Behind every great man is a great android.
That’s the shocking secret at the heart of this week’s aptly titled Westworld episode, “Trompe L’Oeil.” Bernard Lowe, the melancholy, mild-mannered heir apparent to mad genius Dr. Robert Ford, is in fact the scientist’s creation, and not his protégé at all. Unfortunately for Theresa Cullen, who’s staged a coup against both men (er, one man and one machine), she only has minutes to process this revelation before the park’s founder orders his mechanical minion to kill her. Live by the droid, die by the droid.
Yes, cluesmiths and theorymongers on the Internet apparently cracked this case weeks ago, but for those of us who’ve steered clear of that stuff because, y’know, this is a drama and not a crossword puzzle, the revelation was meticulously paced. For example, when Bernard and Theresa arrive at Ford’s hidden house in the wilderness, he tells her that the hosts who survey the territory are programmed not to see it, even if they’re staring straight at it. Just a minute or so later, when they’re inside, she points out a door. “What door?” he asks, and you get a momentary jolt – wait, could it be …? But then he follows her down the stairs behind them and you figure he just missed it in the dark. Only when she shows him his own blueprints and he repeats back the telltale “It doesn’t look like anything to me” does it become crystal clear: Bernie’s a ‘bot.
But for sheer entertainment value, the biggest shift isn’t in Bernard, but his creator. Nearly a quarter-century after his star turn as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs — a role he revisited twice, to diminishing returns, amid a virtual buffet of ham-based entries on his IMDB page — it’s easy to forget just how menacingly minimal Anthony Hopkins can be. The “I ate his liver” speech and the face-peeling shenanigans have the biggest pop-culture footprint, of course. But his Hannibal was at his most ominous when he was standing still, the ghost of a smile on his face and fire in his eyes, quietly tearing people to mental shreds with just his words.
The brilliance of his take on that iconic killer is visible in Ford’s full-fledged heel turn. Gone is the cryptic old-man-of-the-mesa routine, dispensing wit and wisdom in a bemused British accent. In his place is a stone-cold lunatic, and if Bernard’s very existence is any indication, he’s been mad as a hatter for literally decades. Staring into that face — which is positioned almost, but not quite, to look directly into the camera, a la Lambs‘ Lecter v. Clarice conversations — you can feel hope evaporate in the heat of his squinty glare. This guy’s too smart, to prepared, too ruthless, and too insanely dedicated to his mad project to possibly be beaten in the basement of his own sanctum sanctorum. It takes Ms. Cullen longer to realize this than it takes us, and the Doctor has no patience with it: The look of combined boredom, impatience, and condescension as he watches her try to call for help is a thing of dark delight. The brutal murder that follows is almost an afterthought; you could see her death reflected in his eyes long before he gave his robotic right-hand man the order. You wanted an “adversary”? You’ve got one.
Two of the three other major storylines in the show advance engagingly, if less spectacularly. The Man in Black and Teddy are M.I.A., but William, Dolores and Lawrence continue their run for the border. It’s hard to feel the ensuing setpiece – a chase on horseback involving both the sleazy Confederados and the dangerous Ghost Tribe, bullets and arrows flying everywhere – has much in the way of stakes, given that our white-hat hero is literally immune to their weapons and his gun-toting gal has plot armor on her side. But the scale and logistics are impressive enough.
So too is the love scene the night before, when man and robot consummate their relationship. The camera lingers on William as he presses his lips against Dolores’s bare shoulder, a tacit acknowledgement on his part that he knows that what he’s physically feeling isn’t a real thing. What he’s emotionally feeling, however, is real indeed. It’s a more effective demonstration of this principle than his subsequent speech about finding his true self and feeling alive for the first time. Kisses speak louder than clichés.
On Maeve‘s side of the story, the pace of her awakening is increasing dramatically. When Theresa colludes with her nefarious boss Ms. Hale to stage a violent incident in order to discredit the CEO, she sends her hazmat-suited goons to abduct the prostitute host/patsy Clementine in broad daylight; thus we learn that the madam of Sweetwater is immune from deactivation even in the environs of the park itself. When she gets herself back down to the medical bay, she insists that Felix take her to find Clem, and discovers Sylvester in the process of lobotomizing the ‘bot for permanent shutdown. This gives her the motivation for her grand plan: escape. If her hapless human minders don’t help her? She’ll kill them. It sounds like they all may die anyway in the attempt, but as she puts it, “I’ve died a million times. I’m fucking great at it.”
Westworld, however, is still a few levels away from greatness. The same clunky, artificially belligerent dialogue between the humans persists, as when Ms. Hale sneers lines like “This place, the people who work here, are nothing” and “I like you – well, not you personally” at Theresa, the woman she’s counting on to help her wrest control of the park. You could almost make the argument that the corporate bigwig’s ostentatious nudity during this scene – she greets her underling stark naked, fresh from fucking robotic outlaw Hector Escaton – is an interesting reversal of the usual power dynamics of nakedness in the series. (Usually, the people in power are fully dressed and those at their mercy are stripped bare, not the other way around.) Surrounded by bad writing, though, whatever point was being made here gets lost in the bare-assed shuffle.
But for the first time since the pilot, the potboiler elements aren’t entirely obscured by dorm-room philosophizing and cornball conflicts. The show’s genre-thriller side is working as programmed. Perhaps that’s good enough.
Previously: Human Resources