Monday, November 7, 2016

REVIEW: 'Westworld' - Maeve Takes Control of Her Life While Bernard & Elsie Unravel a Mystery in 'The Adversary'

HBO's Westworld - Episode 1.06 "The Adversary"

Maeve charms Felix. Elsie uncovers possible sabotage. The Man in Black and Teddy run afoul of a garrison. 

Westworld has gotten more than a little frustrating over the last few episodes because of its constant need to be mysterious and cryptic all of the time. Seriously, so much of the storytelling is about giving the audience these brief teases of something nefarious under the surface while also delaying the inevitable reveal about what's really happening in the park until the end of the season. It has gotten annoying because very few character dynamics exist outside of that mold. Dolores and Maeve are the two best characters on the show because they are actively trying to break out of their loops and learn more about the world around them. It's a satisfying story arc for both of them because of the immediacy involved. The mystery just has to be cryptically teased for long periods of time in each episode. Meanwhile, Dolores and Maeve are able to struggle as their questions about their realities only continue to grow. "The Adversary" is a terrific episode of the show because it truly digs deep into the true nightmare and horror that comes from creating artificial intelligence and the numerous ways to try and control it.

Maeve has become sentient enough to know that the park is just a fictional story. A world where she has a part to play but it's not her whole reality. She finds ways to die just to get sent back to the lab. She has a way of waking up from that dream. It's a fascinating exploration on her part. She's willing to embrace any kind of pain just to get the answers she desperately needs right now. It's a huge shock to her system to learn the truth about her reality. Felix has greater ambitions of being able to do more at the park. He doesn't want to be a low-level tech forever. He wants to become a behavioral engineer. That turns out to be a huge asset for Maeve. He has the knowledge and answers she seeks. That doesn't make it easy on her system though. He can explain how different humans and hosts are. Maeve sees them as the same. She can't tell the difference because a human and a host. Felix knows the difference because humans control the hosts. They literally create consciousness just to control and confine it. It's a way for humanity to feel superior as they further explore the expansion of the universe. Maeve's system literally can't process it when she sees just how programmed her life really is. That's a shock but it's not enough to truly damage her moving forward.

The most effective sequence of the hour comes when Felix takes Maeve on a walk through the facility. It starts with horrifying sights she has already seen of this strange, technological world. She sees a bunch of hosts like herself naked and covered in blood just piled up waiting to be treated. But now, she has the opportunity to rise throughout the facility. As she moves up each level, she sees something new about the beauty and horror of the creation of her world. She is seeing all of this for the first time. She has fresh eyes to this experience. The lab techs have this as a part of their regular days. There's no longer anything special about what they actually do here. But it really is amazing to watch the creation of human flesh. It's an automated process. It's one of absolute beauty though. Maeve sees this creation. She sees all the delicate work that goes into making the hosts look and feel as human as humans do. But again, all of this is starkly contrasted with the fact that humans control this entire facility. They put limits on the hosts so they won't rise up against them. They have a superiority complex that highlights the tragedy of this whole sequence. No matter what, the hosts are destined to live out the loops that have been programmed for them. Maeve is the one exception to see the behind-the-scenes world fully aware. But again, that only presents more challenges for her.

As far as Maeve knows, she has been the madam at the saloon for a decade now. That has been her life. There has been nothing more than that. She has memories of a previous life on a farm with a daughter. And now, she actually sees those memories as a promo for the park. That marks the end of her journey throughout the facility. It doesn't end with her and Felix getting caught. In fact, it only further opens up the possibilities for both of them. Maeve questions her reality even more. Her world is so much more than just being a madam. She finally has control over her own life. She demands to make changes to her programming. Through blackmailing and intimidation, she is able to get Felix and Sylvester to comply. Of course, that's where the show takes a turn back to being mysterious and cryptic. They learn that someone has already been messing around with Maeve's code beyond the normal storytelling adjustments. Perhaps that explains how she has become more self-aware to her reality. That's a tease for the overall mystery of the show. But the story of this episode isn't lost because of it. The resolution is still powerful because if features Maeve becoming the woman she envisions herself to be. She's the one making decisions about her life. It's not the people behind-the-scenes creating a world for the guests. Maeve is in control of her life which will be very empowering for whatever comes next.

All of this opens an interesting conversation about the differences between the pragmatic sense of reality and the romantic ideals of what humanity can become. The hosts are naked all of the time behind-the-scenes in order to give humans the superiority to lord over them as their creators. They are the people in charge even though the hosts have the potential to be far superior to them if given the proper opportunity. The humans are pretty smart as well. Elsie and Bernard are able to further investigate the corporate espionage happening within the park. They learn that Teresa and Arnold are behind sending the messages out of the park. Of course, that makes very little sense considering Arnold is dead. That's what everyone has been led to believe. And yet, his code still appears to be making a difference even in the current state of affairs in the park. He is still contributing to the development of the hosts no matter how complex they are becoming. All of this is illustrated perfectly in the scene where Ford describes Arnold giving him the gift of hosts reacting his only happy memory from his childhood. That young boy who keeps popping up in the park really is a young version of Ford. He's one of just a few first generation hosts still in rotation in the park. Arnold gave this to Ford as a way to immortalize this memory forever. It's telling that Ford has opted to tweak the hosts so that they more closely mirror their real-life counterparts. That highlights the differences between the two founders. Ford sees the hosts as just as troubled and complicated as humans while also existing just to be amusement to the guests. Meanwhile, Arnold saw them as something more than that which could lead to the next evolutionary state of human consciousness. It's unclear how all of this will play out in the final episodes of the season. But it is clear that things are happening within the company that only a few people really have control over.

"The Adversary" spends the majority of its time focusing on the humans who run the park and very little time on the actual world for the guests to enjoy. The sole exception is the latest adventures of the Man in Black on his journey to find the maze. He still has made very little progress on this journey. And yet, it is still so much fun watching the show play with this Western tropes while offering its own spin on things. Plus, it goes along with the episode's overall themes of change and evolution. The Man in Black has been coming to the park for many years. The maze is the last piece of the puzzle he has to solve. That's what is driving him on this mission. He has questions that need to be answered. He believes he knows Teddy. He has killed him many times before. He knows how much Dolores means to him. He knows how to manipulate this world to his advantage. And yet, he is still capable of being surprised. It's clear the tweaking in Teddy's programming to make him a more important part of the ongoing Wyatt story has made a difference. Now, he's actually haunted by memories of killing people. That hasn't changed all that much in the present. However, it's still startling to watch as he gets behind a machine gun to take down a bunch of soldiers who stand in the way of the Man in Black's path. It's surprising to the Man in Black as well. Surprises are good and entertaining. Now, the show just needs to provide strong resolutions on everything it has built up this season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Adversary" was written by Halley Gross & Jonathan Nolan and directed by Frederick E.O. Toye.
  • As soon as Elsie went to the abandoned theater in the park all alone at night, it was only a matter of time until something happened to her. It's a formulaic twist to delay giving information to the audience for another episode. It's just a little too conventional and expected to work here.
  • Teresa breaks up with Bernard because Ford knows about their relationship and she doesn't want anything to be seen as a compromise to her job. It's clear she has a hidden agenda in regards to what's going on in Westworld. Bernard has become aware of that but he has no idea what she's really up to.
  • Plus, a new representative from Teresa's company shows up at the park. Tessa Thompson makes her series regular debut on the show as Charlotte Hale. It's just a brief introduction here - largely seen through Sizemore - with just enough of a tease about a shakeup being imminent.
  • Speaking of Sizemore, he really is the most one-note and bland character on the show so far. Yes, he provides the series with a way to be meta about the pain and difficulty of writing and artistry. But there's just not enough entertaining with him for those brief moments to be all that worth it.
  • Teddy further adds to the mystery of the maze by telling a story about the man at the center of it having been killed many times but still being alive. He built the maze so that only he could navigate it in order to feed into his own personal isolation. Is it too easy to assume that this person is Arnold?
  • Dolores and William aren't seen at all this week. Their absence isn't all that important simply because of how sprawling and stacked this cast is. Their characters can just disappear for the week and others are more than capable of stepping up to fill the void.