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Like many sci-fi shows, Westworld has had to do a great deal of world-building to start off its run in addition to the usual character development inherent in new shows. While there are still a number of pressing questions (some of which go to the heart of the series itself, and will likely remain unanswered for some time), I found “The Stray” to be the most satisfying episode of the series so far.
I am still not ready to completely give the show a pass in the “sexual violence against female characters” department quite yet, but knowing how Dolores fits into the overall Westworld park narrative makes that particular moment in the pilot resonate on a different level that feels much less exploitative than it initially did. That Dolores’s purpose within the Westworld park is to be “taken” from Teddy and raped by a park guest (or, should the guest not be down for that, another host) is particularly awful to digest. Couple that realization with Ford’s speech that the hosts are not people and should not be treated as such, and we, the audience, were left with some pretty thorny questions to ask ourselves.
Dolores is glitching, gaining awareness, and acting against her programming. But, as Ford pointed out, she’s still a robot – a robot whose sole purpose within the Westworld narrative is to be violently raped. If she gains sentience, how will years and years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of humans impact her mind? We’ve seen a host take revenge against others hosts who once killed him (a chilling realization from Elsie when working on Walter). We have seen Dolores have a memory of killing an entire street of hosts (at least we assume they were only hosts). Heck, Dolores killed a host this week (with Chekhov’s gun, no less), which is, one assumes NOT what she was supposed to do in that situation. Evan Rachel Wood is doing a spectacular job conveying the confusion and fear Dolores has at realizing she isn’t doing what she is supposed to be doing in this situation, and has easily made Dolores the most interesting character within the series.
The rest of the episode was littered with additional exposition, but it still worked well with the overall episodic theme of following (or, in some cases, straying from) a structured narrative. We learned that, as expected, Bernard’s dead son is one of the driving forces in his life. Many have been assuming that there is at least one host working in the technical side of Westworld, and the fan favorite pick is Bernard. The introduction of the awesome Gina Torres as his wife makes that possibility seems less likely, but there have been so many other clues laid to indicate he is a host that I still think it’s the likeliest possibility. Still, Bernard remains one of the most emotionally aloof characters we’ve spent a good deal of time with. While Jeffery Wright is a spectacular actor, I don’t really feel any connection to Bernard at this point. I’m more invested in someone like Teddy (who is a much less complex character, played by a lesser actor in James Marsden) than Bernard. I hope the show provides something jolting to the character soon, or the tempered work of Wright is going to fade into the background when going up against layered performances like those of Wood or Thandie Newton.
Overall, “The Stray” was a strong outing for Westworld, laying enough interesting clues (which I will touch on at the end of the review) toward the season’s endgame, and fleshing out characters within the park in greater depth. I remain greatly invested in the Dolores arc (although I worry it might get taken over by whatever hero/villain arc William is going to advance moving forward), and my interest has been peaked as to how the Man in Black is linked to the past, present, and future of the hosts – because I’m fully convinced now he’s the real key to all of this.
— So, the big question appears to be how does Arnold (the apparently dead former partner of Ford) factor into the narrative? Is it possible he’s the Man in Black? We do know that bullets react differently to him than to other park guests (William’s bullet wound appeared to be like a paintball bruise and he clearly felt pain, while the Man in Black had a force field around him when people were shooting and felt no pain). We also know that Arnold “died in the park.” Perhaps he’s just been trapped there for 30 years, trying to solve his goal of getting the robots sentience?
— Another theory: William is the Man in Black, 30 years earlier. I can get behind this one, but if it’s true, the show needs to tread lightly here. Having Dolores run into William after, it appears, she escapes the assault on the farm (during which she had visions of the Man in Black) would appear to rip this theory to pieces. The show has been coy with time and repetition in the past, so it’s certainly possible the theory is still in play, but the writers need to avoid getting too cute with timelines. There’s a thin line between blatantly screwing with your audience and taking care to hide a twist. With the meeting with Delores, the show could easily jump over that line.
— Maeve not only remembers being attacked by the Man in Black, she now remembers seeing Teddy getting put back together and her own surgery. That cannot be good.
— Bernard’s chats with Dolores continue. And I can’t help but think these talks might lead to him figuring out he’s not quite human.
— Apparently there’s only one line of code keeping the hosts from killing the guests. That’s pretty darn ominous.
— A bit of housekeeping: I will be out of town next weekend, so there won’t be a review (and I will also not have a review of the Walking Dead season premiere, for those who care about that show). I’ll cover the next two episodes in two weeks when I get back.