Howdy pardners, and welcome back to my attempt to spark a new recap fire with Westworld.
This never came up during my debut recap, but it has been something I’ve been pondering since: namely, what happens if you went to Westworld on a fun package holiday with someone and they were an absolute utter arsehat? I mean, sure, half the point of going is banging in one or both of two ways, but surely it would be quite disconcerting to rock up with a bestie or loved one and watch them turn into an insufferable veruca of a human being?
The follow-up question of course is what if your friend was nice but YOU were the three-day old turd? Would you like that aspect of yourself, the newfound ability to be more destructive than drunken passengers on a Carnival cruise liner?
Is the Westworld concept so far removed from a regular video game, in which millions of generally sensible people partake daily, gleefully mowing down gazillions of Nazis, Commies, Koopas, Orcs, street gangsters and sex workers, pixelated blocks of stuff, and angry birds? (Apologies, I just don’t play video games, so it’s a pop culture reference area in which I am hopelessly lost.) If we happily murder digital characters, is stepping up to slaughter 3D humano-droids that feel emotional and physical pain crossing a moral line? Does the old adage “It’s only a game” really pass muster?
Pleasingly, this sophomore episode of Westworld introduced a couple of characters who seem destined to explore my moral quandary, as signalled by another very subtle* sartorial choice.
*Not in the least bit subtle. One chooses to wear a white hat, the other a black hat. It’s literally every Western except High Noon, and I only say that because I was going to say “It’s literally High Noon” and then thought I’d better just check that Gary Cooper wears a white hat in High Noon and GASP no he actually wears a black hat which I guess signifies he’s not particularly a hero, more of a complex character, or an anti-hero, and really what a clever subversive costume choice of the designers back in ‘52.
Anyway, what do I know about metaphor, I never went to film school. Let’s Go West (life is not peaceful there) and get recapping!
S1 E2: Chestnut
As noted, my metaphorical skills (note to self: great name for when I finally take up professional rapping) are not as polished as they could be, but if I were a betting person, I’d say it has something to do with seeds being planted, from little seeds grow big ideas, that sort of thing. It ties into a key theme of this episode - that whatever flaw forced Delores’ Daddy into the deep freeze in Episode 1 could be catching.
Of course “Chestnut” could also just refer to Thandie Newton’s cleavage because shoot me if that badass bitch doesn’t have the most amazing physique. But it’s probably sexist of me to say that, so let’s go with option A.
After No-Nonsense Engineer Woman, Barnard’s offsider, throws down the idea of a contagion, we see Delores have a moment in the street when she hears the word “remember” and looks up to see a different street, not bustling with Wild West life, but full of corpses and scavenging coyotes. When Thandie - Madam May - tells Delores to move along, because her MILK POOL SKIN would be false advertising for the brothel, Delores menacingly utters the already t-shirt worthy catchphrase “These violent delights have violent ends”.
Delores regains her debutante smarm and wanders off, leaving Madam May a little confused. When next we see her, she’s trying to convince a potential customer to carpe dickem by retelling some sob story about conquering negative voices in her head. Near the end of this monologue, she fits, falling into a flashback that seems to involve heavily armed Native Americans slashing at skulls in a fiery haze.
The programmers’ all work on voice commands, so could “These violent delights have violent ends” be some sort of malware? To continue the Shakespearean theme, is this Westworld’s winter of mal-content?
Because when next we see Madam May, she’s being fixed by faceless goons from the company’s narrative squad. They bump up her aggression, only concerned with getting her “numbers” up lest she be cast aside to make room for Shrill British Guy’s Assuredly Brilliant New Storyline.
We know they’re goons, because after Madam May’s more aggressive, chest-beating version fails to lead to veni vidi vulva and she gets marked for recall, No-Nonsense Engineer Woman carries out some programming tweaks to up her perception and emotional acuity and dial down the fembot fury.
The scene contains possibly the most important line of the series so far, when No-Nonsense Engineer Woman responds to her offsider asking if the hosts dream: “(What the) f*** would be the point of that? Dreams are mostly memories. Can you imagine how f***ed we'd be if these poor assholes remembered what the guests do to them?"
It’s an acknowledgement of the 500-pound fabricated gorilla-droid in the room - is it ethical to create an approxo-human then essentially torture it day-in, day-out? Surely there will eventually be some sort of reckoning?
I do like the superiority the creation/programming team are shown as having - they're the true artists and engineers, and their works are constrained by tacky plotlines and careless maintenance crews. And yet, they're still complicit in the mistreatment of their own creations.
The tweaking works - Madam May manages to close the deal with a dense-looking client, who wanders off with Clementine, the other sex worker of note so far in the series. She’s the one who complains of bad dreams, which May tells her she can wake right out of, as long as she counts backwards from three to one.
It’s advice she needs herself when she falls into a nightmare herself, reimagining the horror of what seems to be a Native American attack on a settler homestead. We see May, all Little House on the Prairie, complete with golden child, under attack from “savages” (using all these words is so fraught, because I’m bound to offend somebody… hopefully viewers of the show will understand that the creators of characters within the show may be resorting to character types and cliches for the purpose of serving a greater narrative, but that’s also not to dismiss proud Indigenous warrior tribes that understandably would have attacked colonising settlers who raided their lands, and oh gosh everything is just ripe for me to offend everyone).
It seems awfully familiar to what happened to Delores’ Daddy Abernathy, as explained by Ford in the first episode - a system update seemed to be giving him access to old character stories and events. Perhaps a previous incarnation of May was a homesteader, not a ‘ho, and her exposure to Delores has caused those memories to bubble up.
The surprise twist though was the transformation of the threatening Apache warrior to an even more terrifying foe - ED HARRIS. Jesus wept, what a nightmare. Brandishing his knife, ready to scalp Madam May.
We’ll get back to the significance of that in a bit. But let’s wrap up Madam May, because although she is able to use her count backwards from three trick and wake up, her “reality” is all of a sudden four million per cent worse.
She’s on the operating table, with a couple of insensitive surgeon-types pulling out MRSA from her stomach. It’s intriguing that gross human diseases can be transmitted to the fleshy forms of the Westworld hosts. Perhaps it was a bacterial infection, not a digital virus, that boggled her brain? Either way, the two dudes tasked with repairing the problem win no points for sensitivity. They eventually cotton on to the fact that their patient is not in “sleep mode”, but very much “Grab a scalpel in fear and run away” mode.
This leads a naked, bleeding May into what we assume is the “body shop” - not a haven of ethically-sourced yet overpriced skincare, but a mechanic’s workshop of naked-flesh-slapping-together horror.
One of the corpses is COWBOY BICYCLOPS, whom Madam May last saw being shot right in front of her at the bar of the brothel for no discernable reason.
Was I the only one whose mind immediately jumped to nauseating images from Nazi concentration camps, where naked bodies of the dead would be carelessly tossed into mass graves? The routine disinterest shown by the clean-up workers as they piled corpses on top of each other was possibly the most distressing image of the series so far. And we’re two episodes in, so this is going to get hardcore.
Madam May is suitably horrified by these stranger things, collapsing to her knees just in time for the douchey surgeons to hit her with the horse tranquiliser and rush her back to the operating table before anyone notices their colossal f*** up.
Let’s cover off on our old friend Ed Harris, He of the Facial Crags. We see him first interrupting the hanging of a criminal, bumping off the Sheriff and his deputies to save the murderer. It was a clever filmic device to focus the camera on the blindfolded condemned man, wondering what the hell must be happening around him.
It turns out Ed Harris used that scalped skull from Ep1 to identify the man, Lawrence, as being able to lead him into the “maze”, aka the deeper level of the game. Does this mean that the flashback of him in Madam May’s nightmare signifies he’s been trying to scalp the best tickets in the house for decades?
Honestly, Ed Harris needs to get some new hobbies. Surely he could afford a boat or maybe bankroll an animal wildlife sanctuary? After all, he keeps reminding us he’s been coming to Westworld for 30 years, so he must be super rich. Indeed, we later see the Other Hemsworth reject any plans to stop Ed Harris’ killing sprees with the phrase “That customer gets whatever he wants”.
So why the obsession with a “deeper level”? Is it really about solving a puzzle for him? Or is it about breaking every game piece as he goes? He sure did enjoy killing all of Lawrence’s friends in his home village, tormenting Lawrence by handing his daughter two bullets then murdering his wife. Eventually, Lawrence’s daughter calmly said “The maze isn't meant for you”, revealing his suspicions to be in some way correct.
When he assures her he’s totally down for it, she tells him to “Follow the blood arroyo to the place where the snake lays its eggs”. Ed Harris denies Lawrence’s request to be left alone, declaring he’s “never going back” (wherever that is) and re-lasso-ing Lawrence behind his mighty steed.
Now a quick Google Translate tells me “arroyo” in Spanish means “stream”. To me, this could mean follow the “bloodstream” - potentially code for genetics, the physical constructions lying underneath the digital coding of the park’s inhabitants.
Or, it could be a more obvious, dare I say it, metaphor… a “blood-coloured stream”. Like, for instance, a “Red River”?
Oh yes, Throners/Westies, I consider myself a very cunning linguist after that one.
Because Shrill British Guy’s Assuredly Brilliant New Storyline, the brash narrative with both vivisection AND self-cannibalism that he proudly unveils to the assembled corporate bigwigs, is called “Odyssey on Red River”.
Now to be honest, that title just sounds like a term for a particularly challenging menses, but clearly the Red River is a location within Westworld. So is Ed Harris searching for a physical place or a metaphysical one?
Poor Shrill British Guy’s work is in vain though. Actually, scratch that - he was a total arsehat to a team of designers, throwing a tray in the face of a Native American character and screeching they had to start over. It was great to see Ford shut it all down, delivering a gentle yet stinging rebuke about how people don’t come to Westworld for the whizz and bang, but for the exquisite details of their surrounds. The point of Westworld is not for people to discover who they are, but to get a glimpse of whom they could be.
To put it another way, Shrill British Guy thinks everyone wants Michael Bay explosions, but Ford knows people want Peter “Give all the orcs different armour even though no one will see it on screen” Jackson. Or maybe Jane Campion or Ang Lee or Guillermo del Toro or David Lynch or something. Just not Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino, cheers.
And this is a good moment to loop back to where I began, with the question of how would you deal with a friend turning out to be a total shitheel once unleashed into Westworld?
We witness this in White Hat Guy and his “friend” Black Hat Guy, the first characters we really see take the full journey from real to surreal life, awkwardly explantory yet sexually available host and all. I’m pretty sure White Hat Guy’s actual name is Billy, which is almost too cutesy for words.
We realise early on that Black Hat Guy has taken his work colleague to Westworld as some sort of incentive or test, to “see what kind of man you really are” type machismo bullshit.
Sure enough, no sooner has Black Hat Guy donned his cowboy fedora that he’s gulping down whiskey, insulting people in the street and denying Billy the chance to explore the park as a newcomer. As someone who’s been before and knows some of the tricks, he’s quite ready to stab a nice old prospector who was thanking Billy for helping him after a fall in the street; then pop upstairs for some group sex with BDSM thrown in.
Meanwhile Billy’s left alone to mop the blood off his hat (not a euphemism), re-consider his choice of workmates and turn down Clementine’s advances because he has a “real love” waiting at home. What a swell guy.
He finishes the episode by running into Delores, picking up her fallen tin of beans, in the same way Bicylops did last episode, before being hustled off by Black Hat Guy. I think we can expect some lovely things from White Hat Guy. I mean, he’s wearing a White Hat. He can’t be corruptable… right?
Other Questions or Things Worth Commenting Upon
FORD’S NEW MODEL
Gosh it’s a delight watching Tony Hopkins potter about onscreen, just being dazzlingly marvellous with every wry smile and lilting Welsh phrase. He goes for a wander in the park, accompanied by a little lost host kiddo - it's hinted that it could be a replica of Young Ford himself - who thinks Ford stopping a robot rattler in its tracks is magic.
Ford is happy for the company until he reaches An Interesting Landmark with a Cross. He later returns to the site with Barnard, explaining he already had a new storyline ready to go. The Interesting Landmark with a Cross seems relevant. Best theory I could come up with is that it’s the top of a church steeple, with everything else buried underground. When he first started walking, there was a shot of him looking at his feet, and the ground seeming to shift under his weight. If not an actual church, maybe it’s the start of his next big idea.
ONWARD UNION SOLDIERS
It was almost a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but the Westworld theme park does seem to at least be on the right side of history when it comes to what I believe Abe Lincoln himself referred to as “that whole bullshit slavery business”. White Hat and Black Hat pass by some Northern soldiers recruiting near the train station, which is rather deliciously ironic given they’re about to hang out in a place where all the locals are programmed to do exactly what the visitors want.
Barnard and Sharply-Dressed Modern Business woman - snogging! Shagging! Inappropriate workplace behaviour! Westworld Corp, you need to instigate a #bonkban quicksmart. This could lead to out and out rebellion in the corridors of the mighty. Meanwhile I found it ironic Barnard’s suite had an actual fire on the balcony, because it was the only thing of any warmth in the whole place. It was a bland beige paradise, that’s for sure. Not a hint of anything personal or individual.
The two dopey surgeons who operated on Madam May, as well as all their body shop chums, all wore white scrubs, but with heavy red aprons, possibly vinyl. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere about field doctors wearing red clothing so blood doesn’t show as much, primarily to avoid shocking the patients they’re treating too much. Although working day in, day out in a human butcher/repair shop, I’d imagine it’s probably a clever little built-in psychological support for those guys too.
DELORES GOTTA GUN
Led to it by dreams, or memories, or reveries, or whatever, the point is, girl woke up this morning, got herself a gun.
Tune in again next week when we see what Ford's new idea is, whether Madam May has any PTSD or just more STDs, and whether White Hat Guy can be led not into temptation.