Posted on Monday, October 17th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Welcome back to our weekly deep dive into HBO’s Westworld, where we ask 10 questions about the latest episode. Some questions are literal and others rhetorical. Some have answers and others do not. A few of them are just excuses to talk about an aspect of the show that demands our attention.
This week: “The Stray,” an episode that shed light on Westworld’s past while promising a dark future.
Can We Kick This One Off With a Quick Tangent About Paintball?
Many years ago, back before internet television recaps were a thing and Westworld was just a fairly solid science fiction movie felt like Michael Crichton’s dry run for Jurassic Park, I joined a group of friends on a trip to a paintball course to celebrate a birthday. Even if you’ve never done the paintball thing yourself, you probably know the drill – everyone wears protective masks, arms themselves with guns (or “markers”) loaded with small balls of paint, and march on to various courses and engage in simulated combat. Sometimes you have a specific goal, like capturing your opponent’s flag. Other times, it was just a last team standing situation.
But here’s the thing about paintball: it can be terrifying. Yeah, you know you can’t die from a paintball hitting you, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. A paintball, especially one shot from relative close range, often leaves a bruise. I quickly found myself dreading the game, hiding behind cover and listening to paint splatter all around me and genuinely, from the bottom of my very soul, dreading the thought of actually making a move. I was perfectly safe in the grand scheme of things, but that assurance was overwhelmed by my lizard brain processing the “threat” I was facing and making it all seem a little too real. A simulation of danger, where pain acted as a punishment, didn’t transform me into a hero on this fictional battlefield – it transformed me into a coward. Over the course of the day, I quietly stopped joining each new session and gave my assortment of ammunition to my friends.
I thought about this day while watching “The Stray,” which reveals that the strange bullets in Westworld’s guns (which decimate a robot) leave only a bruise on the guests. I thought about this day when one guest, following Teddy Flood and the sheriff into the hill in pursuit of the vicious outlaw Wyatt, finds himself face-to-face with an enemy that cannot actually harm him and still demands to be taken out of the action. I thought about what we’ve seen park guests enjoy in other moments from the series so far. It’s not that anyone is opposed to violence or gun battles, but they seem to enjoy them most when they’re in utmost control. The uncertainty of this narrative, the details of which remain under lock and key deep within Robert Ford’s head, goes directly against the instant wish fulfillment that the rest of Westworld tends to offer.
In paintball, your opponents are human and they want to win. In Westworld, the game is automatically rigged in your favor. So what happens when you stumble across a storyline where overwhelming terror and loss directly conflict with the easy satisfaction of so many other storylines? Is Dr. Ford’s new storyline an attempt to tap into something more primal, to activate the corners of the brain that would come alive when faced with an opponent who can actually defeat you rather than a robot who lives and dies at your whim?
Maybe. All I know is that I couldn’t help but relate to the guy who demanded to be taken back to town because the experience was too damn terrifying.
How Much Damage Has Bernard Done?
One thing is starting to become crystal clear: Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) is a troubled man and many of Westworld’s current problems may very well begin with him. Although Dr. Ford’s new code, the “reveries,” seem to have activated something sinister within the hosts, the initial seed may have been inadvertently planted by Bernard.
Let’s talk about what we know. We know that Bernard has been having secret, off-the-books meetings with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), where he engages her in conversation, probes her with questions that aren’t part of any routine diagnostics, and offers her reading material. We see that his latest book assignment is Alice in Wonderland, a thematically appropriate (if a little on-the-nose) choice for a series about characters living in a reality that is beyond their control or full understanding. And perhaps most importantly, we now know more about Bernard’s backstory: his young son has died, his wife is seemingly estranged, and he’s almost certainly not coping with his grief particularly well.
To address the question proposed at the top of this section, it’s not entirely clear how much damage Bernard has done to Westworld and the code that runs the thousands of hosts throughout the park. But that may not be the right question. The right question may be “What does Bernard hope to gain from pushing Dolores to act outside of her programming?” In Dolores, in the hosts, does he see the chance to nurture and educate the child that was taken from him? Have his instincts as a grieving father overwhelmed the cautious scientist?
If he is trying to be a father to Dolores, if he wants to be her guide on the path to being more human, we must dwell on the impossible and cruel requests he is making of her. With each passing day, Dolores becomes more self-aware, more in touch with the actual nature of her reality. But he asks her to stay in her loop, to continue engaging in her repetitive narrative, to not stray from the same doomed path that always sees her family dead and finds her assaulted in the barn. Bernard has given her a sliver of humanity, but he hasn’t undone the shackles. Bernard has transformed a machine into a slave and if there’s one thing history has taught us, slaves rightfully tend to revolt.