Westworld: The Stray

“Ah, yes, your mysterious backstory…Perhaps it is time you had a worthy story of origin.”

If Westworld upends our expectations in the next few episodes, we will look back at “The Stray” as the moment when it should have been clear. In terms of Lost—a show that can provide a useful counterpoint to this one—this episode might be the equivalent of “Flashes Before Your Eyes”: the moment at which we began to understand just how deep and how complex it can be.

Then again, maybe not.

On its face, this is a serviceable episode that portrays the nascent consciousness at work in the hosts. Dolores (have I mentioned yet that her name means “pains” or “wounds”?) continues to remember her past: she hears a “Voice of God” telling her to “remember,” and she is able to fight back against her assailant for the first time. He’s just a host, so she hasn’t wounded a human. But she managed to override her anti-gun programming.

That’s an important distinction in an episode that name-checks the Turing test, which argues, in part, that computers may be considered intelligent if they can pass as human. As Dr. Ford points out, the hosts have been passing the Turing test for years. But he argues that they don’t have consciousness, just the appearance of consciousness. I wonder if he would say that Dolores became human the moment she was able to override her programming? The moment she was able to write her own narrative?

Although the techs, even Bernard, don’t seem aware of the extent of Dolores’s awakening, they will soon realize something is rotten in the state of Westworld once Elsie and Stubbs explain the freakish behavior of the “stray” host, who seems to have followed his stargazing passion into a ravine, only to commit suicide by crushing his own head with a gigantic rock. Does he prefer suicide to being beheaded by the third Hemsworth? Has he realized his life isn’t worth living, that it’s not a life? I’m curious to see what the techs back at the lab make of it.

And that brings me to the events in the lab and how this episode might indicate a “deeper level” (to quote the Man in Black) at work in this show. Dr. Ford discusses the importance of backstories when talking to Teddy. Until this scene, Teddy just had an amorphous guilt in his past; his character function didn’t require any more. But now he has specific memories and an actual narrative that ties him more closely to the Wyatt figure (whose own narrative involves going a bit more rogue that some guests may want).

This is also the episode in which two of our techs get their own tragic backstories: Bernard’s dead son and Dr. Ford’s dead partner.

Is that just a meta joke? Jonathan Nolan’s brother played a similar game in Inception: creating dreams and creating movies are the same task. Jonathan Nolan himself toyed with that theme in his script for The Prestige: magic and movie-making are similar; it’s all about deflection. So perhaps a story about backstories for hosts, that also reveals backstories about people, is just patented Nolaning. A little joke as the big story—what will the hosts do as they attain consciousness?—plays out.

But it might, might, be something more. It might be an indication that Bernard is nothing more than a host; his conversations with Gina Torres may be no more real than his conversations with Dolores. It might be an indication that Dr. Ford is no more than a host, maybe one who has achieved consciousness. It all might add up to a “deeper game.”

And that’s me quoting the Man in Black again, although he appeared only briefly, in flashback, in this episode. We know he’s a real entity, since the techs explained that he has the run of the park in the previous episode—he’s not a mindworm infecting the hosts. But I wonder if he is Arnold, Dr. Ford’s old, dead partner. I also wonder if he is a host-version of Arnold, let loose to see what happens when a host gains true consciousness.

Then again, like I said: Maybe not. Even if this show doesn’t go down the path of a hair-grabbing, mind-numbing “What if nothing is real?!” ouroboros, watching the hosts and guests interact, and seeing what happens as the hosts begin to realize their own sentience, is interesting enough.

Reveries:

• Teddy’s job is to act as an obstacle for the rapist guests to overcome before they rape Dolores. Wow, narrative-creators. That is a dark view of human nature.

• The scene of the hosts “stuck in a loop” because they didn’t have encoded permission to use an axe to chop wood for a fire is the most perfect metaphor for some of the meetings I’ve been to at work that I have ever experienced.

• Teddy couldn’t shoot some of the Bad Guys in the final gun battle: were they human?

• The end—in which Dolores wanders off and finds William and his future brother-in-law in the desert—indicates that soon William will become relevant, which is good.

• Bernard is married to Gina Torres! Way to go, Bernard.

• I love how the show revealed the subtle way the hosts would respond to guests who wanted to opt out of a narrative that got too violent.

• One of the most interesting SFF writers working today, Charles Yu, is part of the writing team for this show. Here is a haunting short story he wrote for the New Yorker; I also recommend his books How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

Three out of four Bicameral Minds, but I reserve the right to change my mind later if the gods speak to me.

Now a question for all of you: If you went to Westworld, what would you wear? I’d wear the same outfit the female guest did—cool pants and a nifty vest, with a comfy poncho for nighttime gun battles.

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

3 comments:

Billie Doux said...

If I went to Westworld, I would indeed go for the western male drag. But what are the alternatives? Hookerwear or demurefarmgirl? :)

As I commented in your excellent review of the premiere, this show keeps making me think of Dollhouse, but without a way into the characters. I felt disconnected and reluctant to engage during the first two episodes and actually fell asleep while watching this one, something I rarely do when watching what appears to be really interesting and complex science fiction. That doesn't mean this is a bad show, though. It's probably just not for me.

J.D. Balthazar said...

The animals are working the gift shop... I've had the feeling that the employees are just another level of hosts for a while now. This is less of a park, and more of a complex experiment that know one knows has gone off the rails. What happened in those early days of the park? Is Arnold the Man in Black?

I find the questions this episode brought up fascinating, and the implications of those questions delightful. If most of the employees are human, just for the sake of argument, is Bernard? Of all the human employees, he seems the most like an artifical man. Not because he feels artificial, but there is something off about him. Plus there's the way Ford goaded him about his son, as if trying to evoke an emotional response just to do it.

I'll give you one thing, it never even occurred to me that Ford could be a host. If he is one too, that throws everything in to question, including the nature of consciousness and what is ultimately real in a show that constantly fucks with our perceptions of reality. Like when Delores was experiencing loops in the place of memories, where things would shift and suddenly she was in a slightly different situation. Her memories have started to affect her reality in way that would be unsettling to anyone, let alone a robot just beginning to awaken into consciousness.

Anyway, I could ramble some more but I won't. Great review, great episode.

sunbunny said...

I'd go classic saloon girl myself. With all this technology, they have to have invented a comfortable corset, right?