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‘Westworld’ Amps Up the Plot — and Dials Back the Philosophy

Halfway through the season, the show swaps reflection for action

HBO
HBO

Westworld is a drama about robots and cowboys, but it’s also a drama about other dramas. This makes the balance between portraying violence, nudity, and sexual assault and commenting on that portrayal all the more difficult to strike — and all the more damning of the show as a project if it fails to strike that imbalance. At the first season’s halfway point, it’s worth checking in on how well Westworld is drawing that line between depiction and endorsement, and how the minutiae of plot gets in the way of Westworld’s desire to Ask The Big Questions. As the ratings indicate, Westworld has succeeded as entertainment; the open question is whether it succeeds as art.

I’ve been optimistic about Westworld’s intention as well as its execution. But "Contrapasso" is the first episode that gave me real pause. Not coincidentally, it’s also an episode that takes place almost entirely within the confines of the park, spending almost no time with the park’s managers and the meta-storytelling that comes with them. Instead, "Contrapasso" largely concentrates on a character who’s also become one of the more troublesome figures of the series: William (Jimmi Simpson), the park neophyte, audience surrogate, and possible younger version of Ed Harris’s Man in Black. (I do not believe in this fan theory, which this episode either supports or opposes depending on which evidence you cherry-pick, but it’s reached such a deafening pitch that it demands to be acknowledged.) For a guy who wasn’t even in the pilot, William has become steadily more prominent in Westworld’s sprawling ensemble.

William is the sensitive idealist visiting Westworld for the first time, along with his sneering coworker and future brother-in-law. Back when William first arrived, the show seemed to caution against buying into his good-guyism too easily; after he saved a prostitute in Sweetwater from a fugitive, his partner pointed out that the hosts exist to give guests the rush of styling themselves into saviors. Choosing a white hat, as William did, is just as much an empowerment fantasy as donning a black one. It’s an additional layer of self-awareness that’s more impressive and less cheap than "boobs are basic — here are a few dozen of them to prove it!"

Since Episode 3, however, William’s been paired up with Dolores, a move that threatens to subsume the host’s burgeoning independence to the visitor’s discovery of his own true potential — exactly the purpose Westworld has always served for its guests, as everyone from the Man in Black to Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) reminds us. In "Contrapasso," the duo finally leaves their third wheel behind in pursuit of Arnold’s mysterious maze. Dolores has evolved from trigger puller to bona fide sharpshooter, and her declaration that "I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel" is enormously satisfying. And yet it’s undercut by moments like the totally unnecessary kiss she gives William. If Dolores starts growing a spine only to melt in William’s arms, isn’t she only a slightly modified version of the trophy she’s always been to Westworld’s paying customers? She certainly isn’t enough her own woman yet for this to feel like a partnership between equals.

The simple solution here — for this episode, and for the season’s back stretch — would be "stick to the robots." They’re the most unique aspect of the show, and the most closely tied to its brain-bending questions about ethics and consciousness and what it all means. But Westworld can’t simply generate 10 hours of television by investigating the origins of sentience. It needs a linear plot to hang those broader issues on (or ideally, bring them up organically) and generate suspense around everything from basic how-does-this-work questions to trippier theories. Results-oriented as it is, such speculation threatens to obscure Westworld’s grander ambitions, Mr. Robot–style — but it’s also necessary to drum up excitement. What Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan want to ponder is not necessarily what the Reddit hive wants to lay into.

And so we have characters like William, going through quests we know are pointless and having revelations we know are routine parts of discovering the wonders of Westworld. (This is why William ditching his buddy feels so much less cathartic than Dolores rejecting her pre-programmed role: She’s going off script; he’s playing right into his.) In a worst-case scenario of clumsy plotting, we now have Felix, the buffoonish lab tech hastily introduced with dreams and a naysayer of his own; Westworld doesn’t excel at dialogue, but "You are a butcher and that is all you’ll ever be" is some of the worst it has done. Just as William is theoretically there to help Dolores even when it feels like it’s the other way around, Felix has a similarly uneasy relationship with Maeve, who’s now able to infiltrate his lab without freaking out. Westworld is supposed to be selling us on the hosts’ humanity, even as it’s not yet confident enough in these characters to give them their own stories separate from … humans.

Going into the back half of its freshman run, many of Westworld’s narrative strains seem to be heading somewhere, offering answers to more direct questions like, "What’s up with the robots?," (they’re waking up) if not more abstract ones like, "What’s up with humanity?," (are they in space?). William, Dolores, and the Man in Black are all looking for the maze and the answers it evidently contains about what, exactly, happened when Arnold tried to destroy the park 35 years ago. It appears that Ford is, in fact, facilitating things with a software update and his new narrative; the creator’s latest parable indicates that after fighting his partner to make the park a for-profit playground for the rich, Ford has grown bored, listless, and introspective. And the behind-the-scenes employees now have a juicy corporate espionage plot to distract them from the ever-more-conscious hosts for a few more episodes. Bernard and Dolores’s late-night talks have given way to a more conventional whodunit.

But thematically, Westworld is still all over the place. How skeptical can the show be of "narratives" when it has so many of its own? How dubious can the show be of cheap thrills when it satisfies them with such a ludicrous set piece (almost certainly the scene this infamous consent agreement was referring to)? How can it direct us toward bigger quandaries when it keeps sprinkling the show with smaller ones? For Westworld to make its point, it may have to contradict itself.