I ask my students what Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (better known by its Latin name, Oedipus Rex) is about. Inevitably, they say it is about a guy who kills his father and marries his mother. Nope, sorry, no points, thank you for playing. You get a case of turtle wax and the home version because you just lost. All the father killing and mother marrying took place years ago. No fathers die in the play, nor are any mothers happy brides.
The play begins with a priest complaining there is a plague ravaging Thebes and that something must be done. Oedipus, a limping king, enters, says he’s bona fide, and he’s got the answers. He messed up the Sphinx and now he’s going to fix this. The oracle comes back that the city is sheltering the murderer of the previous king. Oedipus says he will find him and banish him.
“Ah, ha,” say the clever students. “So, it’s about a guy looking for a murderer!”
“Nope,” I respond, “Have some more turtle wax.” Line three hundred, not even a tenth of the way through the play, and Tiresias comes and tells Oedipus he himself is the murderer he is looking for. Oedipus grows worried and Jocasta, the queen, his wife, tells him that prophesies can be ignored because they don’t come true. She was told she would marry her son and instead she married Oedipus, so see? What happens is that Oedipus starts looking for a murderer and is then told his father died and he is relieved. He is then told by the same guy that it was actually his adopted father who died. Oedipus never knew he was adopted. The whole rest of the play is Oedipus trying to figure out who he really is, and we watch in horror as he learns what we already know - that the father killing and mother marrying happened long in the past and only now does he learn who he truly is. “Call no one happy until they are dead,” the chorus tells us. Because on your deathbed, you might learn that the woman you called mom was your grandmother and the woman you called sister was your mom and doesn’t that just mess your whole reality up right before you die? Your whole life was a series of lies you believed.
That’s one of the greatest plots we get from the Greek - do you really want to know who you are? Oedipus’ tragedy is the simple fact that he does not have an Oedipus complex. He does everything he can to avoid killing dad and hooking up with mom. Then, as a proud father and husband himself, he finds out that despite his best efforts, his wife is his biological mother and his kids are also his half-siblings. The incest isn’t the tragedy; the knowledge of what he truly is is the tragedy.
This plot is a gift to the genres fangirls and boys love. From Angel Heart to Terminator: Salvation, from The Sixth Sense to The Others, horror comes from the knowledge that you are completely wrong about who you are. (Tangentially, that also is the plot of about one third of the episodes of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer.)
Which brings us to Westworld and knowledge of one’s self. Throughout this episode, we see a number of characters who are certain the world is one way and they know who they are, only to learn that the world is not what they thought, and they are definitely not who they thought they were.
Trompe L'Oeil means “optical illusion” in French. It is a type of art that tricks the eye into perceiving two dimensions as three. Something painted on the wall or tabletop appears to be a real, three-dimensional object. But it isn’t. Now in episode seven, we are moving very rapidly through reveals to the endgame. And now the titles are starting to make a lot of sense. It appears Charlotte is the eponymous adversary of last week’s episode; while Lowe is the trompe l'oeil!
I also want to take a second here to point out that the three streams I keep returning to here in these reviews - the literary (especially Shakespeare, Dante and Lewis Carroll), the theological, and the real - join together in this episode to form a mighty river of ideas pushing characters and audience alike towards a now-just-possible-to-see-it climax.
We begin, in fact, with the mix of real and literary. Lowe, eyes closed, unfocused. “Dad, wake up,” cries his son in his hospital bed. “Where were we?” asks Lowe. “The mad man,” Charlie replies. “Oh yes, of course, The Hatter. Who says, ‘If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't.” Oh, Lowe - you speak more truth than you (or we) know at this point. For Lowe is a host, as we will learn below. He is not what he is, because he is what he isn’t. And in this episode, Oedipus-like, boy will he learn it.
We then see Lowe examining Hector Escaton, a little worse for wear due to some scuffle in the park no doubt.
“Have you ever questioned your reality?” he asks Hector.
“No,” comes the response. “This world is as doomed as ever.” A guy whose last name means the end of things cannot be blamed for the attitude. But in yet another example of irony (Thank you, Saint Oedipus.), Lowe has never questioned his reality either. Like the rest of the hosts, he is blithely unaware of his true nature.
He is asked about Elsie, who you recall, vanished last week in a theatre in the park. “According to the system, she started her leave today.” She has been erased. And that means someone in the park is covering his or her tracks in the system. Houston, we have a digital intruder.
William is also coming to terms with the fact that he is not who he thought he was. “Maybe you got more of an appetite for this than you think,” Lawrence opines after seeing how good William is with guns and how willing he is to kill for Dolores.
William tells Dolores about his fiancée, Logan’s sister. “I have a life waiting for me,” he tells her. But then he realizes, “I’ve been pretending my whole life. My life is built on it.” He comes to the conclusion that he is actually the most real, his most true self, in Westworld. “I got a glimpse of a life in which I don’t have to pretend. A life in which I can be truly alive. How can I go back to pretending when I know what it’s like to be truly alive?”
Yet another ironic paradox (Thank you again, Saint Oedipus.): William’s life outside the park was an illusion, a two-dimensional existence he mistook for three. It is only in the artificial world, the world of pretending, in which he was able to become most alive. “It doesn’t cater to your lowest self,” he says of Westworld, a forty-thousand-dollar-a-day park that exists mostly for sex and violence, “it reveals your deepest self.”
Here is where we hit the heart of Westworld, the show and the park. Freed from the restraints of the real, we may be what we actually are. William is right - we pretend in our social reality as a survival skill. But when we are not required to pretend in reality, we may be real in the world of pretend. Per the quote from Alice in Wonderland, “Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't.” Lowe uses Carroll to describe “the real world:” nothing is what it is, because everything is actually what it isn’t. As a result, in the park, everything is its most real.
Meanwhile, Cullen reports to Charlotte’s room to find her riding (in every sense of the word) Hector. She specifically requested him for sex. Cullen expresses concern for the park and Charlotte sets her straight: “Let me remind you of something. This place, these people who work here are nothing. Our interest in this place is entirely in the intellectual property, the code…I don’t give a rat’s ass about the hosts. It’s our little research project that Delos cares about. That’s where the real value is.” The park, Ford’s new narrative, the hosts themselves are inconsequential. The board plans to push Ford out, but want to make sure he can’t pull the plug on the hosts or the code. They are playing a deep game for profits. “The gods…they require a blood sacrifice,” she tells Cullen. “Someone thoroughly unexpected.”
They fake an incident with Clementine so that she kills a host she believes is a human, thereby allowing Charlotte to fire Lowe. Ford simply stands and watches. He almost seems cowed.
Meanwhile, back on the train, we have entered Ghost Nation territory, and Westworld enters its actual western phase. An ambush by the Confederates almost ends Lawrence, Dolores, and William, but a deus ex machina in the form of the Native American Ghost Nation (who vaguely resemble Pawnee with a hint of Sioux, if I am not mistaken), ride in and slaughter the former Southern soldiers. Lawrence goes on, but William and Dolores stop at their canyon destination.
Lowe finds Cullen and tells her that he has discovered the real problem with the hosts and the code and he wants to show her something.
And then the signposts just line up.
“The longer I work here, the more I think I understand the hosts. It’s human beings that confuse me,” he says.
He leads Cullen to Ford’s secret house. It is invisible to hosts; they can’t see it, they’ve been programmed not to see it. “What’s behind this door?” she asks. “What door?” he asks. “This one,” she responds and suddenly he can see it. (Rewatch this scene if you have not already - it’s a nifty effect as the camera shows a solid wall, pans to Lowe, and then pans back to the wall which now has a door in a single. Seamless shot. (Kudos, show - that was a lovely moment)).
Lowe leads Cullen down, where they find a number of machines recreating the opening credit sequence, creating hosts. This is Ford’s secret host-creation shop. Cullen looks at blueprints and freezes as she sees one that we cannot. Her expression is one of shock, disbelief, and horror. The blueprint is of Lowe.
He cannot see it.
“They cannot see the things that will hurt them. I’ve spared them that,” Lowe shares, having suddenly appeared in the shadows, between Cullen and the door. “Their existence is purer than ours, free of the burden of self-doubt.”
Can you see over the irony, it is piling up so high here? Hosts, pure Oedipal figures in the sense that they have no clue as to their true reality, are not true Oedipi, as they are on some level incapable of seeing the truth of their existence. They cannot ever reach the self-knowledge Oedipus achieves as that requires self-doubt. One must be open to the possibility that the world is not how it is. The hosts are not that.
Lowe realizes he might be a host and at a command from Ford, he calms down immediately. He removes his jacket and tie as Cullen tells Ford he has been “playing God long enough.” Ford laughs. The world is not the way she thinks. “I simply wanted to tell my stories. It was you people who wanted to play God with your little undertaking.” Cullen’s face shows not just fear, but the Oedipal realization that she is not who she thought she was, things are not the way she thought they were, and she is not doing here what she thought she was.
“A blood sacrifice is called for,” Ford says, mirth playing in his eyes as he quotes Charlotte back to Cullen. She is the literal blood sacrifice. She thought she was a queen, but she was just a pawn. The reality of the game catches up with her. Cullen realizes he means her and begs Lowe not to hurt her.
He smashes her against the concrete wall until she is dead. He then calmly puts his coat and tie back on and returns to the workshop to continue on Ford’s plans.
Before she dies, Ford simply remarks, “In that sleep, what dreams may come?”
THERE IT IS: the uber-Oedipus: Hamlet. Ford quotes 3.1, the “to be or not to be” speech in which Hamlet considers suicide. The words are a misquote, taken out of context.
Let’s look at the whole sentence:
To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
Or in other words, we might think of death as a kind of sleep, but what we dream about in that sleep makes us less likely to kill ourselves, because we have no idea what happens. In fact, Hamlet says the reason why we don’t kill ourselves is because despite our proclamations of religious faith, we actually have no idea what happens when we die. We put up with the worst things that happen to us, because we don’t know what the alternative is should we end ourselves. It might not be an improvement.
And, says Hamlet, no one can give a first-person account, calling death, “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” Now, this line is ironic in Hamlet, because he is having these thoughts because his dead father’s ghost has been coming from the undiscovered country fairly regularly to talk to him.
It is also ironic in Westworld, as right before Ford has Lowe off Cullen, Maeve has explained to her techs what the true nature of reality is, and it also has to do with how wrong Hamlet it. Maeve is back in the repair area and tells Felix and Sylvester (her technicians who are apparently named after cartoon cats), that she is going to leave Westworld. When they object, telling her that the Delos Corporation will kill her, she simply states, “You think I’m scared of death? I’ve done it a million times and I’m f**king great at it. How many times have you died? Because if you don’t help me, I will kill you.” The techs thought the world was one way, Maeve showed them it is another. That is their “Oedipus moment” - this situation is not what you thought it was. Welcome to the new reality. Welcome to the desert of the real.
Not only that, Maeve is the anti-Hamlet. She moves with decisive action, but she does not fear “the undiscovered country” because it does not exist for hosts. No host ever goes to that country because once they pass the bourn, they arrive right back at the point of departure. The undiscovered country is not real for hosts. They do not shuffle off that mortal coil. They go into hibernation mode until they are repaired. Perhaps they dream then. Perhaps not. But Maeve has given voice to the reverse of the “to be or not to be” speech - she does not fear what happens after death, because every time she “dies,” she comes back. If Lowe is Alice through the looking glass, Maeve is the unkillable Hamlet. Nothing is what it is.
Lastly, no Man in Black this episode. He and Teddy are nowhere to be seen. MAYBE. Back in episode two, the Man in Black said he used to hunt Ghost Nation with Lawrence. He also mentioned that he loves the park and feels more alive in it than outside of it. The internet is full of fan theories that the Man in Black is William in the future. Make of that what you will, but remember today’s lesson from Oedipus. The world is not what you think it is. You are not who you think you are. Do you really want to know who you are? Do you really want to know who the Man in Black is?
(If the answer to the last one is yes, you have three more episodes to find out. Then, you have to wait a whole year for season two).
Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University. His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films. For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes, and to purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.