It was the best of worlds, it was the worst of worlds. Like no episode before it, this week's voyage to Westworld ("Les Écorchés") was the proverbial non-stop action thrill ride – a carnival midway of cool sci-fi/horror imagery and visceral combat. It had James Marden's Teddy going full Terminator, dressed in body armor and beating short-lived security badass Coughlin to death with his bare hands. It has both Clementine and Angela going out in blazes of glory, the latter by blowing up the hosts' backup files in the Cradle and setting them free from the park's endless loop. It has a beautifully shot face-off between Maeve and the Man in Black, the camera resting on Thandie Newton's foregrounded face as she uses her psychic powers to turn the MiB's own android allies against him. It has a creepy Bluebeard closet full of Bernard replicas and the real version getting possessed by the electronic spirit of his own creator so he can murder Delos thugs guilt-free. In short, it's full of rad-ass robot shit.
It also marked the full-fledged return of Robert Ford as an android replica of himself, inserted into the park just prior to the robot revolution and able to communicate with Bernard's fractured computer brain. Together they settle the issue of the park's grand immortality experiment once and for all, in genuinely chilling dialogue exchanged between Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Hopkins. "The guests are the variables," the former notes, "and the hosts are the controls….We weren't here to code the hosts, we were here to decode the guests ... They don't want you to become them, they want to become you." (Suddenly, that odd comment about "fidelity" from last week's episode makes a lot more sense.) Westworld's philosophy isn't all that deep in and of itself, but this script-flipping change to what we thought the park's behind-the-scenes purpose really was has been dynamite so far.
The same cannot be said of the new narrative's antagonist. Frankly, it's time to come to terms with Charlotte Hale. Obviously, Tessa Thompson's on a career hot streak – but the character of Hale is ice cold, and not in the unflappable-villain way she's supposed to be either. There's just nothing interesting about this one-note one-percenter, or the smirking way in which Thompson delivers every line. She has the mocking affect of a condescending reply from a Trump supporter on Twitter. She's obnoxious when she has the upper hand over Peter Abernathy and Bernard in their respective torture chambers, and she's just as irritating when her picked-on minion Stubbs, or rogue hosts Dolores and Teddy, have the upper hand on her in turn.
This last bit in particular isn't just annoying or boring, it's nonsensical. Why act like a snarky dickhead when your chief of security is threatening to destroy the backup-brain you need in order to be rescued, or when you're surrounded by gun-toting robots? It's the same behavior we saw with narrative writer Sizemore earlier in the season, when he repeatedly ridiculed Maeve despite being completely at her mercy. This bug goes back to Westworld's root-level problem of mistaking pointless interpersonal hostility for compelling human drama. The fact that the stakes are now life and death, so that needlessly picking fights and acting smug about your own superiority could actually get you killed, simply casts this flaw in the writing in starker relief.
Then again, the show worked so hard this week to spare its major players from certain death that maybe the characters shouldn't worry about getting killed. The Man in Black alone gets shot four times but none of the shots are fatal, not even the ones fired at point-blank range. Maeve has the drop on him but gets interrupted by Lawrence. She convinces the desperado to turn his gun on his former master ... but in the time he takes to compose a few dramatic one-liners about it, security forces kill him before he can pull the trigger. Despite being full of more holes than, well, a Westworld plot, the MiB still has the strength to crawl out of the middle of the street in broad daylight into hiding to escape detection.
This kind of thing happens over and over. Bernard is about to confess to the murder of Theresa Cullen when the security team interrogating him gets distracted by the discovery of a secret passage. (Backing themselves into a narrative corner that can only be escaped by inventing a trapdoor to escape through is almost too neat an illustration how this story works.) Dolores is about to kill Charlotte when she's interrupted by noise from the ongoing battle for control of the Mesa; when she's about to kill her again, her father Peter miraculously regains lucidity. And Angela is only able to blow up the Cradle backups instead of getting blown away from a safe distance because she makes the gun-toting goon who's got her in his sights so horny that he becomes incompetent. (No, really.) It's like an Austin Powers fembot scene, only those are intentionally funny.
Most egregiously of all, Dolores stumbles across a wounded, captured Maeve as she and her team depart the Mesa with her father's data-drenched brain in tow. She's about to put Madam Millay out of her misery so she can't be tortured into using her techno-telepathy against the rogue host army – but she stops, because Maeve still wants to live and rescue her kidnapped daughter. Dolores then tells her, "You're free to choose your own path." Funny, it's hard to recall her dropping that philosophical nugget that to the countless hosts she's executed without thinking twice. Or, for that matter, to Teddy, whom she reprogrammed against his will so he'd survive the coming showdown.
"Isn't the pleasure of a story discovering the ending yourself?" Ford asks Bernard during their reunion. The line reads like a direct commentary on Westworld's cultivation of a fanbase dedicated to decoding clues and predicting twists. For the rest of us, though? It's impossible to take pleasure in the show's story when it continuously contorts itself to wriggle free of its own logical consequences, no matter what the ending may be. Death comes for everyone on this show … unless, of course, it's inconvenient.
Previously: Liquid Swords