behaviors back - nor, if he is to be believed, did he even indulge any in-park until the very end of his 30 year history with the place.  Which made him all the more determined to wring some meaning out of the park that seems as doggedly determined to resist attaching tangible significance to its content as the television series surrounding it.  

Maybe, as advertised, Wyatt can change all that.  But I’m becoming less hopeful every week.

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"You...your pools of emerald...what were we doing here again?"
  • This week on the player piano: "House Of The Rising Sun" made most famous by The Animals (and not, no matter what Napster or Limewire told you, The Rolling Stones or The Doors or Them), "Back In Black" by Amy Winehouse.
  • Speaking of music, I like that by the third time through, Hector’s saloon robbery is scored with a whimsical waltz, underlining the way Maeve has come to see this as the elaborate dance it is.
  • The bit where Maeve is shut off still staring at Sylvester is a great moment, creepy and comical in equal measure.  This show isn’t overflowing in humor, and the bits that work tend to the rather dark and very dry.
  • It’s going to be weird if the show goes for a big, "jaw-dropping" William=MiB reveal next week when it’s already done so much to establish it.  Charlotte confirms that Ford has dug up a town on the edge of the park as part of his new narrative, which is obviously the village with the church steeple sticking out of the ground that Ford took his lil’ robut self early in the season and William and Dolores find this week.  The village is where the hosts where beta-tested back in the 34 years ago timeline (which she flashes back to from the 30 years ago timeline – got it?), and is presumably the site of Arnold’s first failed awakening that serves as the inspiration for Wyatt’s massacre in Escalante.
  • I get my first bit of Armistice in weeks, and while it is quick and wordless, her shrugging off the sheriff’s odd behavior to shoot him in the back is pretty much everything I love about her.