Westworld: The Absence of Field

“We all have our roles to play.”

Westworld is back to doing what it does best. Bending our minds and challenging our perceptions of reality and selfhood.

Sure, I enjoy how well the show pulls off the theme park aesthetic and I dig a good robot uprising as much as any other guy. But for me, the more interesting aspect of the show has always been the deeper, more cerebral story going on beneath the surface of these characters. Man or machine, they are sentient creatures who are deeply troubled by the nature of their reality. Either of their world or of themselves. And even more disturbed by who and what they become in the face of that reality.

I seem to be obsessed with stories that deal with identity in some way. My favorite movie growing up was The Mask, which was pretty much a slapstick riff on Jekyll and Hyde. For whatever strange reason, I’ve always found these sorts of themes fascinating. Who we are under pressure in the moments that count versus who we envision ourselves to be in our minds. Are we the people we choose to be, or are we what the world has made us?

We return to those themes in full force with ’The Absence of Field.’ This episode primarily focuses on our new characters: Caleb Nichols, the human who bonds with a host, and “Charlotte Hale,” the host pretending to be a human.

I’m loving the whole Neo and Trinity thing between Caleb and Dolores. He surprises her by putting his life on the line to defend her. She surprises him by shrugging off gunshot wounds and saving his life twice. It was amusing when Dolores first brings up Rehoboam, and Caleb's initial reaction is probably not dissimilar from a non-fictional person's thoughts on Big Data: it's ubiquitous, it's inevitable, we all know about it, so what? But she opens his eyes to the truth behind The System. It doesn't just collect our data to provide us all with a more convenient life, it uses it to determine and control the course of everyone's lives.

In the process, we learn a lot about Caleb. His schizophrenic mother abandoned him in a diner when he was a child. What really impacts him, though, is the stuff about his life that he wasn't even fully aware of, but Rehoboam is. Due to his childhood trauma in conjunction with his work in the military and history of depression, the System predicts that Caleb will kill himself in about ten years.

This is another of the show's great psychological twists. Caleb is, at first, naturally dismissive that any system could predict that he would do such a thing. Then he's forced to confront the fact that, in the back of his mind, he does have real suicidal thoughts; this explains the dark ocean waves that we see in his flashbacks. We're watching a man take a hard look at his existence, seeing for the first time how ephemeral it is.

It's a haunting scene. Even more so when Dolores shows him Rehoboam's profile on him and we see that, because it predicts his suicide, he is effectively closed off from acquiring well-paying jobs, from maintaining meaningful relationships, and even from having a wife or children. Meaning he'll never be more than what he is now, and not for long. It's like sci-fi eugenics or something.

I liked that Dolores was smart enough to recognize that she and Caleb are kindred spirits, but I have my doubts about her recruiting him for her revolution. Obviously, we're meant to be looking at this in a positive light. But should we? Dolores frames herself as someone seeking to liberate humanity. Is that really her goal now, or is it just subterfuge to get her closer to her previous goal: usurping humanity as masters of the world? She seems very sincere with Caleb, at first advising him to save himself by staying clear of her. Then she offers him a purpose, a chance to fight for his freedom. Is this how she really feels, or does she just know exactly how to appeal to Caleb because she's read his profile?

I don't know, but I'm hoping the showrunners aren't pulling our chain and that Dolores is developing a more nuanced view of humans. Maybe she does want to set them free, even if it does turn out to be freedom under her control. Hell, maybe if that is the case, Caleb won't mind that much. He's already more attached to robots than people; he looked sad when the Rico thugs destroyed his robot co-worker George, who tried to protect him. Time will tell if this is the start of something beautiful or the beginning of the end.


But now we move on to the somehow more interesting aspect of the episode, the host who would be Charlotte Hale. We learn immediately that whoever this host is, she (or possibly he) is not fond of being forced to play the part of Hale. Sure, you'd think it'd be pretty cool. She gets to live in a high rise apartment, runs one of the most powerful corporations in the world, and gets to intimidate and boss everyone around at her pleasure. However, pretending to be Hale seems to be taking its toll on... well, "Hale."

She begins self-harming, feeling like the real Hale wants to cut her out. Being in a body that isn't hers and having to pretend to be that person for a long period seems to be eating away at her consciousness. Dolores believes that the host is identifying with Hale too much, because they're both predators. She seems to be right, as "Hale" slowly kills a pedophile who was stalking Nathan, the real Hale's son, and claims that doing so helps her remember who she is. So that tells us something about the host, at least.

We also learn that "Hale" and Dolores seem to have a deep, possibly romantic bond that goes way back. I've seen A LOT of theories about who she could be. At first, I thought it was Clementine; poetic justice for Hale having her lobotomized in season one. Some think it's Teddy, some think it's Maeve's long lost daughter, some think it's another version of Dolores; I'll admit I like the idea of that last one. Personally, though, I think it's Angela. I mean, we don't really know how she went from being the concierge of Westworld thirty years ago to being one of Wyatt's most ruthless lieutenants in the present. I really hope it isn't Teddy, though; that poor bastard's been through enough on account of Dolores.

Anyway, yeah. The new "Hale" has a lot to deal with. On top of the violently unstable identity issues, she also has to deal with the stresses of keeping up appearances at home and at work.

The former proves a lot more difficult than the latter, probably because there's way more surveillance footage and records of Hale as a businesswoman than there is of her with her family. While Hale's husband Jake bitterly assumes she's just being more of a jerk than usual, her son Nathan seems to recognize that "Hale" isn't really his mother. Although, it gets twisted when she discovers footage that the real Hale recorded using a dead host at the start of Dolores' massacre in the season one finale. I guess it's nice to know Hale wasn't an utterly inhuman monster like I thought, since she appears to have loved her son and claims that everything she did was to build a life for her family. But it was eerie watching the new "Hale" cry as she studies the real Hale tearfully singing a bedtime song for Nathan. Even this is ambiguous. Is the host genuinely sad or is it the part of her that is becoming Hale simply reliving those emotions? Does she really care about Hale's son or is she just doing whatever she can to maintain the illusion that she's his mother?

She mainly tries to focus on furthering Dolores' agenda as head of Delos, which is easier said than done with her associates questioning her production of new hosts as well as dealing with the wealthiest man in the world edging in on her business. This is Serac. "Hale" spends most of the episode discovering that Serac has a mole inside Delos and searching for that mole, only to realize in the end that she was hunting "herself."

It's nice that a show this complex has such a good memory. We've looped back around to the corporate espionage plot to steal data from Westworld, which was a key factor in both of the previous seasons. At first, it just seemed like the real Hale and some Delos higher ups were using Theresa Cullen to make money off of the park's treasure troves of guest information. But the revelation that Hale was actually doing it on behalf of Serac might mean there's an even darker motive behind it. He's still determined to collect "the assets." Of course, we know that Dolores removed them from her father's CPU and it's implied that she stored them away in the Valley Beyond with the other Westworld hosts.

So now the game is on. We know our players, maybe, and we know the stakes, possibly. And I think I'm beginning to see the trajectory this season is heading in.

Someone pointed out on reddit that Rehoboam works by processing everyone's output, the information we've all made available online. So maybe Serac's goal is to download all those human minds that the parks scanned and see how the machine processes that information. When speaking of Rehoboam, Serac claimed that history has an author. If that's true, then we are all just characters in his story. He doesn't just want an estimate of mankind's future, I think he wants to be able to decide what the fate of every person will be. To give us all a script to follow, all bound together by a single grand narrative. Doesn't sound the least bit Orwellian, does it?

But maybe the twist is that Dolores actually likes that idea, with the difference being that she will be history's author, not Rehoboam or Serac. Maybe this is how we eventually reach the future "William" found himself in during the final scene of season 2, wherein hosts appear to be the ones in charge while humans have become their test subjects.

Speaking of which, it seems the next episode will feature the return of our old friend, the Man in Black. So it looks like the identity crises aren't ending anytime soon.

Bring it on.


Loops and reveries:

* The title of the episode is a line from a Mark Strand poem titled Keeping Things Whole. The first stanza reads, "In a field I am the absence of field. This is always the case. Wherever I am I am what is missing."

* Is anyone else getting a Final Five Cylons vibe from the mystery surrounding the five pearls Dolores stole from Westworld? Now that they're all future chic, Dolores and "Hale" both remind me a bit of Tricia Helfer as Number Six.

* Charlotte's self-harming also reminds me a bit of Roy Batty in Bladerunner.

* One of the robots Delos has built on “Hale’s” behalf is a massive riot control droid with interlocking parts. Reminded me of the Zords from Power Rangers, but they end up looking like ED-209's prize-fighting cousin.

* Maybe I missed something in the premiere, but how did Dolores get marked on the Rico app so quickly? I don’t remember Conells or his goons doing that. Is the Rico app directly controlled by Rehoboam too?

* During one of Caleb’s flashback snippets, we see him and his late friend Francis wearing masks and looking more like hired thugs than soldiers. I’m still thinking there’s more to his backstory than we are seeing.

* Though I'm assuming Caleb's military background is not some false memory. When the EMTs are baffled by Dolores’s lack of any life signs, Caleb takes it upon himself to patch her up and seemed to know what he was doing. And the Rico thugs who catch him midway through note that his implant (or "drip" as they call it) is military-grade.

* I should also note that the drip is another scary way of illustrating that humans are not so different from hosts. The Rico thugs are able to hack into Caleb's inactive one, and we see that they work around his nerves of steel by raising his adrenaline to the point that he nearly has a heart attack. Who knows how far that technology goes or how dangerous it could be for humans. Is it supposed to work in accordance with the holy wafer narcotics? Seems like most people use it to get high.

* Both "Hale" and Caleb's storylines in this episode reminded me of the James Delos host-hybrid in 'The Riddle of the Sphinx' last season. First made to realize that his personality and identity were perfectly copied, like Caleb. Then breaking down from the knowledge that he's robot forced to believe he's a human, like "Hale." I think host-hybrids will be the bane of hosts too. Overall, I'm loving the themes of trans-humanism. I like to think that's what the show is really building toward, a singularity in which humans and hosts merge to form a new species.

* Pom Klementieff’s character is named Martel. Not sure if that’s been stated yet.

* Speaking of notable actors in small roles, Michael Ealy plays Jake, the real Charlotte Hale's estranged husband. I usually see Ealy playing antagonistic characters, but I sympathized with Jake right away. To put it lightly, Hale did not seem like a person who would be easy to live with. And the new "Hale" might be even colder and more distant than she was.

* The real Hale’s son is named Nathan. Nathan Hale was a spy for the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Gotta be intentional, right?

* The ridiculously grand and self-serious dialogue the corporate rats at Delos sometimes engage in, specifically "Hale" and her assistant, is rather cringeworthy. Wonder if that was intentional too.

* RIP George the Robot.

Quotes:

Dolores: They’ve made it so easy. The way they’ve built their world, it won’t take much to bring it all crashing down.

Caleb: What about you?
Dolores: You're a good man, Caleb. The less you know about me, the better.

Jake: Do what you do best. Lie.

"Hale:" What the fuck is happening to me?
For real, though.

Dolores: You’re angry.
Caleb: No. I am enraged.
Dolores: I know the feeling.

Dolores: The founders of this machine have fed it everyone's raw data, long before there were privacy laws. Every purchase, job search, doctor visit, romantic choice, call, text. Every aspect of your lives. Recorded. Logged. In order to create a mirror world of this world.
Caleb: Why?
Dolores: To make a composite of you. Of everyone.
Caleb: So it tells them who I am?
Dolores: It's not about who you are, Caleb. It's about who they'll let you become.

Dolores: They don’t want to invest in someone who is going to kill himself, but by not investing they ensure the outcome.

Caleb: You wanna know why I didn't tell those guys about you? Because you are the first real thing that has happened to me in a long time.
Dolores: ... I don't need an algorithm to know that the man who built this system won't go down without a fight.
Caleb: I'm a dead man either way. At least this way I get to decide who I want to be.

"Hale:" (to Martel) You work for him?
Serac: So do you, Charlotte. Or did you think you were the only one under my control?

Jonathan Nolan: In terms of influences, very much thinking about The Matrix. A slightly lo-fi version. You don’t need Zion. You don’t need to plug everyone in like a battery. We’ve already done it. We’ve already created The Matrix invisibly within our own world, like an overlay.

Still loving it so far. Four and a half out of five strawberry milkshakes.

3 comments:

Josie Kafka said...

Logan, excellent review! I'm loving this season, too. Aaron Paul is delightful. (As is everyone else, of course.)

George the Robot trying to rescue Caleb brought tears to my eyes. It was such a small vignette about programming vs. identity (or nature vs. nurture): was George programmed to prioritize Caleb's survival? Or did he genuinely like his lunch buddy?

Of course, there's something cheeky about the idea that maybe Caleb is just a person that robots naturally want to take care of, like how some people are really good with dogs or babies.

Josie Kafka said...

Forgot to mention: thank you for explaining the title. I just checked out the poem and it was awesome.

Logan Cox said...

Josie, thank you for your comments.

George's demise also bummed me out, and his spontaneously coming online to help Caleb had me wondering too. At first, I thought it was Dolores controlling him, but it does leave you to wonder whether it was just performing its functions or if it made a choice to save Caleb, like Dolores did. I know it drive some people up the wall, but I love how the show doesn't give you easy answers.

I hadn't considered the robots thinking of certain humans the way we think of pets, but that could very well be a thing that happens.

Aaron Paul is a perfect choice to play the post-modern everyman. He's very good at engaging with our sympathy.

Agreed about the poem. I'd never read it before, but it's one I'll definitely be keeping in mind.