Warning: Spoilers from episode five ahead.
We're halfway through the first season of Westworld, so it seems fair to ask: What is this show about? Sure, it's "about" a depraved amusement park set in some unknown future where rich people can pay to shoot and fuck robots. But what is the story that it's telling? Is Westworld the tale of a robot rebellion? A far-future A.I. experiment? A lesson on what might happen when maniacal genius comes undone? More specifically, will Dolores ever find freedom? How did Bernard first fall in love with his creation? Will the Man in Black unravel the whole mystery?
Westworld is still captivating from scene to scene thanks to its brilliant cast, gorgeous vistas, and stacks of dead bodies. But as a whole, the show still has more fan theories than focus. Most prestige dramas tell one or two central stories with a couple of main characters. Breaking Bad tells the story of one man's descent from "Mr. Chips to Scarface"; each season of The Wire tells the story of how a group of police do or don't bring in a case against drug dealers, and so on. Westworld has set up a lot of intriguing subplots, characters, and themes that don't really cohere into a single story, and no one has yet emerged as a definite protagonist. If a story is about a dozen things, does it risk being about nothing?
Still, there are five more episodes to pull all the strands together, and quite a few storylines advanced in intriguing ways this week.
Teddy's No Good, Very Bad Day
The fifth episode is titled "Contrapasso," a reference to Dante's Inferno and hopefully not an indication that "they were all in hell!" will be the answer to the question of what the show is about.
But Teddy (James Marsden) might as well be in hell, as he and Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) are dragged around by the Man in Black (Ed Harris) as he searches for the maze. They run into the British robot boy—who is almost certainly modeled on either Ford (Anthony Hopkins) or the mysterious Arnold as a child—allowing the Man in Black to remind us he's still a monster. "Too small," he says, deciding against any child murder today.
But Teddy, grievously wounded last episode by Wyatt's gang, is fading. To save him, the Man in Black facilitates an impromptu blood transfusion. He slices Lawrence's throat and strings him upside down in a tree, letting him bleed out into a leather bag. After an offscreen transfusion, Teddy is doing alright. Why, you ask, do robots need human blood to live? The Man in Black tells Teddy that back in the day he sliced open a robot, and they "used to be beautiful… a million perfect pieces." Then, somewhere along the way, the bean counters realized that "humanity is cost-effective," meaning it was easier to make them out of flesh and bone.
Into the Wild
Nice guy William (Jimmi Simpson), jerk-store employee of the month Logan (Ben Barnes), and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) head south of the border in search of local criminal kingpin El Lazo. While the Western clichés we've seen previously take place in the section of the park that "feels like it was designed by committee" (as Logan says), they are heading into the "raw" section. Down here is less Tombstone and more El Topo.
Dancing skeletons, gold-painted prostitutes, and drunken Confederates stagger around the town, and the sequences here are filmed with a dreamy Lynchian quality. The show is finally opening up its style and tonal palate, even if the picture isn't filled in yet.
Their guide Slim sets them up with El Lazo a.k.a. Lawrence a.k.a. the dead carcass in the middle of nowhere. In my episode three review, I mentioned the theory that William might be the Man in Black in a previous timeline. The fact that Lawrence appears again, seemingly uninterrupted as the criminal boss across the border, is certainly a point in his favor. (Another possibility, albeit less likely, is that there are multiple versions of each host, their brains connected through something like the cloud. This would explain how Bernard and Ford are able to talk to various robots seemingly in the middle of their adventures.)
Dolores gets to whip out a bandana and six-shooter, and the gang robs a stage coach carrying nitroglycerin in a plot between El Lazo and the drunken Confederate soldiers that all goes to shit—especially for Logan—but leaves William, Dolores, and Lawrence all heading to the front lines where the greatest thrill the park has to offer can be found: war.
Elsie on the Case
By far the most interesting story lines so far have taken place inside the park, but the drama at headquarters finally gets interesting this episode as Elsie (Shannon Woodward) does some detective work. She convinces one of the "creepy necro-perv" repairmen in the basement to let her look at the robot who smashed his head in before it got incinerated. She finds a "laser-based satellite uplink" buried in his arm that someone has been using to smuggle data out of the park.
Next week, be on the lookout for the WikiLeaks Westworld email dump.
The Two Stooges
This week's comedy relief comes in the form of the two basement repairmen who were around when Maeve woke up. One of them (Leonardo Nam) dreams of something bigger, and is trying to learn to program a robot bird, so he can get a promotion. The other (Ptolemy Slocum) apparently has his "aggro-bro" levels set to max and flips out at him between sessions with a redhead in his "VR tank." But the real point of these scenes is to let us know that Maeve has broken out of her programming and can wake herself up from sleep mode.
Everybody Loves Arnold
The through line of this episode is the ghost—or robotic consciousness?—of Arnold, Ford's co-creator who mysteriously died 30 years ago, and who disagreed with Ford on matters of robot self-actualization. A voice, seemingly Arnold's, instructs Dolores, "Find me." Logan tells William that the family lawyers looked into Arnold and couldn't find a single thing on him. Meanwhile, Ford is also searching for him, especially in Dolores's mind. "Somewhere under all those updates, he's still there," he tells her, making me think that Arnold transformed himself into code that lives in the minds of all the robots. After Ford's interrogation, Dolores tells an unseen figure that "he doesn't know. I didn't tell him anything."
But the most thrilling scene this week takes place when Ford interrupts the Man in Black's drinking. They speak like old frenemies, with the Man in Black saying that the park was always "missing a real villain," hence his murder spree while Ford acts amused at his quest. "If you're looking for the moral of the story, simply ask," Ford says. The Man in Black, getting testy, makes it clear that he doesn't think Ford knows the moral. It was Arnold who was the real genius of the park. Teddy—seemingly controlled by Ford via telekinesis—stops the Man in Black from skinning an answer out of Ford, and we're left knowing that answers may be out there but we won't find them yet.
Follow Lincoln Michel on Twitter.