Posted on Monday, November 7th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Last week, Westworld spent the bulk of its time within the park itself (and likely within the show’s past), following Dolores and William as they ventured toward the Maze and had a bloody, empowering Wild West adventure. This week compensated by shifting the focus to park operations (and likely in the show’s present), offering up corporate espionage, horrifying malfunctions, and an overwhelming sense of dread. As we do every week, let’s try to answer 10 questions (some literal, others rhetorical) from “The Adversary.”
Who Is “The Adversary”?
One of my favorite aspects of NBC’s late, great Friday Night Lights was how the title of each episode acted as a thematic thread that tied together every subplot, a header under which every storyline could co-exist. Knowing the title of the episode you were were watching allowed you to better appreciate the elegance of the title and how some subplots acted as direct responses to others, how a B storyline could reflect the A storyline. While Westworld’s titles tend to be be more straightforward, generally describing a concept or plot device on display in the episode, “The Adversary” is noteworthy because its title could easy be referring to one of a number of characters or concepts.
Is the Adversary the Man in Black, our science fiction cowboy riff on Milton’s Lucifer, doing great evil in the name of potential good? Or is it his new traveling companion, Teddy Flood, who revealed a gruesome new side of himself this week? It could even be Wyatt, the new character cooked up specifically to keep the Man in Black from reaching the maze, a villain whose handiwork feels like it was torn from a horror movie.
Then again, the adversary could exist outside of the park proper. It could refer to Theresa Cullen, who has been stealing data from the park via a reprogrammed host. It could be corporate newcomer Charlotte Hale, whose arrival suggests that Westworld is about to undergo a few significant changes.
Or the title could be announcing the arrival of the greatest threat the park has seen yet: a reprogrammed Maeve. Whether she turns out to be a hero or a villain or something in-between, the park has never faced a greater threat. Then again, the adversary of the title could be humanity, who created Maeve and subjected her to countless traumas over the years. In a show where every character straddles a shade of grey, she is one of the few people allowed to see the world in black and white.
Hell, the adversary could be Arnold, whose ghost continues to hang over the park and infect the inhabitants in surprising and unsettling ways.
I don’t think there’s a right answer here. There’s no easy fill-in-the-blank. While “The Adversary” is a chapter in a heavily serialized narrative, it’s about betrayals we find in others and within ourselves. Each story thread is connected by the discovery of evil, whether it be mundane or extraordinary, programmed or natural, a plot twist or something everyone could have seen coming. Everyone finds a new demon to face in “The Adversary.” The system is failing.
Does Anyone Else Not Quite Buy Sylvester and Felix?
Westworld is a smart show: elegantly written, meticulously constructed, and filled with actors doing stunning work with material that has no right to work as well as it does. And that’s why the characters of Sylvester and Felix, the park technicians who find themselves roped into assisting Maeve, are so frustrating. More than anyone else on the show, they seem to exist just to force one particular storyline forward with no regard for whether or not it actually makes sense.
The fault lies not with actors Leonardo Nam or Ptolemy Slocum, both of whom manage to embody the blue collar worker of the distant future – men whose jobs are impossibly advanced, but who are essentially looked upon as little more than janitors. The fault lies in the writing, which forced these two into conflict for reasons that could have been clearer and then trapped them in Maeve’s web by transforming them into dummies. It’s hard to buy that these two guys would willingly engage a malfunctioning host and cater to her whims rather than report this genuinely insane and monumentally dangerous event to their superiors. Their fear for the careers just doesn’t hold water at this point, especially since their transgressions would look minor when compared to the problem they have uncovered.
The truth is that their storyline feels reverse engineered: the Westworld writer’s room concocted several of the best scenes in the series so far and both required Maeve to have two human park employees to act as tour guides. The effect is Westworld at its best, but the cause is the show at its weakest.
Is Maeve’s Tour the Best Scene in Westworld So Far?
Once we accept that that Felix and Sylvester are simply going to dummies for the sake of advancing the plot, we can focus on what may be the strongest and most unsettling sequence in Westworld so far: Maeve’s tour of the labs where the hosts are created. Guided by Felix, she walks the sterile hallways where she was manufactured and programmed and where her mutilated corpse has been dumped countless times before. She rides escalators through endless floors of nightmares, images that are impossible for us and traumatizing for her.
We witness the basic creation of the hosts, who are 3D-printed and dipped in vats until they form a white mannequin, the basic template of something that will, at some point, transform into a human being. We see the “birth” of a host, as one of these pale husks is literally injected with life – color comes to the skin, radiating out from a heart that has just begun beating.
And then our walking tour through this fluorescent hell continues to programming, a level of bizarre imagery, where the mundane becomes frightening, where the erotic might as well be rendered in ones and zeroes. Programmers walk their artificial buffalo, deer, and horses in circles, painstakingly working to ensure that the look like the real thing. Programmers work their daily grind, tapping away at their tablets as Hosts who look like flesh and blood argue and fight and make love. The entire human experience, Maeve’s entire experience, is the work of artists and technicians, men and women dedicated to creating the illusion of life. Heaven exists and it’s a theme park lab. But it looks a lot like Hell.
This sequence is remarkable because it’s so frightening, because it taps into the existential dread of existence, because it reflects the fear that you have no control over your destiny. Maeve seeing her dreams in a Westworld commercial, a pitch-perfect pastiche of theme park advertising, is haunting. She does not own her existence. She does not make her own choices.
But above all else, this sequence is remarkable because its imagery, surreal and impossible and even darkly funny at times, could only exist on Westworld.