“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
|"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?
|"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.
|"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.
|"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.