Monday, October 31, 2016

REVIEW: 'Westworld' - Dolores, William and Logan Find a Surprise in a New Town in 'Contrapasso'

HBO's Westworld - Episode 1.05 "Contrapasso"

Dolores, William and Logan reach Pariah, a town built on decadence and transgression - and are recruited for a dangerous mission. The Man in Black meets an unlikely ally in his search to unlock the maze.

Westworld is clearly building to something big in this first season. Every single action that the characters partake in has some level of mysterious foreboding to it. It's as if the show is operating with information that the audience doesn't have yet. That can be very frustrating for the audience. It creates a mystery-based narrative. A story that needs to be solved as quickly as possible. We live in an age of connectivity right now where any kind of mystery can be solved weeks in advanced. It's the perils of telling a story like this in 2016. If a show is released on a weekly basis with a core mystery to its storytelling, one can expect people online to crowd source and analyze every single detail of every episode. And thus, mysteries can be spoiled and revealed long before they happen on the show. Right now, the show is still operating as world building. It's setting these characters up while continuing to explore the universe of Westworld. It's a unique experience but one that is slowly starting to get a little annoying because the individual pieces aren't wholly coming together yet.

"Contrapasso" has the biggest evidence so far that the show may be playing around in time. This is a sprawling cast. There is so much going on at any given moment. This hour does cut things down a little bit to just focus on a handful of stories. Stories that further delve into the personal mysteries of the characters. But it's still just a lot of rising action and foreshadowing of the big event that is about to come in the later half of the season. That reveal may include a flexible timeline. Lawrence is the first host to show up in two different places. He's been with the Man in Black on his journey to find the center of the maze. A journey that doesn't make any significant process in this episode. But one that does include the Man in Black killing Lawrence just so he can save Teddy. It's after that death that Lawrence shows up as the outlaw in change of things in Pariah, the town that Logan, William and Dolores were headed to on their new "black hat" adventure. It could be reasonable to assume that the park has hosts who are identical. But it has also presented evidence that the hosts have been programmed with different lives before. Maeve was a prairie woman before she became the madam in the Sweetwater saloon. Lawrence could just as easily be this double-crossing outlaw before he was a man sentenced for death. Or perhaps there's something else happening entirely.

Therein lies the problem. If every single plot beat is just ominous teasing for a big reveal that's about to come, then that loses potency after a couple of episodes. If the show is nothing more than foreshadowing, that big event needs to happen sooner rather than later. It does get in the way of certain character arcs as well. The audience is trained to search for these clues to unlock the puzzle. That search could ruin the episodic journey that builds these characters and the world up. The defining characteristics of these people are still largely the same as they were in the beginning. Of course, some things have changed. The show still does mood and world-building well. This hour introduces the outlaw town of Pariah. It's very different from Sweetwater and even includes an extended orgy happening in the background of the story. But again, it's unclear what value that brings to the overall experience. It's just something that happens to highlight the type of world Westworld is and what it hopes to bring out of the guests. As Logan puts it, the further out from Sweetwater one goes, the more danger they'll encounter and the true sense of self they'll expose. It's a fascinating perspective. One that plays well with William and Dolores' arcs of self-discovery. But what do those stories mean if the show is playing around with time? It just means that not everything is as it appears.

Dolores continues to be such a great main character. Her journey on the show is the most captivating by far. It's easy to care about her. The same can also be said of Maeve. But everyone else is just a vessel for things to happen or be revealed. Dolores feeds into that mysterious mentality as well. Her story is trapped within a structure of slowly teasing information to the audience too. She hears voices telling her to do things. She sees the map to the maze in random places in the park. She hallucinates herself showing her that this world isn't as real as it seems. It's a great acting achievement for Evan Rachel Wood. This episode even reveals that she was the last host to speak with Arnold before he died. Ford is worried that a piece of his coding is still present within her that is causing all of the problems in the park right now. It's clear that she is keeping information from him. That's a big deal. But it's treated as just a casual reveal in the middle of the episode. A tease of more mysterious things to come. It's great and exciting when Dolores changes her personality a little bit in order to escape Pariah. She proves to be quite the gunslinger herself. But she's still trapped in this narrative with Lawrence and William. She's committed to the journey. Both she and William see it as a way of breaking free of their regular existences. They are on parallel journeys of self-discovery. William's comes when he decides to leave Logan behind as he's getting beaten while Dolores' comes when she pulls that trigger and kisses William. This is the path they are committing to. It's just unclear what that actually means for the future.

Elsewhere, Ford has a sit down with the Man in Black to talk about his journey in the park. It's clear that both of these men know who the other is. Ford is the man who created the park while the Man in Black is someone who helped finance it all. It's clear they both have a reputation. This is Ford's world and he is able to control it with ease. All he has to do is think it and the world will cater to his every whim. That's a strong and seductive power. However, it's still unclear what Ford's ultimately ambition for the park is. Arnold wanted to create sentient beings. Ford sees the hosts as his creations who cannot feel pain. It's a perilous journey for anyone who searches for more meaning than that. But it's also clear Ford has a big plan for the future. One that includes Wyatt who the Man in Black is hunting down. He's doing that in order to get the next clue for the maze. A mystery that makes no significant progress at all. It's just a big deal that these two characters sit down and chat. Ford doesn't interrupt or caution against the Man in Black's journey. It's not his place to do so. But why would he take the time to meet this guest otherwise? It's a great scene because of the acting Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris do. But there's still something missing at the heart of it as well.

Despite all of this, it's clear that huge progress is being made with Maeve. She's the host who is becoming the most sentient. That could become a huge problem in the future. But right now, it is able to develop because the system of Westworld is so compartmentalized. There are zones with their own level of expertise that are largely separated from one another. This problem with Maeve is going unchecked because no one really knows any better. No one wants to be hired for this massive mistake. But she is learning more and more about the reality of her situation. It's a powerful final image to see her sit up in the lab telling the tech, Felix, they need to have a chat. She's aware of her surroundings enough to know this man. Felix fears Maeve because of the costly mistake he made in letting her wake up during a surgery. However, his story throughout the episode really isn't that great. It has a predictable pattern to it. One low level employee aspires to greater things in the company only to be criticized by his jackass co-worker. It's clear the story is building to a big twist. In this case, that payoff happens immediately with Maeve sitting up in the end. It's something that needed to happen. But it could also indicate at some big shifts happening shortly in the narrative. Dolores and Maeve are searching for freedom. Will they ever find it?

Some more thoughts:
  • "Contrapasso" was directed by Jonny Campbell with teleplay by Lisa Joy and story by Dominic Mitchell & Lisa Joy.
  • That extended orgy sequence would have been tantalizing a few years ago. But now thanks to numerous programs on HBO, Showtime, Starz and Netflix, audiences have become more numb to it. It really does just exist in the background of the scene as titillation and nothing more. That's just lame.
  • Elsie makes a huge discovery when she finds a satellite receiver in the body of the host that smashed its head in a couple of episodes ago. She warns Bernard that someone is trying to send messages out of the park. And that just adds to the number of mysteries happening right now.
  • Elsie's discovery is huge but her story leading up to it is pretty dreadful. When she's programming a new host and commenting on the size of his manhood, it's an awful scene. And then when she blackmails a technician with the video of him having sex with a host in need of repair, it's just awkward and silly.
  • The Man in Black always thought the park was lacking a clear and good villain. He wonders if that's what Wyatt's purpose is right now. Is he a way to keep him from finding the maze? But more importantly, it's looking more and more likely that Ford may be the true villain of the actual show.
  • What exactly is keeping any of the guests from being murdered in the park? That's a huge question that becomes more and more pressing with each passing episode. Here, Logan is being suffocated and later beaten. What's to keep any of the hosts from killing him? Is there a liability waver warning people that death may happen if they travel too far from Sweetwater? Or is there some safe word to protect the guests at all costs? It's unclear.