Monday, October 17, 2016

REVIEW: 'Westworld' - Bernard Seeks a Human Connection While Teddy is Given a Backstory in 'The Stray'

HBO's Westworld - Episode 1.03 "The Stray"

Elsie and Stubbs head into the hills in pursuit of a missing host. Teddy gets a new backstory, which sets him off in pursuit of a new villain, leaving Dolores alone in Sweetwater. Bernard investigates the origins of madness and hallucinations within the hosts. William finds an attraction he'd like to pursue and drags Logan along for the ride.

Westworld has such a sprawling world and cast. "The Stray" features a number of disparate stories that don't thematically connect together all that well. It's the most piece-moving episode of the series so far. And yet, that doesn't make it a bad episode at all. In fact, it is very powerful and moving when it desires to be so. This episode moves the plot along in some expected ways. Its story beats the show needs to hit with its characters in order to get them to the appropriate positions for later on in their arcs. It's still the show functioning with a lot of mystery and intrigue. Not everything works. The show's routine structure is already starting to grow a little stale. But when the show provides depth to characters both human and machine, it can still provide some truly gripping storytelling. This episode plays with the conventions of storytelling while also recognizes the necessary work it takes to effectively build a story so its even more devastating later on when the climatic beats start occurring.

Throughout these first few episodes, the show has embraced the idea of the hosts malfunctioning. Every week it has become a mystery over which host will start acting weird and bring attention to itself. The truth behind what is happening to the hosts is still shrouded in so much secrecy. Elsie is doing her best to understand what is going on. She now has a new working theory. One that involves the hosts actually hearing voices. A new piece of code that could have dangerous and reckless consequences should they not contain it quickly. Of course, she's not the one to flesh out this possibility. Instead, she has to take charge when a host strays from his given storyline. She teams up with Stubbs to go out into the park and figure out what's going on. That's certainly an interesting pairing. It's one that's filled with sarcasm and perhaps a little bit of romantic pining. They have wildly different views of the world. She has control in Westworld thanks to the computers. Meanwhile, he has control with his weapons. They are different people but they do have some amusing banter while on this journey together.

However, Elsie and Stubbs' story really only continues to prop up the main mystery of something odd and potentially dangerous happening amongst the hosts. It's humorous to notice that this one host going missing completely throws off the balance in his story. He's the only one programmed to handle the ax which means the rest of his story is left behind not being able to start a fire and eat. But more importantly, this host really may have gone crazy. He hasn't been a main character like the other hosts who have started acting strangely. Maeve is largely able to go back to the cycle she has always lived in this world. She gets a memory flash when she sees Teddy again. She notices that not everything is alright in this world. But it doesn't lead to any major problems. The same cannot be said for Elsie and Stubbs. When they find the stray host, he's trapped and requires a rescuing of sorts. The team needs to preserve its head in order to fully analyze what happened to him. And yet, he seems to have taken on a more sentient life. He doesn't respond normally to Elsie's programming maneuvers. More importantly, he smashes his head in with a rock. It's a violent image that happens near the end of the hour. It's all a part of the show's unnerving presence with artificial intelligence. But again, it follows an expected formula that has played out in largely the same way across three episodes.

The story is much more engaging when it focuses on developing the backstories for a number of key characters. "The Stray" is at its best when its simply Dolores and Bernard talking. It's clear this relationship means a lot to Bernard. He has come to rely upon it. It's mostly as a way to continue checking for changes in Dolores' programming given the problems with the recent update. But he's also searching for a human response that can help him cope with the tragedy of his life. This hour reveals that he had a son and a wife. His son died which ended his marriage. And now, the pain of his death is all that he has to remember him. These memories are important to him. He doesn't want to forget. He sees that as a part of the human condition. It's tragic and brutal. The hosts are able to forget all of the countless times they've died. There is an easy explanation to everything that they do. And yet, Bernard is searching for something more. He needs Dolores to be more than just an object meant to amuse the guests. He needs her to show compassion and understand his struggle. He needs to connect with her in a way only humans can. That can be a very dangerous slope for him to pursue though. The desire for such a sentient being could be the reason for all of the problems amongst the hosts. He enjoys speaking to Dolores when she's off script. He sees the conversation as real. And even the analytics don't always have a good enough answer for her responses. It's the unknowable that makes this such an alluring process to him. He's curious to see where it goes.

Of course, this stands in stark contrast with Dr. Ford's own views on the subject. He sees the hosts as objects and nothing more than that. He doesn't trivialize himself with the need to make them feel human. It's the lack of connection that makes him a powerful visionary in this world. Some people are starting to question his new narrative for the park while others have major concerns about the problems in the upgrade. Bernard worries that the voices the hosts are hearing in their heads may be past memories of their former lives. It could be causing these dangerous malfunctions. However, Dr. Ford has an easy explanation for all of this. He simply shares a story of how the park first began and the work he and his partner, Arnold, used to do. In the beginning, all of this was so simple for Ford. He only had to focus on the hosts. There were no guests or board members with unknown agendas. It was a pure idea. And yet, it quickly became a story of two opposing ideologies. Arnold was driven mad by his desire to create sentient beings. He was searching for a human connection in much the same way that Bernard is. Ford recognizes that as well. He's aware that Bernard may still be struggling with the death of his son. These two have always appeared close. But this divide could break them apart in the future as the problems in the park only become more pronounced.

The show itself gives these backstories to Bernard and Dr. Ford to flesh them out as characters and to paint a fuller picture of this world and the humans who lord over the hosts. Backstories are key to this world. Elsie explains it's the basic foundation for an entire character. It helps build this universe with believable people no matter how cliche the twists may ultimately be. Meanwhile, it's another insightful observation when Dr. Ford actually programs a backstory for Teddy. It's the show commenting on the trope of introducing a character with a mysterious and cryptic backstory only to reveal a dark past that somehow connects back to the main plot later on. Instead, Teddy is going to serve a key role in the major storyline Ford is about to debut. He sets up a rival for Teddy. A man who will take him far away from Dolores and her cycle. Teddy will now be going up into the mountains of this world to battle with Wyatt and his group of vicious killers. Wyatt was Teddy's commanding officer in the military who went crazy after he started hearing the voice of God. He has assembled a cult that now operates more as devils than human. That's a fascinating new addition to the series' big questions of what makes the human condition. It's largely just setup in this episode. But it's interesting nevertheless while also providing a peak behind the programming doors.

And yet, the programming may no longer be enough to keep the hosts from doing some surprising and unexpected actions. Teddy teaches Dolores how to shoot. When the time comes for it though, she can't pull the trigger. She is not programmed to do so. Of course, the audience knows there is more to Dolores than meets the eye. She follows the script and promises to never kill a living thing. But that was quickly disproven in the premiere with her killing a fly. It was a subtle action that showed there was so much more going on in this world. And now, she is actually using that gun she found to protect herself. With Teddy no longer there to defend her, it's up to her to put up a fight or risk being raped or killed. It's great that the show doesn't do another rape scene. It understands that that's not something that needs to occur here. It's much more powerful to see Dolores rise up and fight against her coding. Sure, it wears her down later on but it also highlights the strength within her. That power will be crucial should she be the leader of an uprising amongst the hosts. That still appears to be the direction the show is heading in. So, that ultimately makes this is a predictable twist that needed to happen. But it sure does leave things pretty tense for the future.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Stray" was written by Daniel T. Thomsen & Lisa Joy and directed by Neil Marshall.
  • The Man in Black only appears in flashbacks. He remains an ominous tease and is clearly an important detail that Dolores is starting to remember. He obviously has a history with her. But the details of that are still being shrouded in secrecy.
  • Ford says that Arnold died in an accident. He doesn't believe it was an accident because Arnold was always so careful. And yet, Arnold never actually appears in the flashbacks to the early days of Westworld. So perhaps he isn't as dead as everyone is being led to believe here.
  • William gets to play the hero yet again by rescuing Clementine from a crazed madman. This is clearly a story of rising action for him. He's learning to be more confident in his moves while still adjusting to the realities of this world. He's also there for Dolores in the end when she ultimately collapses over what she has just done.
  • Being able to tell the difference between human and host in any given story is a key component of the series. And yet, it's still so fun and engaging to watch and see how different people react to different situations. The new storyline with Teddy is intense. But some people embrace it fully while others flee as soon as it gets too real.
  • It's still so unclear how weapons exactly work in Westworld. Bullets can't kill humans. And yet, they still leave a mark as William finds out here. Plus, there are plenty of other opportunities to be killed as well. Just because guns can't kill them doesn't mean knives or broken glass or precarious cliffs can't do the trick.