Dismemberment, disembowelment and decapitation: Traditionally, these aren't what you'd call teachable moments. But thanks to some swordpoint shenanigans in Shogunworld, all three figure prominently into a key scene in this week's episode of Westworld ("Phase Space"). Even better, they go a long way toward demonstrating why this installment is such a dramatic uptick in quality from its predecessors. Whether it's the script by Mad Men veteran Carly Wray or the direction by Swedish filmmaker Tarik Saleh is unclear, but there's attention paid here to subtle human reactions to events as they unfold that's unequaled by previous episodes. It's all about the execution – even when you're talking about an actual execution.
Let's take that gory swordfight as a starting point. The duel in question involves Musashi, the ronin befriended by Maeve and her posse last week, and his former lieutenant turned rival Tanaka. Eschewing the techno-telepathy of "the witch" in favor of an old-fashioned mano a mano – staged in broad daylight, as opposed to the previous episode's inexplicably murky swordplay – the two men go blade for blade in front of our heroes and a whole crowd of townspeople. (Contender for most memorable shot: An old man covering a little boy's eyes to shield him from the bloodshed.) The fight ends with Tanaka's protracted, screaming demise: Musashi cuts his hand off at the wrist, then provides him with the short sword he must use for harikari, before beheading him. It's the first time in a long time that the show's brutality has been this inventively and empathetically staged. When the samurai and his geisha comrade Akane (who memorably carves out the heart of her own daughter for cremation) choose to stay behind and fight for their homeland instead of fleeing, the decision feels truly earned.
And therein lies the episode's main strength: The show's finally trusting its actors to convey their characters' emotions minus the faux-Shakesperean speechifying. For example, everything you need to know about the cruetly Charlotte Hale inflicts upon poor Peter Abernathy as he's literally bolted to a chair to keep him from running away can be seen in a closeup on Luke Hemsworth as Stubbs; his eyes widen in horror as each nail is driven in. Ed Harris's Man in Black is shot with similar care, whether he's tearfully lying to his daughter Emily as they air their family's dirty laundry or reacting with startled surprise when the party he and Lawrence lead are attacked by Ghost Nation warriors.
Sometimes all you really need to see are smiles, sincere ones – which in Westworld are rarer than gold. During their exposition-heavy journey to a place called the Cradle (technically, a server farm labeled CR4-DL), Bernard praises his old colleague Elsie's optimism. When she reacts as though he's being sarcastic, he doubles down: "If anyone could right this ship by sheer force of will, it's you." The ensuing grin on actor Shannon Woodward's face is maybe the first time someone on this show has been allowed to react with happiness to being called a competent, decent person, and it's as refreshing as a spring rain. Even the perpetually catty odd couple Maeve and Sizemore get in on the act, when the superpowered host thanks him for his ace navigation to the farmstead where she once raised her long-lost daughter. If these two can coexist peacefully, even for five minutes, there may be hope for both species yet.
Naturally, such optimism is short lived. No sooner are Maeve and her kid reunited than she discovers the child's new "mother"; the look of dumbstruck shock on Thandie Newton's face when her host character realizes what's going on is so severe it comes across as comical. Then Ghost Nation shows up, and Maeve is forced into whisking the little girl away from the only mother she can remember – the exact fate she'd promised would never befall the child again. The twist is heavy-handed as hell, but if any actor on this show can make it work, it's Newton. This is a performer who can pull off a streetwise sex worker, a feudal Japanese warlord, a godlike android and a bereaved parent with equal ease.
The cast's other MVP, in a far less obvious fashion, is James Marsden as the now-former "white hat" Teddy. Reprogrammed by his girlfriend Dolores to be a better fit with the harsh, warlike world she's ushered into existence, this gunfighter is portrayed by Marsden as almost simple-minded in his newfound viciousness. There's something vacant in his face, which used to be so soulful and vulnerable; at one point just prior to him executing a human in cold blood, the sound of buzzing flies is overlaid into the voices he hears, as if death itself has taken up permanent residence inside his mechanical brain. "The man who rode that train was built weak and born to fail," he says to Dolores about his former self. "You fixed him." The look on her face when she witnesses his born-again bloodthirstiness indicates that the leader of the revolution isn't so sure the fix is an improvement.
A pair of new additions to the cast this season round out the episode. A new antagonist is introduced in the form of Coughlin (Timothy V. Murphy), an incredibly Irish mercenary called in to take over security operations. This bright-eyed hardcase has no time for his minions' pleasantries and equivocations. Sample dialogue: "That's got to be the dumbest fucking thing I've ever heard, and I've been to three Inaugurations. He has one simple question for the tech geeks still scurrying around the corpse-strewn central command: "Did you shut off the killer robots?"
The other newcomer isn't really new at all. After being painfully plugged into the Cradle's "hivemind," Bernard flashes back, or forward, or who knows, to the familiar town of Sweetwater. When he steps into Maeve's old saloon, he finds a familiar face playing the piano: Robert Ford. "Hello, old friend," says Sir Anthony Hopkins before the final cut to black.
Is this guy’s consciousness is still floating around, ready to wreak more havoc? Does this have anything to do with the opening scene, in which the interrogation of Dolores by Bernard’s human inspiration Arnold is revealed to be Dolores interrogating Bernard instead? Like pretty much every episode of Westworld before it, this one leaves us with more questions than it answers. But for once, it’s asking them in exactly the right way.
Previously: This Shogun for Hire