‘Westworld’ Season 1, Episode 3: The Things We Want the Most and Experience the Least
Three episodes in, Westworld is quickly becoming a show of theories. Tonight’s “The Stray” didn’t advance much of the show’s overarching narrative, but it did throw a major monkey wrench into one of the more notable theories that’s been debated so far.
As proposed on Reddit, it goes like this: William, the character played by Jimmi Simpson, is actually the young version of the guy played by Ed Harris, the so-called “Man in Black.” According to the theory, Harris’ scenes take place years after the ones with Simpson, something that would hypothetically be possible because the park’s robotic Hosts never age. The series already alluded to trouble at the park some 30 years ago; perhaps those are the events in young William’s “timeline”?
It’s an intriguing notion, and one that wouldn’t feel out of place in the oeuvre of series co-creator Jonathan Nolan. (He, after all, is the man who wrote the short story that served as the inspiration for the time-scrambled Memento.) But it doesn’t seem to fit with the events of “The Stray,” particularly the end of the episode, where Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores returns to her family farm as it comes under attack from a group of bandits. In the version of these events from the park’s old storyline, Dolores and her family were assisted by her doomed beloved Teddy Flood (James Marsden). But as park director Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) begins threading his new narrative into the park, Teddy shifts elsewhere, leaving Dolores to defend the farm alone.
Earlier in this episode, we learn Dolores can’t fire a gun; her programming won’t allow it. But after her exposure to the mysterious virus that’s slowly worming its way into Westworld’s Hosts, she’s beginning to remember her past and break through some of her programming. When one of the bandits tries to rape her, she flashes back to the Man in Black’s attack in Westworld’s first episode. She hears a voice say “Kill him,” and then she shoots and kills the bandit. After more violence on the farm, Dolores wanders away, and collapses into the arms of ... William. That means the attack by the Man in Black happened before William’s arrival in the park.
That would invalidate the theory. The only reason I’m not willing to say “completely invalidates” is because in the midst of the farm siege, Dolores experiences what feels more like a premonition than a flashback. After killing the bandit in the barn, she comes back to her family’s house. A man standing on the porch says “Hey! Get back here!” and shoots her in the stomach. Then the entire scenario replays, only this time, she doesn’t get shot, and, anticipating his gunfire, runs to a horse and rides away.
It’s possible there’s an invisible jump forward in that cut from Dolores wounded to Dolores healed, like the scene in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray keeps returning to the same conversation with Andie MacDowell and incrementally adjusting his behavior each time to match her responses. Or it could be some kind of robotic intuition. And if that’s true, and time really is getting messed with in unclear ways, then it’s possible that Dolores’ visions of the Man in Black are from the future. That seems really confusing for a TV show that’s hoping to hook a broad audience, but hey, Lost had some pretty confusing twists too.
“The Stray” did offer more support for a different theory, one I first read about in an article by HitFix’s Donna Dickens. It proposed that Westworld is set on a “terraformed Mars.” This episode includes a scene where Jeffrey Wright’s character, Bernard Lowe, speaks to his wife (Gina Torres) on a high-tech Skype call. “You know how hard it is getting an open line out here,” Lowe says. “Out here” could mean “in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico,” but given the advanced state of cellular phone technology in 2016, it seems more likely that in the future it’d be harder to get a phone signal if “out there” meant some place like Mars.
Lowe’s character is one of the focal points of “The Stray.” The show opens with one of his secret conversations with Dolores, who now sits in a cell in the bowels of Westworld that feels like a nod to the glass cage that held Dr. Hannibal Lecter (aka Westworld star Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs. (This episode also includes a direct homage to one of the greatest Westerns of all time, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when Dr. Ford quotes the film’s most famous line to Lowe: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”) Lowe gives Dolores a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and has her read a passage aloud:
Dear dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night.
That’s pretty on the nose there, Bernard. Dolores says that excerpt is about change, then she reads a bit more:
Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is: Who in the world am I?
From there the scene cuts to black, but those words echo through the rest of this episode. Almost every sequence hinges on what characters can or can’t remember. For example, Dr. Ford updates Teddy’s hard drive to include memories of a previously unwritten backstory. When he asks Teddy if he remembers his new character, a man known as Wyatt, Teddy replies “You look upon the face of true evil you ain’t liable to forget.” But of course Teddy forgets what he learns every single day, and he never even knew Wyatt before this moment.
Dr. Ford then has a conversation with Lowe about a rogue Host who was hearing voices. Ford tells Lowe about Westworld’s history and a previously unmentioned partner named Arnold, who made the fatal error of trying to give the park’s first Hosts consciousness. While playing coy about the details, Ford claims Arnold lost his mind in his quest to give one to his creations. He concludes his story by explaining the guests come to Westworld to experience power of a kind they don’t have in their everyday lives. “Thus for the hosts,” Ford says, “the least we can do is make them forget.”
Just moments later, as Lowe is leaving Dr. Ford’s office, he says to him “Just don’t forget: The hosts are not real. They’re not conscious. You mustn’t make Arnold’s mistake.” Then in the very next scene where Lowe calls his wife they say things like “At least you have a way of forgetting.” and “I don’t forget. It’s always there.”
I don’t buy it myself, but I suspect the next big Westworld theory will be that the Man in Black (who makes no progress on his quest to find the maze in this episode) is actually Dr. Ford’s “dead” partner Arnold, who didn’t die but rather was left to roam the park however he chose. That would certainly explain his extensive knowledge of Westworld and all of its Hosts, as well as his unusual freedom to do as he pleases. But that seems a little too convenient to me, and if the Man in Black was Arnold, and he did help build the park, he’d probably know about this hidden maze and how to find it already.
I’m writing a lot about theories and themes because that’s essentially what this episode was about. It incrementally advanced Dolores’ storyline and awakening consciousness, and it introduced a potential new threat in the form of Wyatt and Dr. Ford’s strange new narrative. The stray of the title provided some solid jolts (not to mention some surprisingly graphic gore), but that whole subplot felt pretty dragged out. It’s good that Westworld gives you so much to think about, because the moment-to-moment stuff onscreen can sometimes get a little dry.
EPISODE RATING: 7/10
AND ANOTHER THING...
-Once again, the show’s self-commentary remains one of its greatest strengths, in this case with the addition of Teddy’s backstory and Dr. Ford’s acknowledgement that the only reason Teddy seems mysterious is because they never bothered to explain why he couldn’t be with Dolores in the first place.
-The theory Dr. Ford talks about involving the “bicameral mind” is a real one. It will be interesting to see if it comes up again. (According to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, the season finale is titled “The Bicameral Mind.”)
-One last detail that could be either very important or totally irrelevant. When Teddy confronts Wyatt’s men, he draws their attention to let the rest of his party escape. As they close in, Teddy opens fire but the men don’t react. Typically in Westworld, this is a tell-tale sign that someone is a guest and not a Host. That makes me wonder: Is Dr. Ford supplying his new narrative with living human beings instead of Hosts? Or is he programming new Hosts that can’t be killed by bullets? If that’s true, and these Hosts catch the virus, that could be mighty dangerous for the flesh-and-blood residents of Westworld.