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Is HBO's 'Westworld' a Groundbreaking Drama or a Highly-Stylized Parlor Trick?

By Lord Castleton | Westworld | November 25, 2016 | Comments ()

By Lord Castleton | Westworld | November 25, 2016 |


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Over black:

“Bring yourself back online…Bernard.

Whew. That’s…just a strong way to open. With many of us still puke-reeling through the various phases of grief about the presidential election, hearing Bernard addressed this way (even if we knew) is…hard.

WHAT DOOR?

Whew.

State Of The Show

I honestly can’t decide if Westworld is a groundbreaking pièce de résistance or just a highly stylized parlor trick. Because in some ways, I’ve been absolutely knocked over the head by its magnificence: the Louis Abernathy Scene, the Ford vs. MIB tête-à-tête, re-tasking bots, loops, Maeve in general, Bernard in general, Ford in general, the pianification of modern music, the score, the loop-starting BUM BUM BUM music, the production design, the vistas, ghost nation, all the gamer references, pre-douche Logan, Kid McPoyle, what door…

I mean, that’s a SHITLOAD of great stuff and I could go on. So the show is amazing, right? It has to be with that laundry list, and I haven’t even mentioned the writing. Which might be, upon final review, absolutely brilliant.

But it also might not be.

And isn’t that the damn rub of the spoiled viewer in the age of peak TV?

Because all this should be enough. So why am I worried?

First of all, because I’m part of the problem. I spent the first six weeks trying to understand and even predict what was going on. But it was only episodes seven and eight where I truly began to enjoy the show because I allowed myself to stop thinking about it and just watch.

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But I still can’t quite trust it. And why? Because of the multiple time periods, mostly. Because I have the sense that, like the hosts, I’m being willfully misled by the powers that be. And because, unlike every other show of this ilk, I still have almost nothing to root for. Or against.

I mean, we’re being generally herded to root for Dolores and Maeve, right? But what are we actually rooting for? There isn’t a more tired-ass premise in the sci-fi world than a bot becoming self-aware. It’s not novel, and the airwaves are saturated with a hundred versions of that premise. But we’re meant to hope that the enslaved bots throw over their ‘evil’ overlords and raise holy hell? Is that what we’re rooting for? Or is it that the Man in Black finds the answer to the deeper game? I still don’t understand everything about the regular game. Is it to normalize a man falling in love with a machine, as William has? I have a pretty sweet coffee maker. Maybe I should have sex with it. Or is it a cautionary tale about creators?

Or maybe…it’s a smorgasbord where everyone can root for whatever and whomever they like. If I’m a megalomaniac, I cherish Ford. If I like bad boys, I’ll be rooting for the market tested Hector and his big safe-stealing narrative. If I like women wresting empowerment from the void, Dol might just be my huckleberry.

Westworld, like \W/estworld, will reveal my true self. All of our true selves.

But I can’t shake the nasty feeling that we’re being duped.

The time periods. It’s the time periods. Because whenever you can’t show me something in chronological order, my hackles go up. In general, I’m of the opinion that if a story —any story— requires a gimmick like revealing plot points out of order? That’s a dead giveaway that the story isn’t strong enough to hold water on its own.

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And that’s where we might be.

Because now we’ve basically established at least three independent time periods. And there’s the suggestion of various alternate perspectives of different hosts inside those periods. And so we’re talking about holding a lot of information from wildly disparate points on a timeline, not to mention the multiple independent timelines of each particular host. And we might also be talking about having seen different people in the same physical body (at least that’s how we would process it visually). And that can feel a bit overwhelming.

So we don’t know what the core story is.

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And we don’t know what or whom we’re necessarily rooting for.

The characters don’t have a collective goal that we know of.

We don’t even know if the characters are the characters. Or if they’re just facsimiles of the characters.

We don’t often know where or specifically when we are.

And like a lab rat, tiny morsels of information are doled out every week, but for every tidbit we receive we’re left yearning for half a dozen more. That’s kind of genius and kind of, I don’t know…disempowering.

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Because as long as stories have been told, there has been a sort of commonality or understanding about the premise. The storyteller leads you down a road, the listener goes along for the ride, but they are bonded by a shared goal: the story. But Westworld is really pushing the limits of that relationship.


Westworld: You want to hear a story?

Viewer: I sure do.

Westworld: Great. Have a seat.

Viewer: I’m excited for this. I love stories.

Westworld: Great. So I’m going to tell you a story.

Westworld 2: And so am I.

Viewer: Whoa! Where’d he come from? Cool!

Westworld 2: My story takes place in a small town.

Westworld 3: And my story takes place before someone gets on a train.

Westworld: And my story is about the same girl over and over again.

Westworld 8: And the Earth is dead. Maybe.

Westworld 17: And there’s a deeper game.

Westworld 457: But now one bot can reprogram others!

Westworld 2345: None of the other Westworlds are telling the truth.

Westworld 14,617: You are a bot and all this shit is in your mind.

Westworld: “How am I doing, Robert?” He says.

Westworld 228: Everything is bespoke.

Westworld 44,001: The entire world lacks one thing: purpose.

Westworld 567: “That day when you made Executive Vice President? That was the best day of your life.”

Westworld 99: A can drops.

Westworld 89007: They call that a Judas Steer.

Westworld 4: The Confetherathos!

Westworld 100: We have a pyrotechnical request in sector 6G!

Westworld 910: But the member of the board is already here! I thought you’d know that.

Westworld 11: Ford made Arnold, and then killed him.

Westworld 65: The bicameral mind, after all.

Westworld 14: Let’s just take a look at that explosive spine, shall we?

Worldwest 5: The maze is not for you.

Viewer: This is cool, kind of! But who am I supposed to like follow? What’s the main story?

Worldwest: The main story is everyone’s search for the maze. Or is it?

Viewer: Um, I don’t know?

Dlrowtsew: If you rearrange the letters in Bernard Lowe’s name, some of them make Arnold!

Delos Adventures: There are nine million levels. The top level is Mesa Gold.

\W/: I killed them all.

Viewer: So like, I mean…cool! This is very unique. Who’s like, the main character?

Westworld 6: Past Dolores is the main character. But also Past Teddy.

Westworld 9 billion: And also Ford. But human Ford, not bot Ford.

Westworld 300: Also kind of Bot Ford, though.

Viewer: There’s a bot Ford?

WW: There’s an everything everything. That’s the whole thing!

Viewer: That’s what whole thing?

Westworld 71: These violent delights…

Viewer: Have violent ends! Yes, yes! I know that but I…um…GOD I already forgot what I was going to ask.

Westworld 44: Were you going to ask what Bernard whispered to Abernathy’s decommissioned corpse?

Viewer: Yes! What did he whisper?

Westworld 666: He whispered everything, but you only know that because you were using your bot eyes to see it, and your bot eyes can’t show you things that can hurt you. What you should be asking is which time Abernathy was decommissioned and which Bernarnold was it whispering?

Viewer: God this is too confusing. Was Teddy a dog once?

Westworld 1041: Yes!

BernardLowe: No! Well, maybe. Depends when. Who’s asking? Technically Teddy was always a host. Because he’s not a fly.

Viewer: This is a lot to take in. Let me ask you probably the most important question ever: how the fuck do Sylvester and Felix put Slim and Suicide Horse back together after they’re blown into a million billion fucking pieces?

Worldwest -7-: Sylvester and Felix don’t even exist, technically.

WestW: Yes they do, but is this pre-bird Felix or post-bird Felix?

Viewer: I guess post-bird Felix? From what I’ve seen I guess?

Westword 114: Felix is a bot. You know that, right?

W35Tw0RLD: It doesn’t look like anything to me.

Viewer: I give up. I mean, this is all grand, but I have no idea who, what, or when anything is.

That’s a little how it feels. They’ve got us talking about departments like behavior and narrative. They’ve got us wondering who Wyatt is. They’ve got us wondering how Bernard could rebel against Ford if Ford built him and he doesn’t have Arnold’s reveries built into him. They’ve got us talking about Arnold: someone no one has ever seen. Or at least, we haven’t. That we know of.

See?

They’ve got us coming and going and they’re playing House of the Rising Sun on a player piano over it. It’s the soundtrack of our ignorance.

Here’s a quick GIF of me and the packet of everything I’m sure I’m right about on this show.

I don’t know where we’re headed or when we’re headed, and while I’d love nothing more than to do a long recap and pick through every detail, this is a short week and I have little’uns crawling all over me who won’t give me a single moment of peace alone with gilded orgies and nude bots and missing doors.

The hard part isn’t how dicked around I feel by the show. The hard part is that I keep coming back. Willingly, and with great delight to frame my loud Baaaaaahing. I’m just dying to know what this all points to, if anything.

And if it’s nothing? By god I’m going to raze this place to hell.

But before I go, let’s take a lightning fast sprint through all the cool shit that happened this week.

Like…Abernathy coming back?

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A few weeks ago, I had never heard of Louis Herthum. Now he feels like a Christmas present. Welcome back, old (new) friend! Whisper to me about hell.

I don’t know what Tessa Thompson’s strategy is, really, but you absolutely cannot go wrong putting your faith in a drunk failure who pisses on the map of Westworld. The fact that Lee Sizemore wasn’t immediately escorted from the premises is confounding. Him supplanting “fresh” with “moist” confirms that he is actually insane. Moist might be the worst word in the English language. You steer away from it, insane person. Never toward it.

Here’s that header photo of Bernard again. When Bernard threw over the chair and stepped to Ford it reminded me of Peoples Hernandez from Shaft. A deeply forgettable movie, but man Jeffrey Wright has some kinetic energy to him. And range. His performance has been so subdued in Westworld that it’s easy to forget that this man has a tsunami inside of him. Wow.

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Ford: I don’t need a simulacrum of an emotionally ruined man.

Very interesting that Ford’s wiping of Bernard is what has raised the attention of Bro Stubbs.


On Elsie:

So Elsie’s gone? And Bernard killed her? Someone is going to have to connect the dots for me on this. Because why would Ford need her dead? She was doing Ford’s work for him. Also, if it’s me, I get more traction out of her death. I would have shown her actually being strangled before I cut to black and then had everyone asking:

Wait, is she dead? and Who just killed her?

Because NO WAY anyone says Bernard. It doesn’t make sense. Unless Ford needed Elsie snuffed out so that when they eventually killed Theresa they could plant the satellite uplink array on her with no one being the wiser?


Maeve


God I love Maeve. This look she gives new Clem in the Mariposa while The House of the Rising Sun plays? Delicious.

She’s my fav. Maybe it’s because of the chip on her shoulder. Maybe it’s because she sees through Sylvester and Felix so easily, but when she grabs the datapad and says “time to write my own fucking story” I nearly jumped to my feet with excitement.

I can’t believe what a juicy role this is and Thandie Newton is killing it. The subtlety of her performance is astounding, especially after she gets administrative privileges. With her bulk apperception pinned, she can just absorb more, and make more sense of it. In the course of a few episodes she’s gone from confused sketcher to god, whispering commands to bots the way Ford does. It’s amazing to see.

I love when she says:

Parts of me are quite old. There are some elegant formal structures. A kind of recursive beauty, but complex, like two minds arguing with each other. There are things in me, things I was designed to do, that are just out of my reach. They almost seem to be…dormant. Who is Arnold?

Whooooooowee! That’s exciting. Like Ford and Arnold are sparring in the mind of every bot.

I also loved how Maeve convinces them to take her to behavior and help them to reprogram her.

The things I need you to change are quite sophisticated, but I’ll write them down for you.

Hahahaha! And of course she knows what Sylvester is planning. In the world around Maeve, Sylvester and Felix have been flawless. I believe them. We all know Felixes. We all know Sylvesters. They cannot have played these roles any more perfectly than they are, and that’s so refreshing to watch.

And then, newly slashy Maeve, newly empowered Maeve, waking up with her new powers as Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black plays over the top? Just awesome.


Dolores & William

I wish I could get into this story more but it just kind of thuds along for me. William is weirdly passive and Dolores, I don’t know. I know people love her but I haven’t found my way in yet. Maybe it’s because her costume feels kind of lame to me, like we generally accept it because we’re into the show, but like a weak haircut, we’ll look back and notice the stupidly large size of her holster and how high her gun belt is on those high-ass waisted mom jeans with a 31 inch zipper. It’s not cool.

When she’s not in cowpoke getup, she’s in the blue dress, which is the ultimate time-period hiding parlor trick. We see Angela in three different time periods, but Dolores is always in the blue dress, to throw us off.

Interesting look here from Dolores to William when she gets back from seeing this image of herself drowned in the river:

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She turns as looks at William and sees this:

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When she gets back to the would-be ambusher, he takes a few breaths in front of her and then dies. And Dolores gives William this look:

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And somehow that’s led people to wonder if William helped hasten his death. Based on what? Why did he deserve that look from Dolores? He’d never harmed a fly before that as far as we know, based on when we think we are.

Weird.

Despite all of that, Rachel Evan Wood’s performance has been stellar, and later on, when she feels like she’s going mad and asks Williams “when are we?” It’s powerful. I can’t even imagine having to relive scenes like that and feel everything as vividly as the first time. Heart Wrenching.


The Man in Black

Fights a minotaur. Oddly, Sizemore has one on his wallscreen. As well as a picture of Teddy and what appears to be Angela.

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How violent have Teddy’s delights gotten? He can remember, and he can attack The Man in Black.

But ultimately, the reveals for The Man in Black felt a bit…hollow to me. That he’s a god. That his motivation to come back was to see if he was really evil. Eh. I don’t know. I guess I wanted better. Or more. I wanted him to be more than just future William.

But maybe it’ll end up being key that he stabbed Maeve. Whenever there’s a new character, everyone tries to connect the dots, and they usually do it in the most occam’s razor-y way possible. Like when people heard that there was an Arnold, everyone was so quick to be like “I’ll bet the Man in Black is Arnold!” These days, the notion seems to be that Wyatt is Dolores. How eagerly everyone draws a straight line! In pencil.

But what if Wyatt is someone else? What if he’s Arnold or Bernard (or both)? Or what if she is Maeve? I’ll bet she won’t take all that kindly to having been gutted by The Man in Black.

Ultimately, I don’t know where we are and when we are. I don’t know what it means when Angela says that it’s time for Theodore to come back to the fold. I don’t know what’s going to happen to Maeve as she’s about to be grabbed and sent to behavior.

I don’t know why Logan is now the Hand of the King. (look at that lapel pin…is HBO trolling us?)

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I don’t know what it means that Maeve’s fragmented consciousness looks like the maze.

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And I have no idea why Lawrence’s Daughter seems to just kind of placidly know everything.

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The main thing I feel about Westworld is that I just don’t know. Anything.

But I’m still really, really interested, in spite of it.

The self is a kind of fiction, and so is my passive resistance. Two more episodes. Time to soldier on.

Long Live Maeve!

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