Whatever happened to Sunday night? Used to be a fanboy/fangirl could enjoy The Simpsons then The X-Files and, if feeling really kooky, maybe watch a late-night rerun of a ST: TNG episode. Now, my goodness, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Preacher, Fear the Walking Dead, Westworld, and Fox’s ongoing animation sort-of-domination have made Sunday a Tivo-filling night. Add in John Oliver, and I’m swamped. [Note to self: Stephen Ogg appears in both The Walking Dead (Simon) and Westworld (Rebus) – crossover character? Is he the thing that ties all of Sunday night’s narratives together? Must watch to see if he shows up in GoT (looks a little Night Watch-y), Simpsons, or Preacher.]1
So, while Negan and the show runners of TWD were busy brutalizing the survivors of seasons one through six (both characters and audience), Westworld also upped the ante, albeit on a much smaller scale. When the Man in Black is recognized by another guest for the work his foundation does in the real world (Who knew?), he threatens to gut the man with his knife. “I’m on vacation,” he explains. But he also brings up an interesting point: We know the guns don’t work on guests – but guests are also carrying knives and other personal combat weapons, they also have access to glassware, chairs, rocks, branches, and all manner of implements by which to bludgeon not only the hosts, but each other. Horses can trample, rocks can slide, and all manner of bad things can happen to guests. So, one, the park must heave great insurance and a heck of a liability waivers, and two, the possibility of guest-on-guest violence has just become real. Adding fuel to this fire is the tension between Logan and William. Logan, delighted to have found an “Easter Egg” host, wants an adventure and feels slowed by Dolores. William prefers to spend time with Dolores and is not interested in a side narrative. Both point guns at the respective host that stands in his way of fun, but one gets the sense that fisticuffs are not far off for these two. Guests can (and probably will) hurt each other, not just hosts.
The episode title refers to a psychological theory, “cognitive dissonance,” in which when one’s world view is confronted by contradictory evidence, one goes into overdrive, psychologically speaking, to make it make sense again. We have at least two (and maybe as many as a dozen) folks coping with evidence that challenges their sense of reality. Our two top contenders are Maeve and Dolores. Others, however, are also coping with the disconnect between how things are and how they think things are.
Like take poor Teresa Cullen. She thought she could tell Ford that the board would not accept the costs of his new narrative. She thought she was in charge. Ford does so much worse than show her he is actually the one in charge. Ford sits her at the table she sat at as a child. “We know everything about our guests and we know everything about our employees,” he tells her, confessing that he knows of her affair with Lowe. Ford sits calmly at the table. (Hopkins enjoys this moment, a smile playing around his lips and eyes as he plays with his prey. He’s a second away from ordering a bottle of chianti and telling Cullen to fly back to her nest. Kudos to actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, who holds her own against Hopkins, and effectively and ably portrays a woman who has just had the rug ripped out from under her and the blindfold from her eyes. Her terror is palpable. It is her performance that puts Hopkins’ to the next level – we fear for her!) She just learned, “It’s not a theme park- it’s an entire world.” and Ford is god.
The other highlight moment of this confrontation was learning a little more about Arnold. “He went mad,” Ford tells Cullen, “I haven’t you know. I have always seen things clearly.” Ford indeed seems to have the best grasp on what’s going on. He is playing a long, deep game, to the point of enabling the Man in Black to do what he is doing. We, the audience, do not yet see clearly what is happening, but the ride got kicked up a few notches this time.
Something is rotten in the state of Sweetwater. Wait – strike that, many, many things are going rotten in Sweetwater, and the consequences will not yet be known to the participants or us, the viewers. The episode opens with Lowe reflected in Dolores’ eye. “Do you know where you are?” he asks her. “I am in a dream,” she responds. But she is not, she is in a dingy room somewhere in the complex that runs Westworld.
Yup, dingy. Go back and look at that room. Décor by Jigsaw. The walls are dirty, the floor is gritty. The baseboards and lower parts of the walls are covered in dust and filth. Yet Lowe is carrying out his secret interviews with Dolores in this serial killer lair. When she begins to scream about her losses, he instructs her to turn off her emotions, and she does. The impassive and detached Dolores is chilling. She is evolving. She takes language and imagery that she was programmed with and creatively expands it. She has a great open space inside her.
She is also Lowe’s metaphoric daughter. She is a host whose main role is to experience loss (of her father and mother, of Teddy), over and over and over again. When told by Lowe that he can make the empty feeling “go away, if you like,” she responds, “Why would I want that?” She tells him, “Pain, their loss, is all I have left to them,” quoting Lowe back to Lowe.
That pain is also making her stronger, shaping her world view, helping her adjust through that cognitive dissonance. If you recall, last episode Lowe read Lewis Carroll to her, and she, blonde fish out of water in a blue dress, like Alice, decides to press on and make sense of a world that does not make sense. Unlike Alice, though, she is done crying. No pool of tears for Dolores, just a six gun and a newfound strength.
“There is something wrong with the world,” she tells Lowe. She doesn’t know the half of it. Lowe raises the Maze, letting us know it is a game inside of a game. “If you find the center, you can be free.” This is a loaded statement. (Also sounds like Lowe is a bit of a Buddhist – find your center and then you might just achieve enlightenment.)
Elsie Hughes is coping with the old cognitive dissonance, as well. The stray she and Stubbs went looking for bashed its own head in with a rock. This action makes no sense to her. Cullen is of no help; neither is Lowe. “It’s like everyone around here has some f**king agenda!” she complains, as the audience says, “Obvi. You just figure that out?”
Meanwhile, Maeve remembers the cleanup men in their wetwork suits. She draws them. She finds that she has drawn them many times. A Native American group passes through town and a dropped Kachina doll resembles the clean-up crews and Maeve is off and running to make sense of the world. Faster than you can say “Erich von Däniken,” we learn that the doll is a representation of a “shade,” a figure that “walks between worlds…They were sent from hell to oversee our world.” Now, let’s unpack that.
The scientists who make, run, and clean up Westworld have been mythologized into the Native American culture of Westworld as spirits from hell that control the world. But we know they are not spirits from hell, just park employees doing their jobs after the guests (or maybe some hosts) have shot up, tortured, or otherwise killed some hosts. The repair shop that Maeve has now seen has been mythologized as hell. The cognitive dissonance built into the very existence of the AIs in Westworld has been built into their culture, their history, and mythology. “Reality” as the scientists and the audience know it, is “hell.” Westworld, a theme park, is reality. We have yet to see a preacher on Westworld, but I hope soon to hear a fire and brimstone sermon about the terrors of the fiery pit. The scientists are “shades,” not real, but more real, as they exist on a mythologized level. They are feared, but they have power and thus might be appeased and even give boons. It’s a Cargo Cult in which the cargo itself is worshipping those who deliver it.
Add to that the sheer number of abduction narratives in the show (Seriously, virtually all of the female characters in Westworld have been abducted one time or another, the Man in Black “rescuing” (Read: abducting.) Lawrence and then Hector, William describing Logan’s bringing him to the park in terms of an abduction, and the taking of the wounded and dying hosts by the scientists and you get Communion. Whitley Strieber has argued for years that he was routinely abducted by aliens. The images people draw of their abductors resemble Maeve’s drawings of the shades. In Maeve’s case, the dreams are also not dreams – her “abductions” really do involve space-suited workers probing her body. She “remembers” memories which are supposed to be repressed or perceived as dreams, just like alien abductees. The hosts are the humans; the scientists are the aliens! (Told you it’s not a Western!)
Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), whose name literally means an agreement to stop fighting, stops fighting when the Man in Black tries to partner with her. Shooting two of her men and announcing she has some openings, he offers to work with/for her to their mutual benefit. He needs to know what her snake tattoo means.
Westworld seems to be struck by bodies as literal text. The Man in Black is looking for Arnold’s legacy. “I believe he had one last story to tell,” he says. Kissy’s scalp hid a map of the maze. The Man in Black has that now and is looking at Armistice’s skin as another text with significance for his quest. We learn that her family was killed. She painted herself with her mother’s blood to avoid being killed herself. We then learn that she drew the snake and used the blood of the men who killed her family to ink it. Blood, blood, and more blood to make an image that contains a secret that might just solve some of the mysteries of Westworld.
Also of interest, Lawrence’s daughter (Izabella Alvarez) again breaks character to reveal information, just as she did for the Man in Black. Apparently, like all games, Westworld has cheat codes. If you know what to say and do, you can skip certain levels and activities and get much deeper into the castle, so to speak. The little girl is one of those cheat codes that gives you information to lead you on a different route. What you think is just another host (and an unimportant one at that) might be the key to winning the game. She “reads” different than she actually is.
We are being shown mysteries, but not their answers. Much is still being set up. Make assumptions at your own risk, though. While the Man in Black, by his actions and sartorial choices, seems to read as the bad guy, he tells Lawrence and Armistice that he is in Westworld “to set you free.” He claims to be bringing “your salvation.” Is the Man in Black the anointed one who will expose the history of Arnold, learn the truths of Westworld, and set the hosts truly free? Is the Man in Black a Christ of the androids, here to harrow their hell and lead them to a paradise where they are not the victims of the real humans’ sins? Does he bring salvation? Or the end of days? Westworld, despite all its scientific trappings, seems to be growing more and more into a philosophical and theological discourse.
Perhaps it is appropriate that it is on Sunday nights then. Services to honor Ford the Father and the Man in Black will be held multiple times (God bless HBO.), so that we may contemplate the mysteries of Westworld. Let the church of the fanboy and fangirl say amen.
1Note to Stephen Ogg: Good on you, man – two major genre series on your resume. Keep it up! Another Note: I do not know Mr. Ogg – just glad when a fellow actor is getting some success and recognition.
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.