When Westworld first premiered, it felt familiar in many ways, even if its scope and ambition set it apart from most of what has come before. The narrative conceit that sees characters repeatedly playing out the same time or narrative loop is a classic trope, but it is rarely seen in long-form storytelling. What makes Westworld unique is that, rather than a one-episode arc or two-hour feature film, this loop that its characters (and, therefore, viewers) are stuck in is meant to extend past the end of a single episode. Four episodes in, Westworld is still exploring variations on a theme as part of some larger, mysterious goal.
Why am I going on about this? Because it’s not enough to recap/review an episode of Westworld — or any highly-serialized TV drama, for that matter — in a bubble. Sure, you can outline the plot of an episode and talk about the feelings you had while that plot unfolded, but we are living in an era of television and online TV discourse that demands and inspires more. It asks that we look at the chapter of each television story and figure out how it fits into the larger picture. When it comes to a show like Westworld and an episode like “Dissonance Theory,” that discussion is especially relevant. Let’s look at what’s changed and what hasn’t in the narrative loops Westworld continues to carry us through.
Bernard tests Dolores, looking for a deeper consciousness.
Another week, another episode that opens with Dolores’ existential musings, as prompted by Bernard. This is one of the narrative loops we’re stuck in and, though it might be tempting to assume we’re learning no new information about Dolores and Bernard here, that would be a mistake. It’s particularly interesting to watch the opening scene here, knowing that Bernard is grieving the loss of his son.
And what does Dolores get from her programming vs. what does she get from herself, if anything? Is there a difference? When she questions why anyone would ever want to forget the pain of losing their loved ones, it’s easy to wonder if she’s playing Bernard. If, like Ford, she knows her conversational partner well enough to push the right buttons — in this case, the choice to remember the pain because it’s all you have left of a lost loved one. “I feel spaces opening up inside of me, like a building with rooms I’ve never explored,” Dolores says. The question is: are those spaces more like grieving, inquisitive Bernard’s, or more like manipulative, calculating Ford’s?
Maeve questions her memories of life beyond the theme park.
While Dolores openly questions if she’s going to crazy to Bernard, not so far away, in Sweetwater, Maeve has no one to wonder aloud to about her own potential madness, which is depicted particularly efficiently and brutally in a flashback that begins with blood tracing Clementine’s “dead” eye and ends with Maeve being hastily patched up by Westworld technicians and inserted back into the park. (Again, it feels like the negligence in the workplace is what’s going to take Westworld down.)
Maeve finally finds someone to bounce these “crazy” theories off of when Hector comes back to town. We saw these two flirt in the “Hector Robs the Saloon” narrative loop of the first episode, but their relationship is tested further when Maeve asks Hector to cut into her abdomen to figure out if she was, indeed, shot. Too much of an (unhelpful) gentleman to do it, Maeve is forced to cut into her own body, finding a bullet fragment and proof that her nightmares are true.
Logan and William embark on a bounty hunt into the badlands.
Meanwhile, Logan and William have been drawn into a traditional bounty hunt. William is excited about this. Logan is not, but is reluctantly willing to go along for the ride. When Dolores literally stumbles into their journey, their narrative loop is broken (even if we’re the only ones who are currently aware of it). They are no longer playing by the rules outlined by the narrative department of Westworld. Not totally. They just stepped one step closer to the unpredictability of the real world (especially if Dolores still has that gun on her).
William seems to enjoy himself for the first time, now that Dolores is part of the game. They are away from Sweetwater where it’s perhaps easier to pretend that polite society exists somewhere outside of this theme park. William shoots up the bag guys’ den with gusto, but when Logan asks him to “go black hat” with him and follow the Easter Egg their bounty offers, William is hesitant to let go of all morals, especially under Dolores’ watchful eye. Logan and William seemingly part ways to go on their separate white hat/black hat journeys.
The Man in Black finds another clue.
The storyline that arguably gave us the most progress in “Dissonance Theory” was the bloody quest of the Man in Black, which not only answered some questions about the man himself, but brought together several narrative loops/hosts in interesting ways.
When the Man in Black sees a woman with snake tattoos bathing in the river, he knows he has found the next clue on his journey: “Follow the Blood Arroyo to where the snake lays its eggs.” The woman in question is Armistice, the badass female sharpshooter we saw with Hector in the series premiere. She gets the Man in Black to break Hector out of prison in exchange for information about her tattoos. The big reveal? She uses the blood of the men who attacked her village and killed her family to create it, and she has only one man left to kill in her artistic quest for vengeance: Wyatt.
Wyatt is becoming an increasingly important “player” in this game. Is he a host? Is he a guest? Is he someone we have met before? Now, Teddy, Armistice, and the Man in Black are all looking for him. Wyatt seems to be part of Ford’s new narrative, but is that really the case? Has Ford created him or is he simply trying to take control of an increasingly out-of-control situation? In other words: Does Wyatt belong to Ford or does he belong to Arnold?
Ford demonstrates his god-like powers.
Speaking of Ford, we saw him at his most terrifying yet, as he put on a performance to demonstrate to Theresa just how much control he has over Westworld. Inside of the theme park, Ford is a god, freezing countless hosts in their tracks seemingly with his thoughts alone. This is a scary power if Ford ever chose to start his own robot rebellion. In the meantime, he uses it to warn Theresa to stay out of his way. In a masterful move of manipulation, Ford brings Theresa to the very restaurant table she sat at when she visited Westworld as a child with her parents. He wants to make her feel like a child again, someone who has little power over the situation who has to do what she’s told.
Theresa isn’t the type to roll over to intimidation, but Ford also seems willing to go to (and, perhaps, previously has gone to) any lengths to ensure his control over Westworld is respected. (R.I.P., Arnold.) Ford assures Cullen that the new narrative will be ready on schedule. “It won’t be a retrospective, as you all feared. I’m not the sentimental type,” Ford tells her as the table begins to rattle and we see a huge piece of machinery tearing up the countryside. (OK, who has money on some kind of terraforming plotline?) What is Ford up to? I don’t suppose that massive piece of machinery is the representative from the board?
Cognitive dissonance cannot last…
Dolores tells Bernard: “I think there might be something wrong with this world, something hiding underneath. Either that, or there’s something wrong with me. I may be losing my mind.”
When our brain holds cognitions about the world that clash, it creates tension and our brain works to somehow harmonize these two truths. “Dissonance Theory” was chiefly about Dolores and especially Maeve working to try to fit their surfacing memories into the world they know. It’s not working, and sooner rather than later, something has got to give. Maeve is already there. How soon until Westworld goes to hell?
Whenever it happens, Hector’s worldview seems oddly prophetic about what it will look like… for everyone: “I believe that only the truly brave can look at the world and understand that all of it — gods, men, everything else — will end badly. No one will be saved.”
Rating: ★★★★ Very good