Westworld Review: The Well Tempered Clavier
Out. You both keep assuming I want out, whatever that is. If it's such a wonderful place out there, why are you all clamoring to get in here? - Dolores
I've told you Bernard; never place your trust in us. We're only human. Inevitably we will disappoint you. Goodbye, my friend. - Ford
First thing's first, that was a ridiculous episode, as prophesied by me one week ago. So many things were soaring at our faces from all directions that it's impossible to decipher everything, but I'm going to try. So, let's start with Bernard Lowe, who took his own life at the end of the episode as Ford used the backdoor he created to force the suicide.
Now, was Bernard actually Arnold?
No, but he was built in the image of Ford's partner, which is fascinating because it illustrates the sorrow and seclusion Ford felt after the loss of his friend. We see a photo of three men, two white men (one we've never really laid eyes on before), and Bernard is in the shot. But, Bernard was created as a new representation of Arnold. He was based on the park co-creator. In effect, once he learns of his relationship to Arnold, he immediately believes he must follow through with the man's vision. And, it's that choice that costs him his life. What we know of Ford is he can be rather affable, provided there's no direct threat, even if it's merely perceived rather than realized. What Bernard would have done, had Ford allowed him to continue, would have challenged the omnipotence of Ford.
What's most interesting here is we are told these two have been down this road before, and when Bernard learns of his past, Ford backdates him, like Time Machine on a Mac or a System Restore, to an earlier state, and the loop begins again. Ironically, Ford has been in a narrative with Bernard repeatedly, but on this occasion, he lets Lowe go in the same way Bernard does in his lucid dream with his "son." Ford finally had to move on, even if the entire rationale isn't apparent. The final moments were powerful, with Ford walking away as we see and hear Bernard pull the trigger.
Ford isn't always a monster, at least not outwardly, but he will snap your neck like a twig if he feels pressure, or if he tires of a situation.
This man has a god complex. He's Alec Baldwin in Malice, where his ego and belief in his own intellect provides him the "ends justify the means" philosophy. He can do as he pleases because it serves the greater good. The ONLY goal in Ford's life is control, and again I hope someday we will see Robert before the park was even in the planning phase, where we can find out what a lonely, bullied loser he probably was as a kid. Fiction is littered with stories of terrible people who started out innocent, fair-minded, and where the constant mental beating led those individuals to madness and megalomania. In fact, we've seen it throughout history as well, with one glaring example being the Adolf Hitler Jewish art school rejection that pushed him over the edge, if you believe the stories.
Alan Sepinwall was my inspiration to begin writing about television, and although I avoid virtually every other reviewer's work, because I don't want it to influence my own thought process, I did see a little of his piece for UPROXX last night and it's something we've also discussed here. Westworld is heavy on mystery, much more so than on character. This show has thus far been more interested in the twists and keeping its audience off balance and confused, which could become tiresome at some point. We still don't have much insight as to what makes these characters tick, which leaves us unable to fully empathize or sympathize with many of them.
However, right now, it's exactly what I want from the show, because there's not a lot of it out there. I don't mind the long conversations I've had with some of you via email (find me at firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter, where none of us know what's next. I miss the chats with friends over Lost and Fringe, so I'm willing to give Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy some leeway to, in short, fuck with me. It's intentional deception from the creators, and I'm enjoying being in a cloudy state, although as always, there does need to be an equal and opposite segment of true clarity in the near future. But, I'm good for now.
As long as it pays off. Then, it becomes subjective. Whereas I loved the finale to Lost, it remains one of the most controversial endings in small screen history. I've written MANY words about it, including a long piece here at Outkick. But, if you don't like the results of the twists, it can become a problem. Plus, there's the over-saturation principle. I worked in pro wrestling for ten years, and still write about it and talk about it on Nashville radio to this day. One thing I learned long ago was you don't do 25 high spots in a match, and you also don't constantly swerve your audience, because there's definite truth behind the law of diminishing returns. Scandal's first few seasons were entertaining, despite the soapy qualities, but once Olivia's father arrived, all of a sudden the twists and moves became increasingly outrageous, and virtually none had any effect.
It's as if they ran out of ideas, but the ratings were too strong to pull the plug, and I don't think they're out of ideas. They've brought expectations to a level where they actually market Thursday nights on ABC behind the strategy of "WTF," as opposed to something structured and deep. Westworld isn't there yet, not even close actually, but once we get to the point where every episode is about a reveal, rather than a story, that's when the examination needs to find its way to the surface. And, if we start guessing all of these things before they come (avoid Reddit for your own sanity), something that arguably happened last night on multiple occasions, it's a huge concern.
Has Westworld LEGITIMATELY shocked us up to this point? Even if you didn't guess Bernard was a host, it was at worst Severus Snape's redemption in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There was at least some suspicion there, or the logic was such that as soon as it happened, it made too much sense to be a grand surprise. It was cool, but it didn't make us faint. I guessed Snape from the beginning, and with Bernard it caught me a little off guard, but wasn't a true stunner. The circumstances of Theresa's death were much more shocking to me than Bernard Lowe being a host.
Last week's episode, while to me more mundane and a placeholder, was welcome. We didn't get toyed with quite as much, and it was a come down, setting the stage for the final two installments of the year. Most who know television understand the penultimate is where the big drama, the big death, the big "holy shit," and that's exactly what happened. Hopefully it isn't the last of Jeffrey Wright, but this is undeniably a series where talented names will arrive and disappear. While I don't think Shannon Woodward is gone, the last we know of Elsie was watching Bernard choke her out, and now a faint signal in an obscure part of the park. Shannon is great, and I hope she hangs around, but outside of a few, we should always expect these characters to rent, not buy.
By far the most straightforward thing happening on Westworld is Maeve's storyline, because she's not hiding her intentions, nor is the show attempting to sugarcoat what she's planning to do. The question becomes how does it fail, because a robot uprising isn't going to happen this soon, even if it initially appears successful. Inevitably, she's going to look to be in complete control of things, pushing back the humans at every turn, and honestly, it has to be Ford that stops her. Does anyone believe he isn't aware of what she's doing? He's been ahead of the game since the beginning, and we already know there's a possibility of a backdoor into a host's code. She will be seconds away from freedom, after causing increased violence and chaos, and then all of a sudden the park god will bring down the sword.
I do not root for Maeve, but I root for Maeve. Westworld has forced me to see both sides of the argument when it comes to the character, but I still lean more towards the idea of her receiving her comeuppance. It's not because I'm a human, but it's because she's moving with such arrogance, almost gliding around with a braggadocio only rivaled by Ford himself. Thandie Newton continues to kill it with this role, but I think the drama will be better once she falls on her face. She's on a tear, and lately we've seen too many positives, without a setback, for the character. Nolan and Joy have proven she's formidable, but they do need to remind us she isn't the gatekeeper.
William potentially being the Man in Black remains one of the major theories about the plot, and there were certainly moments last night where it felt obvious, but others that obscured that possibility. The big thing is we saw "Billy" snap and murder a bunch of hosts with a knife, and then threaten Logan's life. The white hat doesn't do something like that, but after Dolores escaped, and after Logan and his posse's treatment of her, he lost it. He lied to him, he lured him in, and then he went crazy. "You said this place was a game. Last night I finally understood how to play it," he says, and right there he sounds like the Man in Black in training. Later, when Dolores comes out of the confessional during that batbleep crazy sequence, she thinks William is walking through the door and instead it's Ed Harris, saying hello to her.
(By the way, Jimmi Simpson did his best work of the series during the hour, and his scenes were all kinds of tense.)
The Man in Black knows she's the solution to the maze, but because she expected William, and instead got the Man in Black, it's either a signal that they are one in the same, or it's a way to throw an obstacle in the way. I was still working through Dolores murdering Arnold (or Bernard), something that definitely needs to be explained in great detail, to even bother with theorizing one way or the other. The Man in Black had to deal with Angela, and also had to listen to Teddy, plus had to avoid a hanging.
Again, in this episode, more than any other, Westworld tried to advance every one of its storylines, hoping to tie them all together. For instance, when Charlotte Hale appeared and asked for the Man in Black's support and VOTE in order to oust Ford. Here we did get a mild surprise, in MIB's relationship to the park. Either he has a ton of stock, or he's been on the board for a different reason, but he actually does have some respect from executives. He also has a little bit of power OUTSIDE the fictional side of the park.
His response to Hale, saying he isn't interested in Ford's narratives, gives away both his quest for Arnold's Westworld, as well as Dolores' importance to it. Because she's the key, and he didn't know it originally, that's another possible location to doubt the William-Man in Black theory. And, of course, she killed Arnold. So there's that.
One thing that could probably have been left out is Stubbs and the Ghost Nation. Save that for another time. Yes, there's something intriguing about their non-response to his "freeze all motor functions" command, but there wasn't time to explore it adequately, and we could have just tabled it for the finale.
What's a Clavier? Well, it's a keyboard, and it's a term of the past, but it matches to Ford's analogy of the properly maintained piano not murdering the player because it doesn't like the music. Clementine couldn't shoot him, and if you add to it the strings that help make a keyboard...a keyboard, you also play into Maeve and Dolores as they recognize their artificiality. Hector has now been smartened up, so have the strings been cut from enough hosts to make a real difference? Who is outside their programming, and even with maximum attributes, does that make Maeve smarter than a human, or is that top line still secretly beneath those she reviles?
Finally, some mentioned to me, and I've said it before, that someone needs to kill Maeve. Felix may have emotional ties, may have moral objections to Ford and the park, or may be frightened, but even with her skills, he could still shoot her in the back of the head. She could be murdered, and he has to at least comprehend the danger she poses to everyone he knows. Every second she glides through the show, I wonder how she's still alive. I know why she's still with us, because the show needs her to lead the uprising, but I can't believe how naive he has been to what she's asking him to do. He's not a host. He can kill her. He can mutilate her or bash her circuits to kingdom come. Or, he can sit back and watch her start to wreak havoc inside and outside of the park.
The list of self-aware hosts is growing almost as quickly as the list of questions arising from the plot. It's just a cavalcade of mysteries, with breadcrumbs of resolution. If Lost made a mistake, it was in piling up questions it had no intention of answering in concrete fashion. For me, the finale answered everything, but that can't happen here. Westworld is playing a bit of a dangerous game, but it's so incredibly well-executed and fun to watch. Again, I stated it crudely, but I don't mind being played with, as long as it's clever or addicting.
I thought this was a hell of an episode. It was fast-paced, insane, filled with series mythology, and ended with a literal bang. Michelle MacLaren directed it beautifully, as expected, and it left me supremely ready for the season finale next week. It's an extended episode, which is a good thing, and just as the penultimate usually leaves you breathless and inquisitive, the finale will provide some solace, before attempting to slap you across the brow on its way out.
We had a little fun with a postmortem Periscope last night through my Twitter handle, and although we didn't really mention it much, almost 400 of you showed up and joined in. A modest, but encouraging start. We will DEFINITELY be doing the same for the finale. Those on the west coast won't want to join in live, but can go back and check it out after viewing the episode. Until then, come find me on the tweets and we'll rap about TV.
I'm @JMartOutkick on Twitter. Don't call me Billy.