Monday, November 14, 2016

REVIEW: 'Westworld' - Ford Reveals a Shocking and Unsettling Amount of Power to Theresa in 'Trompe L'Oeil'

HBO's Westworld - Episode 1.07 "Trompe L'Oeil"

Dolores and William journey into treacherous terrain. Maeve delivers an ultimatum. Bernard considers his next move.

Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality? That's the question the programmers always ask the hosts during their system checkups. It's an important question to ask. The hosts are programmed in such a way to keep them from becoming too sentient. They are programmed to ignore any casual references to the world outside of the park. They can completely ignore a house right in front of them if the programmers ask that of them. It's all a way for the humans behind-the-scenes to maintain control over the park. They don't fully understand the hosts and their level of consciousness. All it takes is for the right kind of anomaly to occur to threaten everything in the park. That has slowly been happening over the course of the series. The season has done an excellent job in peeling back the layers of this reality. It asks the audience the same question it poses to the hosts. It's asking the audience to question the nature of the reality being presented to us. The show has played with so many conventional expectations. Yes, it's still a show about robots rising up against humans. But it's proven to be more nuanced than that as well. Sure, it has propped up the mystery elements a little too far. Things have been very cryptic and character motivations aren't always clear. But when the show pulls a shocking twist, it lands remarkably well and does a powerful job at unsettling the audience. "Trompe L'Oeil" is a pivotal episode of the season. One that completely reframes everything that happened prior to it. And one that will hopefully prove to be a powerful transition for the end game of the season.

This season has examined the differences between humans and hosts. From the outside, they look exactly the same. It's hard to distinguish one from the other. That made it possible for the show to trick the audience into believing someone was human when in fact they were actually a host. That was one of the first things the show ever did. Teddy got off that train to romance Dolores. But then, it was revealed that he was a host who could die. He was simply programmed into this loop and destined to play it out every single day. That's an expectation the show created for the audience. The fact that anyone could be a host. But more importantly, what would that mean if a human isn't who he or she says they are. It means there's a whole new level of reality in this world that hasn't even been touched upon yet. There has been no reason to believe any of the programmers or technicians was not who they said they were. But again, this episode proves that's not the case at all. In fact, Bernard is a host. He believes he has this tragic backstory of his son dying which caused his marriage to fall apart. In hindsight, that feels exactly like the kind of tragic backstory to give to a character to define their importance and mood in a story. All the warning signs were there. But this episode uses this reveal to devastating effect.

Not only is this the first major reveal of a human being a host, it's also the first time a host has killed a human onscreen. It's still so unclear what actually led to Arnold's death all those years ago. It could have been the hosts developing out of his control and killing him. Or it could have been Ford as a way to contain this world and stop any pursuits of developing this technology further. Ford has a God complex. But now, it's clear he created this world just so he could control it. He has complete control. He hasn't allowed any information to leave the park. The corporate board has much bigger plans for this technology than this silly, role-playing park. Charlotte enters the scene with a cool and effective menace. She demands a presentation be made to force Ford into retirement. The company has the information they need to keep this technology alive. It's still a powerful sequence to watch as Clementine takes a beating and then dishes one out herself. It's all a ruse to show that the hosts are capable of holding grudges. Even though their minds have been wiped, some memories still persist which are compromising their actions. It's something that both Ford and Bernard see through right away. And yet, Charlotte doesn't use this as a way to take Ford out. Instead, she does it to get Bernard fired which sends him running back to Theresa and essentially seals her fate.

Bernard has been a compelling character so far. He is genuinely fascinated by human reaction. He studies it and wants to understand all the great mysteries of the human consciousness. The fact that he is a host programmed to do Ford's bidding makes it clear that this is all just a part of his code. He can be an object just as easily as the rest of the hosts. Bernard doesn't know the truth about his own existence. Even when presented with evidence, he doesn't question his reality. It's up to Ford to explain to Theresa how her grand plan has failed. Ford will always have control. No matter how many times the board goes up against him, he will always win. This story highlights how greedy and nefarious humans can be. Ford has lorded over this world with immense power. He can control the park with a simple thought. That has been a crucial power for him for a long time. But his corporate overlords aren't benevolent beings either. They are just as capable of manipulating the hosts to their advantage. Of course, their ultimate goals are still shrouded in secrecy just like Ford's new narrative. But it's clear they want hosts and humans to interact alongside each other with no clear separation between them. Ford won't allow that to happen. So, he's a savior in a certain way. And yet, it's still so shocking and unsettling to watch as Bernard kills Theresa. They had a bond of companionship. But here, he is able to easily kill her just because it's what Ford orders him to do. It shows just how monstrous the hosts are really capable of being. They can be weaponized so easily.

Of course, the power of the hosts has never really been in question before. The thought of the hosts becoming sentient is a powerful one that scares everyone who works at the park. They don't know what to expect once the anomalies started happening. They needed to get to the bottom of this mystery in order to ensure the safety of the park. But a couple key awakenings have forced some very interesting conversations about the human condition. Dolores and Maeve have had such different journeys on the show so far. It doesn't seem like they are destined to meet again. And yet, they are increasingly becoming aware of their world. The improvements on her code have made Maeve more powerful than ever before. She knows about the park and the people who control it. She doesn't just freeze like the technicians need her to. She sees how powerful humans can be. She sees them at their most monstrous as she watches Clem being decommissioned. That's a horrifying sight to her. But she also recognizes that humans are just cowardly men. She has no reason to be afraid of them. They have had wildly different experiences in life. She has died thousands of times. She is not afraid about breaking out of the park. That's a prospect that scares Felix and Sylvester. But it's something she clearly wants to do which could only heighten the war between humans and hosts while also revealing how much control Ford really has over his creations.

Dolores' journey is very different than that. She's on a mission of self-discovery. She's re-writing her own life. She's optimistic about her future even though it's scary and full of danger. She's no longer content just sitting around being the damsel in distress. She's taken control of her own life in search of something more. Of course, that has led her and William to the furtherest reaches of the park. They are traveling out to the edges in the hopes of finding purpose. William came to this world not knowing what to expect. And now, he realizes who he is on his deepest level. Yes, he has a life on the outside world. A life with a comfy job and a bride waiting to be married. But in the park, William has been freed from the shackles of his reality. He's in his own story and wants to discover its purpose and meaning alongside Dolores. That stands in contrast to her own journey. She doesn't want to be in a story. She wants to escape this world and discover a bright new horizon for herself. And yet, the two of them still find themselves attracted to each other and giving in to that temptation. It's a fascinating story arc. One of self-discovery that is pushing the limits of reality. It's unclear what they'll find at the maze. But it's bound to only lead to more mysteries and questions for the show to answer as it heads into its home stretch for the season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Trompe L'Oeil" was written by Halley Gross & Jonathan Nolan and directed by Frederick E.O. Toye.
  • Bernard's secret conversations with Dolores have a whole new meaning now. Are they simply another order for Ford to see just how deceitful his creations may be becoming? Or does it hint that there are deeper anomalies that Ford has absolutely no control over?
  • Sidse Babett Knudsen has been a valuable part of the cast. It would be so tragic if this really is the end of her run on the show. Theresa may be dead but Ford could create a host that looks like her just to keep his own ruse going. The potential is still there.
  • Elsie is still missing. She's the one who discovered that information was being stolen out of the park by Theresa. It's unclear if Delos had anything to do with her disappearance. Or was it some new entity that has yet to make his or her presence known?
  • As much control as her upgrade now gives her, Maeve still sees herself being caught in predictable dialogue that she has no control over. She is still following her loop. But now, she's aware that it is actually happening.
  • Dolores and William part ways with Lawrence following an epic shootout with the confederate soldiers and an attack from a tribe of indians. The action is great even if the visuals and racial subtext could be problematic.