For example, the story progresses through the end of episode two and right before it ends, they simply drop: “Oh, didn’t you know? Carol probably killed her third husband.” Credits roll. First of all, that just promotes binge watching right there. You need to know what Carol did, because, thus far, she seems like the closest-to-normal of these people. Second of all, by the fourth episode, you can’t remember a time when everyone, including you, was not talking about how Carol killed her husband. That’s good storytelling: a twist that no one sees coming that changes everything but, in hindsight, seems natural and obvious.
This applies to Westworld, as well, and to this episode in particular; character and plot are slowly and methodically revealed and the story holds your interest, but then hints are dropped that the show is about to pull a “crazy Ivan.” “Absence of Field” is one of the best episodes in the series, and I’m still not certain what is going on, but I cannot stop watching.
The title of the episode is a quotation from a poem by Mark Strand called “Keeping Things Whole.” (You can read the poem here.) The poem begins:
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
“I am what is missing” is beautiful and painful, suggesting a lack of belonging, that even when one is present, one is not. This poem could be applied to Charlotte in this episode, or as I now think of her “Charlotte/Not Charlotte.” Someone else’s ACU is in her skin suit, and we don’t know whom (fan theories include Teddy and Abernathy, but I don’t know – it’s someone fragile yet strong who is close to Dolores).
The whole episode is a beautiful tribute to absence, exemplified by a single moment that felt the most true in the episode. Tucking in Nathan, the son we did not know she had, Charlotte looks at the toy elephant he is playing with and reminds him, “Elephants don’t exist anymore.” In the 2058 of Westworld, elephants are extinct. That little throwaway line tells you so much about this world, its values, and its relationship to nature.
In grad school, we were introduced to the concept of “the presence of an absence” – an awareness of something missing that is so acute, the absence itself is a presence. It is when someone close to you dies or when a relationship ends. One is aware of the absence. It is a physical thing sometimes – the pain in the spot where a bad tooth used to be. Elephants are more present in this world because of their absence. Charlotte so blithely dismisses their extinction, but I, as an audience member, found that absence deeply troubling.
Charlotte, as I mentioned above, was an absence. The episode begins with her coming online. She is afraid and literally not herself. “Let me show you who you need to be,” Dolores tells her, handing her a mirror. “Why must it be her?” Charlotte/Not Charlotte begs, “She tried to kill us?” “Because you need to control Delos,” Dolores answers. Charlotte is absent from Charlotte – someone else now controls the body, but we do not know who. “We have to move quickly; they don’t know we survived” – an absence of knowledge about self-aware hosts on the part of Delos keeps the Westworld chaos moving. Nathan also recognizes the absence of actual maternal affection in his erstwhile mother: “I want my old mommy back.” The boy knows what the adults do not – Charlotte, the actual Charlotte, is absent.
Charlotte/Not Charlotte learns that 38% of the Delos shares, a controlling share, if you will, are now in the hands of an unknown. Through an investigation, they learn these shares are owned and controlled by Serac. He is the richest man in the world – a trillionaire, with no web presence. No one has heard of him; he has total anonymity. “Now that we have found him, what will he do to us?” asks Irene Gerhart. Serac is an absence that is rapidly becoming a presence on the show. As with the last episode, he will arrive in person (except not) to parlay with Charlotte/Not Charlotte. Even present, he is an absence, his seemingly physical form dissolving to reveal he was a very convincing hologram.
The very language Gerhart uses to explain Serac to Charlotte is the epitome of absence. She compares him to a black hole – we cannot see him, but we can discern his presence by the absence of something in that place where everything else is accounted for. There is a trillion-dollar hole in the economy that he plugs perfectly. In other words, we only know of Serac by the absence his lack of presence in the world and in the economy marks.
Dolores is busy interacting with Caleb and Charlotte/Not Charlotte in this episode. When the former rescues her from the shootout in the first episode, and RICO mercenaries show up to kill her, she kills them, steals their police car ,and tells him, “You’re a good man, Caleb. The less you know about me, the better.” She warns him that whoever is after her will seek him out now and the prophesy comes true. While he visits his mother in the hospital, he is kidnapped, zip tied, and tortured by two RICO thugs. Charlotte shows up in time to shoot them and bring Caleb to a special place.
Charlotte/Not Charlotte cuts herself, perhaps out of anxiety, perhaps to feel anything. She meets Dolores in a hotel bar, the latter takes the former’s emotions off line and asks her to follow her up to a hotel suite. Dolores directs that the rooms on either side be empty. “In case you have to kill me,” Charlotte/Not Charlotte asserts. Instead, Dolores gives her a new directive: “The person we’re looking for is looking for us. You’re going to find him and kill him.”
Tangentially, there is a V for Vendetta vibe here, if you’ve read the original graphic novel. Not only is Dolores clearly pursuing a vendetta against all of society, she’s starting by clearing out all loose ends that could tie back to her. As a character in the graphic novel says, “The whole exercise was a chilling elaborate vendetta. That’s the explanation that I find most reassuring, funnily enough. Because that means he’s finished now. That mean’s it’s over… But what if he’s just been clearing the ground? What if he’s planning something else?” Dolores did not just want to destroy the Delos parks and escape. She is planning something else, and, like V, it’s going to bring the house down.
Nathan feels his mother’s absence again when she is late to pick him up. A potential child molester named Thomas is helping Nathan pet his golden retriever. Charlotte sends Nathan to play and then strangles Thomas to death, taking his dog. “You’re not the only predator here,” she tells the man as he dies. It is perhaps one of the most chilling and uncomfortable moments of the season if not the series, and yet it is beautifully filmed.
In fact, if we’re entirely honest, the entire episode is beautifully filmed, from the shot of Charlotte standing in front of the glass dome of Delos headquarters to the reveal that Serac is a hologram, the entire episode is exquisitely lit, framed, and shot. Kudos to director Amanda Marsalis, who also directed two episodes of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, and to cinematographer Zoe White, who’s also DP’ed a dozen episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, among many credits. More women above the line, please. This episode is among the best in the series with strong women in front of and behind the camera. [Speaking of which, Tessa Thompson will probably not get the Emmy or Golden Globe nod for her performance in this series, and this episode in particular, because awards ignore genre shows (See: Norman Reedus and Danai Gurira.), but she drives this episode from front to back, from her fragility at the opening, to her sociopathy in killing Thomas – a performance with range, depth, naturalness, and clarity.] Well done, all involved.
Dolores and Caleb go to the diner where he eats once a year on February 23, the day his mom abandoned him, simply leaving him there. A kind waitress called social services after eight hours. Though he remains a presence in his Alzheimer’s-ridden mother’s life as an adult, she became an absence in his. He returns each year to commemorate his abandonment. Dolores tells him every detail of his life, and he accuses her of spying on him.
“You’re angry,” she observes.
“I’m enraged,” he counters.
“Good, me too.”
She explains that her knowledge is not from surveillance or stalking him on social media, but she was able to learn every detail of his life from InCite and Rehoboam, the computer that will end the world apparently. “It’s not about who you are,” she tells Caleb, “it’s about who they let you become.” Absence of privacy. Absence of potential. Absence of free will. Caleb begins to realize the depth he finds himself in and asks her what she plans to do in the face of Rehoboam.
“Start a revolution,” she tells him.
Ironically, he then tells her that, “You are the first real thing that’s happened to me in a long time.” Huh. He thinks she’s real. He thinks he’s real. Absence of awareness and self-awareness.
The episode closes with Charlotte arriving at Serac’s home, meeting with him and asking him what he wants. He wants all the information Delos collected on the guests. He wants all of Delos’ secrets. And he is an absence himself – a hologram that was never really there.
Oh, and this is the first episode of Westworld without Bernard at all. Another absence.
The unfolding future of Westworld is dystopian to an extreme. Elephant-free, crime-ridden, filled with absences, the future is pretty damn bleak, which makes this all the harder to watch during a time of social distancing when everything we’ve ever seen in apocalyptic, dystopian narratives seems to be unfolding before our eyes. Yet, even before anyone who had not read a Lysol label had heard of Coronavirus, we were in a time of dystopian dominance – popular dystopias such as The Walking Dead and The Handmaid’s Tale, but also odd genre shows like Into the Badlands and Syfy’s one-season campy WTF series Blood Drive. (It wasn’t great, but I was a fan – campy fun for all!) As a culture, we’ve been feeling the absence of hope, order, and a utopian future for a while. Hell, even the Star Trek shows we get now (Discovery, Picard) no longer have to wear shades at the future is not that bright. It is full of wars, emperors, and Blood Angels, and mysteries and conspiracies within Star Fleet. I miss the Horta – at least that lady turned out to be okay.
The point is, Westworld is a narrative particularly well suited to its cultural moment – stunningly filmed, designed and acted, showing the full potential of the medium, it delivers quality narratives. But it is also resolutely, profoundly, soul-crushingly - a reminder that not only is all not well in the world, it’s not getting better, and soon the elephants will be gone. But at least the 1% can spend their money killing and raping their way through the old west, or Tokugawa Japan, or fantasy middle ages, or the Second World War – there’s no absence of unique experiential fun for those who can afford it.