Sunday, October 9, 2016

REVIEW: 'Westworld' - Maeve Faces a Recall While Logan and William Arrive in the Park in 'Chestnut'

HBO's Westworld - Episode 1.02 "Chestnut"

A pair of guests, first-timer William and repeat visitor Logan, arrive at Westworld with different expectations. Bernard and Theresa debate whether a recent host anomaly is contagious. Elsie tweaks the emotions of Maeve, a madam in Sweetwater's brothel, in order to avoid a recall. Sizemore pitches his latest narrative to the team, but Dr. Ford has other ideas. The Man in Black conscripts a condemned man to help him uncover Westworld's deepest secrets.

The series premiere of Westworld did a solid job at building this world. It was such an atmospheric first hour but it also did a fascinating job introducing these characters and their core conflicts. This is a violent and extremely heightened world. The repetition of the stories in the actual park showcase just how intricate this entire system really is. The guests spend a ton of money to get to play in this world. The programmers need to keep everything running according to plan while also making things better along the way. It's still so uncertain if the hosts are starting to become aware of their existences. Their memories are wiped clean at the end of every day. The behind-the-scenes crew work around the clock to repair and reset this world during the night. But it's abundantly clear that unknown forces are happening as well. This hour opens with Dolores waking in the middle of the night to a voice telling her to remember. Is this an actual voice from someone on the programming team hoping to do more with this program? Or is it actually the artificial intelligence becoming smarter than their creators? It's still shrouded in mystery but it continues to create such an effective hour in "Chestnut."

The programmers are aware of the flaw in the most recent upgrade. They've had to take some models out of Westworld. Some have had some pretty major glitches. And now, it's established that Mr. Abernathy's breakdown in the premiere wasn't like any of the others. His didn't happen the moment something made him question his reality. It was a slow process. One where he was still able to communicate with the people around him. Bernard and Elsie don't know if there is anything more to that. They know it could represent a much bigger problem for the park if this anomaly is "contagious." So, it's clear they'll be looking at Dolores with a keen eye. But there is absolutely nothing to suggest that they should be worried. Dolores passed the initial analysis. And now, it's made clear that she and Bernard have regular conversations. He's just as concerned about her as everyone else is - perhaps even more so. But no one has changed her programming. It's the same as it has always been. However, something is clearly happening. This isn't a big episode for Dolores. She's largely relegated to the background as other characters take the focus for the week. But she still wakes in the middle of the night to dig up a gun just outside her house. So again, the questions persist. Is this something she left there during a previous time? Or was it planted there for her to find for a reason?

The show really is playing it both ways. Either explanation would make a lot of sense. Maeve Millay, the madam at the brothel, plays a huge role in "Chestnut." The show purposefully shows a handoff between Dolores and Maeve as well. Dolores is standing outside the brothel. When she talks to Maeve, she recites the same thing to her that her father told her in his "dying" moments. It could hint that the contagion has spread to Maeve too. She's now becoming more aware of her surroundings. Of course, there is much more to her story than just that as well. This serves as her introductory hour for the show. It's a very powerful story too. She exudes power, grace and sexuality. But it's just as interesting to see her engage in the same scenario over and over again - with variations in every instance. She isn't performing as well as she used to. She is literally being judged based on how many people she fucks. That's the barometer for success with the prostitute hosts. They represent a basic human urge that needs to be fulfilled in a fantasy world where the guests can do anything without dealing with any of the consequences. Sure, it's horrifying and shows the dark nature of human existence. It highlights humanity's willingness to do dark acts when there will be no repercussions. The hosts won't remember it at all. Plus, they barely even react to it. The guests can interrupt their storylines at any point in time. Maeve and Teddy are just having a chat when he gets gunned down. But it still just has to be business as usual for Maeve.

However, Maeve gets a peak behind the curtain. She sees into the world behind her whole existence. It's an unnerving and horrifying sight as well. The people who work at Westworld have an incredible job to do. It's a system with so many departments. Each with their own solution to any problem. One is to make the hosts more aggressive in order to boost their performances. One highlights their emotional experiences. One wants to toss them aside as soon as a problem comes up. Maeve is marked for recall here. She's no longer doing a satisfactory job. Plus, she's acting up. It's a problem Elsie believes can be fixed with a physical workup. And yet, that provides Maeve with the terrifying sight of the real world. She wakes up during the middle of this big procedure. It's an alienating experience to her. It's raw and unnerving. She is completely naked in a strange and foreign environment. She's used to the world of Westworld. She's not sure how to react to the technological advances of the modern era. This escape into the real world is very eye opening for her. She sees how cold and mechanical this operation really is. She sees her fellow hosts in a pile just waiting to be repaired and recommissioned. It's a horrifying sight. They just lay there motionless as she's awake with an open stomach. This experience could be very damaging to her moving forward. No one knows this happened except the doctors performing the operation. They plan on keeping it quiet. They thought they gave her the sleeping injection. Perhaps they did and maybe that's no longer good enough.

Maeve was able to wake up because she was dreaming. That's impossible according to Elsie. The hosts were not programmed to actual have dreams. They know the concept of them. It helps them rationalize things if and when memories of their pasts creep to the surface. It helps provide the programmers a cover to talk to them without getting them to completely question their existence. It's established early on that Maeve has a trick to waking up from nightmares. It's not surprising that she uses that later on when she finds herself in either a dream or a memory. It could very well be something she experienced while playing another role in the park. It's a brutal sequence where she has a daughter and is trying to protect her from savages wishing to kill them. Of course, it's revealed the true hunter is the Man in Black. So, humanity is the most vicious and deadly form of life out there. It's easy for a narrative to spin a tale about men in tribal clothes and war paint being responsible for this brutality. But that masks a deeper understanding of the true horror of the human condition. This world embraces the violent tendencies of existence. The guests can do whatever they want. They can be whomever they want to be in Westworld. It's an exhilarating experience. But it's one that's proving to have some lasting complications as well. This dream could be something that happened to Maeve. The Man in Black is hunting hosts down and scalping them. It's something she would want to wake from. She just does that at a time where she sees even more of the horror going on in this world.

Dr. Ford understands all of this. He knows the guests keep coming back to the park not because of some formulaic storytelling but because of the experience and the willingness to surprise one's own expectations. This world changes people. It exposes them to the person within they didn't know was there. "Chestnut" showcases one man at the start of this journey. William is a first time guest at Westworld. He provides a peak into the beginning stages of this world. The hosts are a part of that every step of the way. But he's very reluctant to play into the temptation of this world. He doesn't want to kill in order to determine who's human and who's not. He doesn't want sex because he sees it as cheating on the woman he loves. This world is still alluring to him though. Dolores provides that glimpse of wonder and intrigue. She's not a part of the major story but she still pulls William in. Elsewhere, the Man in Black is playing a much different game than everyone else. He's trying to win this world. It's clear that he isn't crazy at all. There really is a deeper layer to play. He's looking for a maze and is provided with answers by one of the hosts after showing just how determined he is to get it. It's a story that still isn't completely working. But it is clear that security has their eyes on him and the number of bodies he's collected so far. This world pushes him to his extreme. He sees this place as his beginning and ending. A place where these impulses are cherished and rewarded as well as normalized and accepted. It's intoxicating and can pull him even deeper into this quest.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chestnut" was written by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy and directed by Richard J. Lewis.
  • Bernard and Theresa are actually sleeping together. It's purely a sexual relationship. She really doesn't enjoy talking with him at all because he's always analyzing her behavior. But they still have an interesting conversation about the need to communicate in order to feel human.
  • Sizemore can be a little too dramatic and over-the-top. He cares way too much about the story and doesn't take kindly to people who criticize his decisions. Sure, Dr. Ford is still able to intimidate him in person. But Sizemore still feels the old man should be put out to pasture already.
  • It is pretty great to watch Dr. Ford just completely shut down Sizemore's pitch for a new story. It's clear Dr. Ford has his own plans which are still only vaguely being teased. He has big plans for this universe he has created. But what does that tower mean for the future of Westworld?
  • The contrast between William and his friend, Logan, is perhaps a little too severe. Logan is a veteran of the park and knows all the tricks the hosts have to play. He just comes to drink, shoot and fuck a couple of pretty hosts at the brothel. Meanwhile, William struggles to come out of his shell until he spots Dolores.
  • Thandie Newton is just phenomenal in this episode. That sequence near the end where she is running around naked in the strange, behind-the-scenes world of Westworld is terrific. Her expressions sell just how disorienting all of this is to Maeve.