It says a great deal about Westworld’s ambitions that “Chestnut” wasn’t the series premiere. In many ways, the episode introduces us to the adult theme park better. It explains the rules of the world, and gives us some hints that the animatronic marvels may be starting to gain some kind of greater consciousness. It also gives us a chance to sympathize with the guests, something “The Original” seemed to vehemently avoid. It kind of makes you want to watch Jurassic Park again from the point of view of the dinosaurs, doesn’t it? (Or maybe you already realized that would be awesome).
In “Chestnut,” we meet William (Jimmi Simpson), a newcomer to the park, who is being dragged along by his “friend” and co-worker Logan (Ben Barnes). The two men seemingly represent the best and the worst that humanity seems to offer. On the white-black hat spectrum, they fall on opposite sides. While William seems genuinely interested in getting to know the hosts in the park, most especially Dolores, Logan is more interested in using the host’s perceived lack of humanity as a way to exert his own maniacal power.
But, even in its initial presentation of these two men, one can’t help but wonder if Logan is just William a few Westworld trips down the road. In other words, has Logan always been a black hat? Will William always be a white hat? How different are these men and how much of an effect does their respective abilities to accept the seemingly consequence-less world of the theme park relate to their behavior. Westworld isn’t interested in definitively answered those complicated thematic questions at this juncture, but that doesn’t mean it won’t further down the road.
“Chestnut” also gives us more of a chance to get to know Maeve (the incomparable Thandie Newton), the host who is currently cast as the aging madame of the whorehouse. Like Dolores, Maeve is beginning to come to some sense of consciousness. Unlike Dolores, that coming to consciousness happens to come in the middle of a surgery that is being performed on her in the guts of the Westworld theme park. There’s so much to like about this chilling scene, and Maeve’s storyline altogether. To have a scene that includes female nudity, but to not have the actress sexualized in any way (because that is so not what this scene is about) is refreshing.
Newton gives a phenomenal physical performance in her dash through the Westworld facility, exposed to the horrors of the park. She is desperate and injured and oh-so-confused. It is an effective way of mirroring the trauma of the in-world terror she has suffered, at the hands of the Indian hosts and The Man in Black. From Maeve’s struggle as a past-her-sexual-prime (at least by traditional western definitions) host to her memories as a mother to her abdominal surgery at the hands of men, Maeve’s character arc here manages to cram in so many of the familiar arcs of womanhood as is possible in one host. It could be trite or too much, but between Newton’s performance and Westworld’s POV interest in her character, it works.
When Maeve first wakes up mid-surgery, the two technicians who are working on her are just annoyed at each other and at the situation. They probably want to get their job done, then go home. They only become afraid once Maeve picks up a scalpel. This is kind of a great metaphor for this show in general: the sudden transition between inconvenience and terror. It also seems like one of the contributions to this inevitable android resistance will be office bureaucracy and negligence. Maeve was put back into Westworld having seen the machinations of the park. I’m not saying that these guys reporting this incident would necessary quell the robot uprising — the humans are far too arrogant for that — but it certainly isn’t helping the situation, either.
We don’t see Dolores as much this episode, but the scenes we do get from her certainly pack a punch. Though she seems full-on host when conversing with Bernard, she seems to have ways of communicating with other parts of her consciousness, or perhaps other versions of herself. What are the odds that the gun she dug up is able to kill humans? Did she leave it there for herself or is she working with someone else? Could it be The Man in Black?
Speaking of The Man in Black, he continued his campaign of death and horror in “Chestnut,” increasingly determined to unlock the deeper level of this game. He did this by seeking out Lawrence, an outlaw who he is convinced knows where the entrance to the next level (presumably Westworld Programming Division?) is located. In the end, it is not Lawrence, but his daughter who gives him the information, in the creepiest example of uncanny valley this show has done this far. (Robot kids, amirite?) The Man in Black is obviously playing some version of the game. We hear reference to it in Westworld Programming: This man gets whatever he wants. Why? How much is he paying, if he is paying at all? Is he human or android? How many people understand his role in the game? Questions to be answered in future episodes, apparently.
Episode 2 also gives us some greater insight into Dr. Ford’s larger plan. We might not yet know what it is, but we do know what it isn’t: anything like Lee’s “Odyssey on the Red River.” No, Ford’s plans are much more ambitious than that. Judging by that final shot of the cross, he aims to play god in a way he never has before, which is saying something because he has already basically created life. Is Ford the one who has been giving the hosts consciousness? Is this the intended effect of his reveries? Or does it have more to do with Bernard, who we learned in “Chestnut” has been having secret conversations with Dolores. Is that boy a younger version of Ford or his own son? Is he trying to create new life or extend the life that already exists, i.e. the boy in Bernard’s picture, his own boy, or even himself?
I can’t help but think that the answers to these questions are inextricably tied to the outside world. We still have no idea where or when Westworld exists. We see Logan and William come in on a high-speed, futuristic train, but from where? Is Westworld programming just another layer of the Westworld theme park. Is everyone we know a host in a larger game? Is Anthony Hopkins the only human? Are we the only humans? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I sure as hell am enjoying the experience of exploring them with Westworld.
Ultimately, “Chestnut” is another suspenseful and thematically-resonant episode. It might serve as another kind of introduction to this park, but it never gets dull. This show continues to walk the fine line between mysterious and frustrating. Let’s hope it never falls into the latter. During Lee’s presentation, he pitches: “[Guests] will have the privilege of getting to know the character they’re most interested in: themselves.” TV is like this, too. As long as Westworld continues to ask so many relevant questions about our own anxiety-driven society and give us so many entry points into this world, this show will find an audience.
Rating:★★★★ Very good
— How much of Maeve’s coming to consciousness was the update/reveries, how much was it Dolores suggestion that “these violent delights have violent ends,” and how much of it was something else altogether?
— “Good. I wouldn’t want anything disturbing our guests from their rape and pillage.” I love Theresa Cullen’s cynicism. This woman seems to have a very complicated relationship with this park. Also, she is the prime minister of Denmark.
— It’s unclear when Maeve’s recalled memories were coming from. Were they five years ago or ten years ago or longer? Maeve’s potential recycling suggests that she is an older host, like Dolores. Could her memories be from the first time something went wrong in the park, roughly 30 years ago? Was this time also tied to The Man in Black? Is Westworld a sequel to the movie Westworld? Some questions to ponder.
— Poor James Marsden. That guy always gets the short end of the stick.
— Bernard and Theresa are sleeping together. I didn’t see that coming. I’m intrigued to see how this might complicate things moving forward. Do they have people waiting at home? Does anyone else know? Does it matter? What does it say about them that they choose to sleep with one another rather than a host? (Or maybe they do both?) Do they care about one another? Because I saw some light cuddling.
— Are you real? If you can’t tell, does it matter?