The remote town of Pariah – “city of outcasts, delinquents, thieves, whores, and murderers” – located below the border, where die-hard Southern “Confederados” wage war against Mexican revolutionaries. The buried memories of the past, where the dead inventor called Arnold continues to command his android army. The Maze, the late co-founder’s mysterious magnum opus, and the secret at its center. It seems like every character in this week’s episode of Westworld – “Contrapasso” – is trying to get as far as possible from where they started. But the show’s biggest problems remain way closer to home.
Specifically, they start in the office, or the high-tech fishbowl that passes for one in the park’s central command. The Wild West hijinks, big philosophical questions, and puzzle-box narrative may obscure the truth, but at heart this show is a workplace drama, albeit set in one of the weirdest offices on TV, and one cursed with unrelenting, damned-near dealbreaking hostility between each and every employee. Forget head behaviorist Bernard, who’s barely on screen, and security guru Theresa and odious narrative-specialist Simon, who don’t show up at all. This week, we spend time with Felix and Sylvester, the pair of medical technicians we’d previously met when Sweetwater madam Maeve sprang back to life on their operating table. Simply put, their interactions are insufferable. (And when you notice their cartoon-cat names, the bit where they try to capture a rogue bird suddenly makes a lot more sense.)
Sylvester, a.k.a. the one with the beard, mocks the surgical prowess of his avian-obsessed cohort. He makes crass sexual comments about the virtual-reality redhead he’s going to have sex (or rather, “sex”) with on his lunch break. He refers to Maeve as a “fuckpuppet.” Most tellingly, and least explicably, he’s passionate about shitting on his partner’s dreams of getting a promotion to the Behavior department by repairing his robotic feathered friend. Why, you ask? The answer: for no apparent reason other than to fulfill the staff’s “Everbody Must Be a Dick” guidelines. “You’re not an ornithologist, and you’re sure as hell not a coder,” he shouts. “You are a butcher, and that’s all you’re ever gonna be!”
Who the hell talks like this?
For one thing, the “you’re a butcher” bit doesn’t even make sense. “Butchery” would entail taking the androids apart; these guys are more like trauma-ward doctors who specialize in putting them back together. But more importantly, why on earth would Sylvester be so invested in shooting down Felix’s aspirations, in such dramatic, flowery language? Can you even imagine making such a pronouncement to the person in the cubicle next to you, or other folks on your shift? Yet this kind of blunt-force insult and intimidation seems to be the sole means of communication between Westworld’s white-coated and white-collared humans.
You see it again and again: in earlier episodes, when Simon, Theresa, and Bernard have their various pissing matches; last week, when Dr. Robert Ford threatened his QA rival to stay out of his way if she knows what’s good for her; this week, when behaviorist Elsie bullies and blackmails her way to getting aggressive-robot-corpse data by threatening to expose a medical tech’s after-hours fetish for out-of-commission robots.
You even see it among the guests. William and Logan‘s less-than-excellent adventure together reaches its nadir, after yet another clunky exposition dump in which the black-hat half of the pair reveals that their company is considering buying the financially ailing theme park. He later tells his do-gooding counterpart that he was brought along on this vacation because the beta male is a non-threatening weakling who’s peaked in the family business. Mind you, these two men are about to be brothers-in-law (though Baddie McGee speculates his sister chose her husband-to-be for the same condescending reasons he did). No wonder William leaves the dude to die at the next opportunity.
Granted, Logan has no redeeming qualities in any capacity, so his behavior toward his colleague shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it speaks to the fundamental misapprehension Westworld has about what makes a compelling workplace drama. You need tension and conflict and even the occasional full-fledged feud. But neither the show nor the fictional business it portrays will come together if that’s all you’re getting. Both Mad Men and Sterling Cooper would have collapsed had Don Draper not been a charming companion and a surprisingly good mentor in addition to everything else. The Wire would have had no story if McNulty and Daniels, or Stringer and Avon, had always been at each other’s throats. Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s little-watched but much-admired series about the dawn of the Internet age, spent an entire season with its main characters screaming at each other, before realizing show would seem less grating if they worked together.
Unless and until Westworld realizes the same thing, it’s always going to feel like a fraction of the series it could be. Yes, you get your requisite gory violence and copious nudity, including HBO’s second clinical close-up of a black man’s penis this year after The Night Of (and a ridiculous robot orgy soundtracked by a chamber-music version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Something I Can Never Have”). You get all the guessing games about multiple time frames and hidden programming, the doppelgangers of Dolores and Lawrence, and the truth about the late great Arnold. All of this will only get you so far. To quote George Costanza, “We live in a society!” even if the employees’ role in it is to create a lawless version thereof. People need to work together, at least sometimes, for that society to function. The humans on the show need to acting like humans for us humans on the other side of the screen to truly care.
Previously: Pulling Your Strings