It seems weird to start reviewing a television show in the middle of its first season, but I get the feeling most people, like me, have only just started watching Westworld in the last week or two. I’ve never reviewed a show before, on this blog or otherwise, but thanks to HBO NOW everyone can NOW stream Home Box Office’s slew of raunchy-yet-thought-provoking programming without bending to the will of the cable companies. I’ve taken a couple film classes, watched a lot of TV, read a few books on film critique, and listened to a lot of podcasts on TV and film. I’m no expert on TV criticism, but I am discerning in my tastes and try to hold a high standard as an amateur reviewer.
As for the show itself, if you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend you do so before reading much further. And if you really want to understand where it’s coming from, rent the original 1973 movie, Westworld, on your streaming platform of choice. Like or hate its campy thrills, Michael Crichton’s original story sets the stage for the show, and the show often references details from the film, making it worth the watch. There’s even a sequel called Futureworld and five episodes of another series, Beyond Westworld, out there for completionists.
For those of you that want to get to the new show right off the bat, I’ll explain the premise: a bunch of scientists, doctors, engineers, and investors some time in the future have created a realistic theme park called Westworld, an area of land designed to look and feel like the old west, complete with rattlesnakes, horses, cattle, vultures, cacti, tumbleweeds, rocky desert, saloons, brothels, and the like. Robots virtually identical to humans inhabit Westworld and act as hosts for their human guests. Guests spend $40,000 a day to do whatever they wish in Westworld with little fear of bodily harm or pesky conscience. But something strange has happened in Westworld; some of the robots have become aware of their servitude and don’t much like getting killed and raped for the amusement of the guests. In the original film, most of the humans died at the hands of the single-minded androids, but the show has taken a more nuanced approach of making the hosts more sympathetic and less Terminator-esque. Think Jurassic Park meets I, Robot. And if you want more details, definitely watch the show and check out HBO’s companion material at discoverwestworld.com.
All right, from here on out, assume there are spoilers. Episode four takes its title from the psychology concept of cognitive dissonance, which basically states that when humans experience conflicting beliefs or behaviors, they feel discomfort and aim to eradicate the conflict. We most strongly associate this experience with Dolores as she grows ever more uncomfortable with her role, but several other robots, humans, and groups act out this idea as well. This episode also features a strange pairing of writer Ed Brubaker with director Vincenzo Natali. Brubaker, best known for his work on Captain America and other Marvel comics, brings more humor and video game references to the show than we’ve seen so far. While entertaining, some of the more self-referential lines, particularly Logan’s, may prove too quaint for some viewers. Natali has had middling success in the science fiction genre in the past (though Splice is best forgotten), and he offers some interesting visual ideas in this episode. Funnily enough, his film Cube also features a maze full of danger and intrigue. Dissonance Theory falls a little short of the rest of the show’s higher standard, though, and Natali’s direction bears the bulk of that blame.
The first scene opens with a shot of Bernard entering Dolores’s cell, though we see him distorted through the reflection of Dolores’s iris. This helps solidify us in Dolores’s camp; we now empathize with her most of all and see the ensuing conversation from her point of view. Dolores mirrors Bernard in this scene, though, as she wants to feel the grief for her dead loved ones, the same as him. She refuses Bernard’s offer to erase the memories of her parents, because she’s learned the value of memories. Evan Rachel Wood continues to deliver outstanding performances in this episode, effortlessly transforming from one emotion to the next.
Dolores has evolved alarmingly fast in four episodes, to the point where she can mix lines from her script with words she thinks up herself. In one of the best lines of the show, she expounds, “I feel spaces opening up inside of me, like a building with rooms I’ve never explored.” She’s essentially performing verbal jazz, knowing the basic form of her programmed response and choosing to “play over” that response with her own style and expression. Her father, Peter Abernathy, performed a similar act in the first episode when he quoted Shakespeare to express his resentment towards Ford and Bernard, but he never improvised to the extent his daughter does. The idea of a building with unexplored rooms calls open-world video games to mind, in which players spend most of their time in search of more places to explore until they exhaust the supply and move on to a new game. Ultimately, Bernard helps Dolores realize that she wants to escape from Westworld, and he bestows upon her the quest to find the center of the maze. This sets Dolores towards the same goal as the Man in Black, and he and Dolores will probably soon cross paths again.
For a brief moment after the first scene, we see Dolores wake up in Logan and William’s camp. This scene will likely fuel more fan theories about alternate timelines, but there’s no way to prove them conclusively. In the middle of the night, some Westworld employees may have dragged Dolores off for maintenance while Logan and William slept and returned her a few hours later. At any rate, we haven’t seen enough evidence to confirm either side of the argument yet, and viewers should remain incredulous.
Throughout the episode, Maeve’s memories return bit by bit, forming one of the three narratives we see play out in the park; the other two being Lawrence and the Man in Black’s hunt for an egg-laying snake, and William, Logan, and Dolores’s adventure. In the end, only Maeve’s narrative comes to a real conclusion, as she discovers with Hector that she lives in a false world and nothing she does in it matters. Her discomfort grows as she notices more and more inconsistencies, until finally the bullet from inside her confirms that someone set her life on repeat. Who knows what she’ll do next, but Maeve has proven smart, strong, and resourceful in the past, so she probably won’t take her newfound existence lightly.
Outside the fantasy, we continue to see power struggles arise from every confrontation. Elsie remains the most in tune with the hosts, but Theresa and Bernard go over her head without a second thought. Notably, the QA department at Westworld seems to get about as much respect from the programmers as they do in the video game industry, which is probably why Stubbs rarely talks back to the higher-ups. Bernard continues to brush off Elsie’s attempts to unravel the park’s mysteries, even after she declares that everyone has an agenda but her. Bernard insists that the carving on the turtle shell can’t be Orion, but we can’t believe he’ll so easily thwart Elsie’s curiosity. Shannon Woodward continues to be a joy to watch and provides smart humor in stark contrast to Ben Barnes’s winking Logan.
The episode drags throughout the middle section, but we get enough exposition, revelations, and Ingrid Berdal side-boob to stick with the characters we’ve learned to care for. While the script falls flat in places, we do see some memorable interactions between key characters. Dolores, triggered by Lawrence’s daughter, has flashbacks of her past role, and for one moment we even see her bent over her own grave. This may mean Dolores is destined to die, but more likely it insinuates the change within Dolores’s mind and the death of her naivete. She also expresses to William precisely her situation via another cattle drive metaphor: her and her kind exist only for the slaughter. Whether her status as the Judas steer will lead to the destruction of the rest of the herd seems up to her.
Armistice accepts the Man in Black’s ludicrous wager, which he wins in the most cartoonish fashion. He needs only a few explosive cigars to break Hector out of jail and once again save Lawrence from impending doom. Lawrence’s disbelief reaches its zenith as he exclaims, “Motherfucker!” From now on we can expect him to stay loyal to the Man in Black and reconcile the inconsistencies in his life with the truth that Ed Harris’s character can perform the impossible. Unsurprisingly, Armistice points the Man in Black in the direction of Wyatt, the same villain from Teddy’s newly-uploaded backstory.
Finally, we get back to the meat of the story with a showdown between Theresa and Ford. Unfortunately, Sidse Knudsen struggles exceedingly with an American accent during this conversation. She emotes wonderfully, though, and we should forgive her for not navigating Brubaker’s script with the fairest of grace. Despite Bernard’s post-coital coaching and encouragement, Theresa doesn’t stand a chance against Ford’s powers of intimidation and observation. Anthony Hopkins brilliantly plays a wealthy plantation-owner, though perhaps we could have done without such obvious slavery symbolism. Ford exhibits unprecedented control over the hosts, paralyzing them with seemingly nothing more than a thought. At this point, we should consider the notion that Ford is a cyborg more seriously, as it’s unlikely such control comes without technological means.
As Theresa’s memories and assumptions literally get bulldozed, we see the conclusion of Dolores, William, Logan, Maeve, and Hector’s stories for this episode. Logan continues to insist that the fun of Westworld comes from indulging the Grand Theft Auto-style of play. He charges bandits with reckless abandon, smiles as he receives an upgraded pistol from a looted body, and even leaves William behind in search of a more exciting Easter Egg. Logan personifies the rules-lawyer, the min-maxing munchkin, and the jester all in one. One wonders if he would fit well in a tabletop role-playing game environment, but his comments are not without their brash charm. He insists that Dolores will grow to like him, and he’s already grown somewhat endearing to the audience.
In the most audacious manner possible, we see Hector’s gang return to Sweetwater to the tune of the Habanera from Carmen. The connections between Maeve and Bizet’s gypsy heroine lay unsubtle and bare for the viewer to slaver over. Like Carmen before her, Maeve defies the conventions of her world and longs to escape the routine of her life, not just as a prostitute, but as a creation and slave of Delos. She sees without a doubt her role in the Matrix and dies uncaring in the arms of Hector. Despite his nihilistic worldview and the Man in Black’s warning, Hector has unwittingly proven that the hosts do have a larger purpose in this world. Yet we never do get the third number of the combination to the safe. The episode ends, and our chess pieces have found themselves in very different places from where we left them only 60 minutes ago.
While weaker than the previous three episodes, Dissonance Theory further builds the story and characters of Westworld, and it does so with a pacing and style rare in most modern television series. HBO leaves us with yet again more questions than answers, but guessing is half the fun. One only hopes the big W won’t turn out the same as its spiritual predecessor, Lost. While Lost entertained and enthralled us for years, it ended disappointingly and unfinished. Let us hope that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have learned from J.J. Abrams’s mistakes and at least some of their Wonderland puzzles have sound and logical solutions.
And that’s about enough from me for one week (I honestly didn’t think I could write this much about one episode), but I hope you’ve enjoyed at least some of my thoughts on this fascinating show. If you feel inclined, please don’t hesitate to leave me a comment or tweet at me @NCBurnham. I’m very excited about the future of Westworld, and may even feel inclined to write another review after episode five airs this Sunday. Until next time, may you find the egg-laying snakes you’re looking for.