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‘Westworld’ Is Starting to Feel Like a Horror Movie

The techno-Western gets scary — and great

HBO
HBO

The first episode of Westworld laid out the scope and mechanics of the show’s sprawling yet self-contained universe. The second got at what it’s trying to say.

Toward the end of the episode, brothel madam Maeve (Thandie Newton) has successfully woken herself from what she believes is a nightmare — and what we know is likely a memory of a past life, an entire identity discarded by the park’s programmers. She opens her eyes, and for a moment, she’s relieved. But then she finds herself in something that looks like a nightmare and certainly feels like one, but isn’t. There’s a gaping hole in her stomach. There are strange men above her. There’s centuries’ worth of space-age technology she doesn’t recognize and is in no way equipped to process. She’s a robot, but she’s terrified.

Can you imagine the horror of that situation? You can, because Westworld forces you to. Westworld the park is designed to absolve guests of all responsibility from the second they walk in the door. Westworld the show is designed in part to confront us with that responsibility — the visitors’, the employees’, and ours.

To this skeptical viewer, Maeve’s trauma answered the central question that faced this series before its premiere, and continues to divide critics: Is Westworld a knowing inversion of the exploitative, male-gazey stereotypes that plague contemporary dramas, or is it a mindless repetition of them? Put simply: Does Westworld know what it’s doing?

After Sunday’s episode, I’m starting to think it does. Westworld’s meta tendencies were most blatant in the episode’s clash between narrative designer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) and park founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) over what, exactly, the guests (and by extension us) want out of their entertainment. Is it cheap thrills, or is it something deeper — something only a true artist can provide? It’s a heavy-handed spiel that plays directly into some critics’ charges of self-congratulation. Unsurprisingly, though, Westworld is far better when it’s showing us what it can do, not telling us what it wants to. And the way it shows the Hosts’ steady evolution into fully conscious beings is the best thing about "Chestnut."

We’ve seen Maeve in the park’s underground home base before, shown through the eyes of the human employees toying with her core personality traits. Newton’s expression is placidly blank as her minders up her aggression and then her emotional acuity; later, we see those tweaks reflected in her behavior toward customers in the park. That elasticity seems to contradict Maeve’s humanity, and therefore our ability to invest in her as a real protagonist: Hosts really are the blank slates the humans believe them to be. Which makes them a tough set of characters to hang a show on.

Except the whole reason Maeve is in the lab in the first place is that she’s malfunctioning. Programmer Elsie (Shannon Woodward) raises the possibility that whatever’s going on with the Hosts is contagious, and it appears she’s right: a single, ominous Shakespeare line — "These violent delights have violent ends" — transmits the "infection" from Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) to Maeve. It’s a meme in the original sense of the Richard Dawkins–coined term: a mind virus.

That infection is, in essence, free will, and it’s causing both Dolores and Maeve to override the wiring that makes them reductive foils. Dolores is the candy-sweet rancher’s daughter who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly — until she digs up a gun in her front yard. Maeve is the jaded hooker there to encourage guests’ darkest desires — until she remembers an assault from a past life and can’t hide how much it rattles her. Individuality and complexity are slowly winning out, to the point where these women’s clients, and their viewers, can’t project their fantasies onto them much longer.

Filming the emergence of consciousness, particularly the consciousness of beings who don’t yet have the capacity to fully articulate what they’re going through, is an insanely difficult burden for a show to take on. Westworld pulls it off anyway, in part because of how "Chestnut" director Richard J. Lewis films Maeve and Dolores. Think of the flashbacks that have begun to intrude on Maeve’s and Dolores’s day-to-day lives. Both women see horrifying things — an entire town gunned down in the street, Native Americans nearly scalping Maeve and her young daughter. And yet they’re shot with borderline romanticism, slowed down to a crawl and saturated with pink-tinged sunlight. They’re still awful, but they’re also dreamlike, even though Elsie tells us point-blank that Hosts aren’t supposed to have dreams.

Contrast that with the look and feel of Maeve’s initial retooling sessions. The Westworld headquarters is presented as it’s experienced by its workers: The lighting is cool and clinical, the choreographed motions of its worker bees, well … robotic. During Maeve’s momentary breakout, it looks crowded, messy, gory. It looks like a goddamn horror movie. And it’s the same flip in perspective that Westworld is performing on the AI genre itself. In that story, the horror comes from the things that look like us, but aren’t. In Westworld, it just comes from us.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.