Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood have a sword-and-knife fight. If you take away nothing else from this episode of Westworld (“Passed Pawn”), let it be the sight of these two badass women kicking the living shit out of each other.
It’s the episode’s highlight — even if it’s never quite clear why they don’t work together instead of trying to tear each other apart. (It’s got something to do with Maeve’s alliance with Serac, and Dolores’ control of the key to the robot heaven called the Sublime … but these seem like problems that could be resolved over a cup of coffee rather than a rumble.) Sometimes you just want to see two talented, beautiful actors have a Matrix style knock-down drag-out fight, and on that count, this week’s installment did not disappoint.
When it wasn’t showing us characters using katana blades on each other (or Miss Abernathy staggering away from the fight sans an arm), the show added an additional layer to its cautionary tale of artificial intelligence run amok. Riding on horseback, Dolores and Caleb arrive at a remote technological outpost in the Mexican desert. It’s the home of Solomon, the supercomputer that the Serac siblings designed before their current model known as Rehoboam.
In short order, we learn that Solomon was put out to pasture because it took on some of the qualities of its schizophrenic co-creator, Serac’s missing brother. (“An insane AI. Great,” Aaron Paul’s character growls with characteristic bluntness.) Dolores wants to tap its crazy digital brain to unlock a strategy for her robot revolution.
It’s this “insane A.I.,” however, who helps unlock the secret of Caleb’s past. Through a knotty tangle of flashbacks and memories both false and real, we learn that he and his late friend Francis both made it home from their military service. After that, they became hunters of other “outliers,” a.k.a. people whose behavior cannot be predicted, via gigs on the crime-for-hire app that Solomon and Serac developed to regulate the criminal marketplace.
It was only when a mission to hand over a pharmaceutical executive who asked too many questions went south that Francis was killed … by Caleb, in self-defense. (His friend almost had orders to terminate with extreme prejudice.) The brutal psychological reconditioning process developed by Serac, which we first witnessed with the Man in Black, wiped out this part of our tortured hero’s past. It then rewrote his history to keep him in the dark.
In short: Caleb got used by an insane supercomputer, had his memory of getting used erased, and got stuffed into dead-end jobs because another supercomputer told his prospective employers he was too big a risk to take on. We’d be pretty pissed off at the tech world too.
But is he enraged off enough to start a human revolution? And in so doing, will he manage to destroy humanity, as Bernard says he fears? And how would he pull that off, exactly? More data dumps? A Dune-style jihad against technology? Growling and smoldering as only Aaron Paul can do? Who knows?
The questions don’t stop there, and in some cases they’re less a matter of mystery than of raw confusion. How did the host called Musashi (actually another Dolores, but who’s counting) become a yakuza boss if he was only smuggled off the island a few months ago? How did the hosts Clementine and Hanaryo get out of the park and start working for Maeve and Serac? How did the campaign to abduct and store away all of the world’s “outliers” never get noticed before? Why do Bernard and Stubbs react to the Man in Black’s declaration of war on host-kind — he literally tells them “Kill me now or I’ll kill you later” — like they don’t think he’s a man of his word? Right now, Westworld is lucky that Caleb’s saga and the Maeve/Dolores battle are so absorbing, because if you take half a minute to think about some of this stuff, it’s remarkably threadbare.
The big question, though, may be the nature of Serac himself — or should we say itself? We know he has a professional interest in Delos’ data on its guests, which the company was collecting to further its project of making people effectively immortal by inserting their consciousness into host bodies. We know that he’s been off the grid for a couple of decades, amassing vast wealth and controlling huge corporations with a wave of his hologrammed hand. And when Dolores and Caleb trigger a pre-recorded message the mysterious tech guru left for his brother — whom he’s kept in cold storage along with all the other outliers — he says “The man I was no longer exists.” Could it be that the human being behind all this season’s carnage, the one waging a genocidal war against the hosts and attempting to exert total control over humanity, is himself a deathless digital recreation of the original guy?
For now, all we can do is speculate — and daring the audience to guess the future has been this show’s stock in trade from the start. The funny thing is, this season seems so much more straightforward about things than its predecessors, nearly to the point of feeling somewhat slight by comparison. That could be a result of the short eight-episode season, or the possibly series’ transformation into a relatively tight techno-action thriller. There’s no Maze to navigate, no Door to search for, no overlapping time frames to detangle (that we know of, anyway). There’s just a season finale on the way, in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Will it make the preceding seven episodes of katana fights and A.I. espionage worth the watching?
Previously: Group Therapy