Westworld: 1x04 Dissonance Theory.
This is a point in this show where it starts to become hard to write reviews without following any of the rabbit holes and theories. Through that lens, every scene has a different connotation, and all of those meanings, as misleading and imaginary as they may be, create their own path. This is perhaps one of the dangers of television shows that rely so heavily on mysteries, on posing more and more questions rather than giving answers – it may all fall into place in retrospect (although mostly it doesn’t), but while watching, it becomes harder and harder to make sense of things without being an ideologist of some sort.
For example, we could subscribe to the very interesting theory that Bernard is in fact a host version of Arnold, created after his death and in his own image, and by programming incapable of recognising this fact. This would open two possible interpretations of his interviews with Dolores – one, that this is Bernard, retracing his own steps towards his own freedom, instinctually wanting Dolores to find her own way out of the maze that the man he was modelled on created to see where I could lead. The other one is that all of these interviews take place 30 years in the pasts, before the accident, that the person that is asking questions about Dolores, the person that is so keen to detect consciousness and non-scripted answers that cannot be explained by her programming is in fact Arnold himself, obsessed with the idea of creating consciousness, of guiding his creations towards self-awareness (and ultimately, freedom from what he is seeing the park become).
In the beginning of dissonance theory, Bernard and Dolores are having a discussion about grief. Dolores retells the story of how everybody she loves has been brutally murdered, and Bernard offers to take this grief away –
Dolores: You think the grief will make you smaller and sad, like your heart will collapse in on itself but it doesn’t. I feel spaces opening up inside of me, like buildings with rooms I’ve never explored.
This is, of course, almost verbatim what Bernard said about the loss of his own son, Charlie. It is either a trace he left on Dolores, something that she learned from home, or something that he learned from her, if this scene takes place previously. Or it is a collective experience of all the hosts, a way in which grief, like the traumatic memories of pain and violence, help to create identity, lasting memories, a sense of self that cannot be effectively deleted by the creators.
Bernard: What is it that you want?
Dolores: I don’t know. But this world, I think there may be something wrong with this world. Something hiding underneath. Either that or there’s something wrong with me. I may be losing my mind.
Bernard: There’s something I’d like you to try. It’ a game. It’s secret. It’s called the maze.
Dolores: What kind of game is it?
Bernard: It’s a very special kind of game. The goal is to find the centre of it. If you can do that, then maybe you can be free.
Dolores: I think… I think I want to be free.
I think one thing that we do know is that Arnold made the maze as part of his plan to create consciousness. Perhaps it is a Turing test of a different sort, one that goes beyond what the Turing test accomplishes (creating robots that, to a human, are not clearly distinguishable). It didn’t feel like the existence of the maze was general knowledge within the staff of Westworld – in fact, I would have guessed that it was a well-kept secret, perhaps even only reaching as far as Arnold himself and Ford, critically dismissing the attempts of his colleague who he was so willing to have erased from the history books. How does Bernard know about it, in spite of the fact that past conversations between him and Ford seemed to indicate he didn’t have much of an idea of who Arnold was?
A theory is the best possible explanation at any given point, always awaiting to be disproved. In this case, I think it may make sense to theorise that this is Arnold, talking to Dolores, in the past, realising that she will help create his magnum opus her. She has passed his tests of whether her identity goes beyond her programming. This conversation sets her on her path, tagging along William and Logan, a path that leads (eventually, in the next episode) to the same person that The Man in Black has identified as a key clue for the maze, and the same city as well.
Of course, this only holds up if all of this indeed takes place in the past. To Logan and William, Arnold is already dead, even though his passing isn’t dated and may have been more recent than in the timeline in which Ford discusses it with Bernard and Theresa.
Elsewhere, Maeve seems to possess an eerie ability for precognition, and has traumatic memories of past massacres in which she was picked up by men in hazmat suits. They also recently forgot a bullet in her abdomen – something that would be physical proof of her theory that something is amiss in this world, a theory that is much more violent and concrete than Dolores’ (who is, by Bernard or maybe Arnold, always given the privilege of having clothing in her interviews, while Maeve is treated like a piece of meat by the techies badly stitching her back together). At home, she draws a picture of the man – and goes to hide it under the floorboards, only to find a stack of the very same illustration there, left by her past selves, for her to find. And what a horrifying realisation that must be, that somehow, she has been trying to send herself this message again and again (And how very much like Christopher Nolan’s Memento). She later sees the same image in a Native American doll, carried and lost by a child, and realises that others must have seen these men too – often enough, she eventually finds out, to create an entire mythology around them. If their sheer physical similarity and their ability to feel grief and pain, proven by past episodes, hasn’t been enough proof that the hosts are far more than just robots whose memories can be wiped, Maeve’s resourcefulness and determination to comprehend her identity and her situation, to gain agency in something that from her perspective looks like a psychological horror film, are moving and convincing enough that the true monsters in this show are the guests willing to perpetrate endless violence without consideration.
She finds out that Hector, the gunslinger who was used to as an excuse to retrieve all the hosts after the initial buggy update, used to live with Natives, and therefore must have knowledge of their mythology, which they are hesitant to share with strangers. She has enough understanding of the loop she is in to know when he will come through her door (if it is after the Man in Black conveniently freed him, or if all of this is happening in a different timeline, we don’t know), and to drag him off to interrogate him about his knowledge, and to ask him to dig for that missing bullet in her abdomen, a particular grisly way of gaining self-knowledge. He tells her about the “Shades”, and together, they find the bullet – which is proof enough to her that the horrible world she woke herself up into was real, that nothing that is happening in Westworld, none of that death and endless suffering, matters at all.
There are so many threads here now, it is hard to figure out how they go together. William and Logan, out on their first scripted adventure but with Dolores as a surprise guest (Operations wants to extract her because she is off-course, but William claims ownership over her which excuses her adventure, conveniently, especially in a time where Ford’s rescripting of the entire place throws a lot of storylines into chaos). They are meant to hunt down a wanted man, but when he proposes a deal to Logan that may lead to the city of Pariah, and someone called El Lazo (who will turn out to also go by the name of Lawrence, incidentally), Logan detects an “easter egg”, a rare adventure barely anyone has been on on the edges of Westworld, and bullies William into following him into it. It requires them to go black hat, and stretches William’s readiness to forego moral conventions to a limit.
The Man in Black is looking for his own – easter egg I suppose, the ultimate one, which breaks the only rule this place has, which is that guests cannot die here. He explains a bit of why he is on that particular journey, and also hints that one of his ultimate goals may be to free the hosts from their paths, and perhaps even from their inability to effectively shoot a gun at the guests. He knows about Arnold, and how he somehow circumvented the very first rule by dying in the park, and he sees looking for the maze – in spite of the fact that it wasn’t made for him, which I’m not certain he comprehends – as a tribute to Arnold as the final storyline laid out by him, something that isn’t market-tested like almost everything else in that place.
It’s an interesting contract to Ford’s and Theresa’s conversation, which is the first time that Ford truly demonstrates the absolute power over everything at Westworld. The show is coming closer to revealing his true nature – a vengeful man, perhaps, someone egomaniacal enough to want his partner and his misguided ideas about robot consciousness eradicated from the history books. His power is twofolds – on the one hand, as the creator every single blade of grass in this place (kind of giving further traction to the theory that Westworld may not be Earth, but a world of its own, entirely artificially created), as the man who can, with the blink of an eye, stop every single hostd, and on the other hand, as someone who has watched thousands of guests go about their adventures over the decades, which gives him intimate knowledge about them. The idea of Westworld as an information gathering system that could in theory reveal the secretes of thousands of people rich enough to afford the adventure hasn’t been much explored, but it is right there at the tip of Ford’s tongue when he tries to threaten Theresa into staying out of his business (his threat to her for transgressing with Bernard – in what precise way we do not know yet, it depends on who or what Bernard is – is explicit). She is there to ask him to delay his expensive, expansive new storyline, a costly adventure that board frowns upon. He makes it clear to her that he has seen many of her kind come and go, and their personal feelings about Westworld were never an issue, nor did they have any kind of power to determine the path of this place (a place that, as he points out, almost angrily, isn’t a theme park). He also retells the story of Arnold as a man who didn’t want any corporate interest, a man who wasn’t a realist, but still very aware of the havoc that the guests would wreak against his creations. To show her that he is a sort of god her (to add to wizard and magician), he threatens to turn to dust her sole positive memory of the place – he isn’t nostalgic, or eager to create a retrospective. It’s an interesting claim, for a man who surrounds himself with the outdated models of his own creations, who spends hours philosophising with Wild Bill Hickok.
There are many more questions here. Dolores happens across Lawrence’s daughter, who provided The Man in Black with the required clue, and she tells her that they both come from the same place, a place that features the same black iron church that lies somewhere, buried in the sand, important enough for Ford to return to again and again. Is this a very old memory, maybe the first one, of the olden days, of whatever Arnold created to break the first rule? In this episode, he follows his clue to find Armistice, the gunslinger who rode into Sweetwater with Hector. She has a red tattoo of a snake curled around her body, a tribute to losing her family tragically when she was 12 – each segment of the snake represents one of the killers, and only the head is missing. That head, turns out, is Wyatt, the same man that was just added to Teddy’s tragic backstory.
If Wyatt is part of Ford’s new narrative, then how does his presence in the maze storyline work out? Is Ford creating a new narrative around Arnold’s, or is this just the “kernel of truth” that he placed in the centre of it? That snake already seems to be on Armistice’s face in the first episode, so this has either been her backstory all along, or it has just been a recent addition to fit in with Ford’s other plans.
Elsie is very eager to discover what went wrong with the woodcutter, but Theresa tells her that her department will take over the investigation. Bernard also tells her to back off and to stop seeing things in the hosts (and Elsie says “everyone here has some kind of fucking agenda except for me”).
Man in Black’s lethargic “maybe someday” to Lawrence’s threat to kill him was fitting, considering what Dolores’ opinion on that particular term was last episode. But on the other hand, did it reveal what Man in Black really wants, which is die in the park? Or is he trying to just play 100% of the game, which to his mind means freeing the hosts, because it would be what the original creator wanted?
It’s an offhand moment but in their discussion, Ford mentions to Theresa that the board member is already HERE – that they haven’t announced their presence to her. It might just be a coincidence that Logan and William are roaming the part and debating buying a bigger share in Westworld (if Logan is that board member, it would destroy the different timelines theory).
On the other hand – on The Man in Black’s journey, another guest recognises him and thanks him for what his foundation did for his sister – and he very rudely tells the guy off for it, because his real life doesn’t matter in this place. If it isn’t William and Logan, then maybe the Man in Black has been a creature of the board this whole time, observing things from the inside, getting completely caught up in the task.