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What Makes a Great Episode of ‘Westworld’

“Les Écorchés” may not have been the best installment of the series, but it was the most mindlessly entertaining, and that may be the key going forward

HBO/Ringer illustration

There are two variations of a TV show burrowed within Westworld, and they are constantly in conflict with one another, pushing and pulling like a Chinese finger trap. Call it the Bicameral TV Show. First, there’s the Westworld that embraces the narrative puzzle boxes that define much of the work of Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams (co-showrunner and executive producer, respectively), that deals with multiple timelines for two seasons and offers philosophical ruminations on human nature while happily referencing famous historical figures. (How many famous composers can Anthony Hopkins quote over the series? I guess we’ll find out!)

This is the side of Westworld that keeps eagle-eyed viewers on their toes; the ones who share their findings on Reddit—and more often than not, predict the show’s most anticipated twists. This season, Reddit was quick to decode the idea that there were multiple Bernards, and sure enough, in Season 2’s seventh episode, “Les Écorchés,” Charlotte Hale and Co. stumbled upon an entire room’s worth of old, defunct Bernards. Anthony Hopkins’s return as Robert Ford was also predicted—honestly, it felt like such a foregone conclusion, I actually went full Galaxy Brain and assumed the show knew it was predictable, and was using those clues to throw the audience off the scent of … something else. But Ford’s truly back (not that anyone would complain about Hopkins chewing up more scenery). Ultimately, this half of Westworld is television consumption with a commitment: for full enjoyment, one must become an active participant in an ever-growing mystery that promises more questions with every answer. It’s not necessarily a bad way to watch a show, especially if the execution is right (i.e. the original Twin Peaks, the first season of Mr. Robot).

The problem for Westworld is that the constant theorizing and timeline hopping comes at the expense of the story. With the focus on puzzles, there’s little investment in any of the characters or their motivations—seriously, can anyone tell me what Dolores is trying to achieve for herself and host-kind, other than some vaguely defined revenge against the human race? The timeline-loving, Reddit-adjacent side of Westworld is constantly chafing with the other element of Westworld that has much more satisfying returns.

That other side of Westworld is just a show that sets up humans against robotic hosts—and sometimes hosts against other hosts—while using the utopic Wild West, the steely confines of Delos Incorporated’s headquarters, and, for a moment, other theme parks, in Shogun World and the Raj, as backdrops—and it’s so goddamn fun. “Les Écorchés” might not be the best Westworld episode of the season, but it’s far and away the most mindlessly entertaining, focusing on Dolores and her host army’s propulsive raid on Delos HQ and Maeve’s reunion with the Man in Black, and frequently throwing logic out the window. Would a highly trained special ops guy really let down his guard around a proven-to-be murderous host because she’s really hot?

Inline images via HBO

Sure, whatever! The point isn’t to question the logic of “Les Écorchés,” but to luxuriate in its absurdity—of course humans and hosts massacred each other over the backdrop of Beethoven’s “Allegretto,” which was iconic. Even more so than the first-season finale, “Les Écorchés” embraced nonstop action, and with a superior budget than most of its television peers, looked all the better for it. So while Westworld is never going to abandon the twisty, timeline-obsessed core of the series, here are three ways the show can maximize the fun, explosive robot shit that made “Les Écorchés” such a delight.

Introduce Comically Expendable Characters

Obviously, the dude who willingly let a host come close enough to him to detonate a grenade on his belt wasn’t long for this world. But he wasn’t meant to be—the special ops team that Delos sent to the park in the previous episode was a collection of Red Shirts who were destined to be gunned down by Dolores’s host army. However, that doesn’t mean the show can’t have fun with these characters.

Take the leader of the special ops team, who was apparently named Coughlin but will forever be known as Mean Irish Mustache Dude.

This absolute legend introduced himself by insulting Ashley Stubbs for being played by a lesser Hemsworth brother (more or less) and for being named Ashley (classic burn), and seemed generally unfazed by the host rebellion. Of course, his mood changed by the time Dolores showed up guns blazing, but Coughlin got an epic Red Shirt sendoff in the process: a hand-to-hand fight with Teddy, who is now super evil. Coughlin believed he had the upper hand and actually shouted “Happy trails, motherfucker!” before Teddy punched his face in.

Westworld is allergic to killing off any important human or host characters (though now that the hosts have destroyed their backups, rendering themselves essentially mortal, that may change). More expendable characters like Coughlin and his team are inevitable as the hosts continue to break from their loops, and possibly the park itself. The least Westworld can do with this narrative predictability is let these tertiary characters have some semblance of a personality—even if it’s as simple as “This guy has a giant, radical mustache and clearly thinks he’s the child of Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery.” Rest in power, my mustache king.

Let Maeve Cook

To watch Maeve in Westworld is like watching someone play a video game with all the cheat codes: She’s basically a god amongst mortals. This was bad news for William in “Les Écorchés,” as he was simply trying to run away from Ghost Nation and inadvertently stumbled upon Maeve and her host daughter from a previous story line. (As you—and certainly Maeve—remember, William murdered Maeve and her kid on another visit to the park.)

This sets up one of Westworld’s most aesthetically wacky confrontations yet, as Maeve uses William’s own host henchmen to attack him by taking over their minds, leading the guy to be shot nearly as many times as 50 Cent. Maeve’s been mastering her ability to control hosts for the better part of the season, and her powers are a really fun changeup from the typical confrontations on the show.

Unfortunately, Maeve is grievously wounded when a Delos team intercepts her, and when we last see her, she’s barely able to move at Delos HQ. As my colleague Danny Heifetz pointed out, there’s no way Maeve is going to die this way—especially after her Sisyphean journey of finding her daughter only to lose her immediately. And while it would be interesting for Westworld to kill off a major character permanently, Maeve’s just learning to grasp her fascinating powers. It’d be an absolute tragedy not to see them develop further after what she did to William.

Allow Multiple Timelines to Support the Action

Dolores’s raid on Delos was thrilling, especially when she and Teddy were in a room with Hale and Stubbs. Just seeing Tessa Thompson and Evan Rachel Wood share a scene was exciting, but it got even more exciting when one of them, the killer robot, decided she was going to saw the other’s head open. Unfortunately, the initial shock of that moment gave way to nothingness—the entire sequence was devoid of suspense because, thanks to an earlier scene in the episode from a timeline in the future, we knew that Stubbs and Hale would survive the confrontation, and for that matter, that Teddy would too, since in the premiere he was shown floating face down in a lake.

Westworld’s gonna Westworld, so the gimmick of multiple timelines isn’t going to suddenly disappear. But the timeline juggling shouldn’t come at the expense of a great action set piece—if there was a way to reorganize this season so that we could get Dolores’s Delos raid before we knew the fate of Stubbs and Hale, the showdown would’ve only been improved. Frankly, Tessa Thompson has so many projects in the air that putting her character in any mildly dangerous scenario ratchets up the suspense—except when we’ve already been told that in the future she’s very much alive.

At this point, Westworld is clearly more interested in creating a puzzle for its viewers to piece together than in narrative stakes, but the show could have its cake and eat it too. A happy medium for the series could see it staging action sequences at different points in the narrative, so that the fates of the characters in those conflicts weren’t already resolved.

Going forward, it would behoove Westworld not to get in its own way—sure, sometimes philosophical ramblings have their place, especially when they’re recited by an Oscar winner. But sometimes, it’s more fun to shoot first, and ask questions later.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.