Westworld is frequently billed as a successor to Game of Thrones, following in the latter's footsteps as HBO's next big-budget sprawling drama featuring spectacular violence, high-quality production, and a good bit of nudity. However, four episodes into the season, and it's clear that the show about a futuristic western theme park has a second, more mystery-powered TV model: Lost.
That said, Westworld can't function like either of those shows. Lost worked through an intense focus on—and extensive backstory for—a relatively small number of central characters, which made us care about their struggles even when the mysteries turned out to be duds or were dropped altogether. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, succeeds with a more sprawling cast and larger world because it's violence and plot twists have real consequences: Wars are started, heroes die, kingdoms rise and fall. In Westworld, however, the main characters are robots whose personalities and backstories are reprogrammed with the touch of a button, and the well-choreographed shootouts and horrifying tortures are cleaned up and reset each day.
Instead of being powered by character or plot, Westworld is powered by theme: What is consciousness? What does our taste in violent entertainment say about ourselves? Can man be inhuman to machine?
Sunday night's episode, "Dissonance Theory," references the psychological concept of how holding two conflicting ideas causes mental stress. Well, if two conflicting ideas can cause a little stress, what does holding 100 different personalities and storylines in one's head do?
Something Hiding Underneath
Cognitive dissonance is the reality of the robots in Westworld, and this episode opens with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) telling Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) how the contradictions are starting to tear her apart: "I think there may be something wrong with this world, something hiding underneath." It's either that, or "I'm losing my mind."
Back in the park, Dolores is hanging with guests Logan (Ben Barnes) and William (Jimmi Simpson) on their search for the outlaw Slim. She's glitching still, talking to figures that disappear and seeing visions of red and white figures whose blank masks with lights on each side make them look like aliens.
Thandie Newton's host madam, Maeve, is having an even harder time with the dissonance. Her android mind flashes between the present and past, and between knowing that she is alive and that she is dead. She knows she was shot in the gut, yet her skin is untouched. Above all, she is haunted by the same red and white figures. She sketches one of these creatures, but when she goes to hide it in her room, she finds dozens of similar sketches, flipping through them in terror like the "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" scene in The Shining.
We, the viewers at home, know that these creatures are merely the human cleanup crew who pick up the robot dead to hose them off, repair their skin, and reboot them back to life. But to the robots of the parks, they might as well be spirits or gods. Indeed, Maeve sees a Native American host drop an idol shaped like one of these figures. She screams for an answer and is told "that thing is part of their so-called religion."
Later, when Hector (Rodrigo Santoro)'s bandit crew attacks the brothel, Maeve demands answers at gunpoint. Hector says the figure is a "shade" that "walks between worlds, sent from hell to oversee our world." She needs to resolve her cognitive dissonance, though, and convinces Hector to slice her open her belly and see if a bullet really is inside. "What does it mean?" he asks, glancing at the bloody slug. "That I'm not crazy after all," she responds. "And that none of this matters."
"This whole world is a story."
Dropping hints, Bernard tells Dolores she needs to play "the maze" game, and at the center, she'll be free. Is this the same maze that Ed Harris's Man in Black is hunting with such bloody vigor? Or is Westworld a maze of mazes, with different labyrinths for the characters and viewers to get lost in?
The Man in Black tells Lawrence (Clifton Collins, Jr.) he seeks the maze because "I've read every page [of the park's story] except the last one. I need to find out how it ends." He makes an allusion to Arnold, "the original settler of these parts," and how he thinks Ford's partner created a secret story "with real stakes and real violence" inside the safety of the amusement park. The next step in finding this story is, apparently, watching a bathing female outlaw with a gigantic snake tattoo wrapped around her body. He promises to spring her boss, Hector, if she'll talk to him.
Her band of bandits has a few human guests embedded, and one is starstruck by the Man in Black's presence. "I'm such an admirer of yours," he tells him. "Your foundation literally saved my sister's life." Apparently, the most depraved killer inside the park is a humanitarian outside of it. But this bestial Bill Gates growls back: "One more word, and I'll cut your throat, you understand? This is my fucking vacation!"
At the jail, the Man in Black breaks out some fancy toys, including exploding cigars that—after approval from headquarters—take out the cell, along with the sheriff's head. With Hector safely delivered, he gets his next clue from the snake lady: a backstory about the evil men who murdered her village, headed by the villain Wyatt. (Wyatt was the new villain Ford introduced last episode, so it's curious that he could be tied into a secret story that a now-dead Arnold left in the park.)
"Is that all I'm good for?"
This is what Bernard asks his supervisor, Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen Wood), after another bedroom romp. The question might be asked of all the human characters at headquarters. Everyone in the park—robot or human—is far more alive than the characters in the cold, corporate headquarters. The one exception is Anthony Hopkins's Dr. Ford, whom Theresa goes to meet.
Ford knows that Theresa actually doesn't like the park at all, and teases her with words and eerily paused robots. Ford views himself as a god, noting how he and Arnold "designed every inch of it, every blade of grass" and fought over whether they should allow in the moneymen. Theresa thinks she has the upper hand through said moneymen, and points out that the board is sending a representative who will back her. "But they already have," Ford says with a smile, "I thought they would have told you."
This is yet another mystery nugget for viewers to debate. Could the Man in Black be such a devoted guest that he somehow counts as a representative? Of the other humans we know, nice guy William seems like an impossibility, but Logan could possibly be some spoiled scion sent by a rich parent as a representative. (At one point, he says that "the company" should increase his stake in the park.)
But the biggest question is how long the show can sustain interest without heading in the character-driven model of Lost or the high-stakes model of Game of Thrones. Westworld is still humming along, but pretty soon we're going to need to either learn more about the characters or see the violence have world-changing consequences.
Follow Lincoln Michel on Twitter.
Westworld airs on Sundays at 10 PM on HBO.