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Westworld season 1, episode 4: in “Dissonance Theory,” nobody’s sure what’s going on

But we might have gotten some telling glimpses of what’s to come.

Evan Rachel Wood and Jimmi Simpson in the HBO show Westworld
William is smitten with Delores.
John P. Johnson / HBO
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

I know the impulse is to try to say what HBO’s Westworld is “about,” four episodes in. I know that because I’ve fought the impulse myself.

The truth is, we have no idea what it’s about yet. And maybe we shouldn’t expect to know. It could be that Westworld is more like a painting than a photograph, and the show is just applying strokes to the canvas right now; we have to wait a while before we see what the picture is. I hope that’s the case. After all, there are a lot of ideas swirling around in the show right now, many of which don’t seem to cohere with one another. And a lot happens in this episode.

But that swirling would also explain the title of episode four: “Dissonance Theory.” Presumably, it’s named for the cognitive dissonance theory, which posits that people tend to seek consistency and continuity among their beliefs and opinions — their cognitions — and that when a person discovers their own beliefs and opinions are in conflict, something will have to change.

Leaving the “cognitions” off that title may be significant: Can the Hosts have opinions and beliefs, or are they stuck with their programming? In the episode’s first scene, after Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) delivers a short, moving monologue about the importance of the pain she believes she’s feeling after her parents’ death, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) says, “That’s very pretty, Dolores. Did we write that for you?”

“In part,” she replies. “I adapted it from a scripted dialogue about love.”

So maybe the “dissonance theory” of the episode extends beyond beliefs and ideas and into the rules that govern the Westworld universe itself — rules we’ve barely had time to grasp before they start changing on us. They have not yet been brought into harmony. But I bet they will (cue ominous music).

Is there a plan, or is the plan to ignore the plan?

The dissonance is throwing off the park administrators, too. Dolores ventures far off her loop in this episode, and that seems like a problem to the operators, but then again, “the boss is disrupting so many storylines with his new narrative, it’s hard to tell,” as one of them says. Maybe Dolores’s movement is okay now? Maybe the plan is to deviate from the plan?

Dolores is certainly beginning to think so. Talking to William (Jimmi Simpson), she says, “I used to believe there was a path for everyone” — we heard as much in the pilot — but “now I think I never asked where the path was takin’ me.”

And yet she’s getting an inkling of the answer to that question, which she couches in a metaphor: “We would bring the herd down off the mountain in the fall. Sometimes we would lose one along the way, and I’d worry over it. My father would tell me that the steer would find its own way home. And as often as not, they did. Never occurred to me that we were bringing them back for the slaughter.”

That’s especially chilling when she tells him that sometimes she feels “like something’s calling me,” although we know, from outside this loop, that a great deal of the Hosts are routinely called back into Sweetwater to be slaughtered at the end of the loop. Due to the glitches and the park’s need to collect the Hosts for repair, that happened recently, and both Dolores and Maeve (Thandie Newton) are having flashbacks.

Angela Sarafyan and Thandie Newton in a scene from HBO's Westworld episode 104
Clementine and Maeve share a moment.
John P. Johnson / HBO

Maeve’s flashbacks are another major part of this episode, and it’s a pleasure to see Newton given more material to work with. In episode two, Maeve woke up in the “backstage” area to the sight of two technicians in suits with helmets looming over her.

That image continues to haunt her — though in a nod to the fact that we’re never really sure how much time is passing in this show, when Maeve sketches the image in a cold sweat and moves to put it beneath her floorboards, she discovers that she’s already done this same thing a number of times before.

Later, a crowd of (giant air quotes) “savages” are being paraded through town as the townsfolk watch, and a child drops a doll. Maeve stoops to pick it up and discovers that it’s a miniature version of the technicians’ faces she keeps glimpsing in her mind. She starts to ask what it is, but a man nearby interrupts: “That thing's part of their so-called religion. Ain't none of them's gonna tell you nuttin’ about that.”

This goes unexplained, but just for now — and in the episode’s final scene, Maeve finds the confirmation of her visions that she is looking for, buried in her abdomen, which allows her to confirm, as she says, “that i'm not crazy after all, and that none of this matters.”

It’s all a game, an endless loop, a fake reality set on top of a real one. Do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter.

What it means to be free in Westworld is still up in the air

Or does it? There’s also a recurring obsession with freedom and being freed running throughout this episode. In the first scene, Bernard tells Dolores that if she finds the center of the maze, “maybe you can be free.” “I think I want to be free,” she says, with tears in her eyes.

Free from what? From her loop? From the park? It’s not clear yet, but now we do know that both Bernard and Dolores know about the maze the Man in Black is following.

The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is hot on that trail in this episode, trying to find, as he puts it, the last page in the book written by the park’s co-founder, Arnold. But he also tells several characters that he’s there to free them — most notably, Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), whom he’s been dragging around as a sort of sidekick since the last episode.

What the Man in Black seems to think freedom means for the Hosts in general is the ability to take responsibility for their choices.

“If you did consider your choices, you’d be confronted with a truth you cannot comprehend: that no choice you ever made has been your own,” he says to Lawrence. “You’ve always been a prisoner. What if I told you I’m here to set you free?”

Clifton Collins Jr. and Ed Harris in HBO's Westworld, episode 104.
Lawrence and the Man in Black are plotting.
John P. Johnson / HBO

This — coupled with his immediate interest when he spots the snake Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) has tattooed across her back — convinces me more and more that the Man in Black is a sort of complicated Lucifer character, though that’s not necessarily, in this universe, a bad thing.

In the biblical Genesis narrative, Lucifer appears in the form of a snake to Eve, daring her to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The implication there is that before she ate from that tree, she didn’t know there was such a thing. After she does, she can never go back.

So maybe what the Man in Black is after is to bring the consciousness of choice, and the responsibility that comes along with it, to the Hosts, most of whom, it seems, he knows intimately, even if he’s always new to them (at least so far). You can see this as an act of cruelty, or you can see it as an act of freedom.

The park isn’t just controlling Hosts — it’s controlling Guests, too

Which of these it is probably tied up with what you think about the god of the universe, which brings us to Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who definitely has the power of a god. He manages to literally stop time while delivering a speech to Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) over lunch that sounds exactly like something you’d expect a creator god to say about the creation, the first three words echoing the first three words of the Bible:

In the beginning, I imagined things would be perfectly balanced. Even had a bet with my partner, Arnold, to that effect. We made a hundred hopeful storylines, of course, almost no one took us up on them. I lost the bet.

Arnold always held a somewhat dim view of people. He preferred the Hosts. He begged me not to let you people in, the money men. But I told him we'd be fine, that you didn't understand what you were paying for. It's not a business venture, not a theme park, but an entire world. We designed every inch of it. Every blade of grass. In here, we were gods. And you, merely our guests.

Ford is busily writing a new narrative — his final one, it seems, from comments he makes — and tearing up the place with a backhoe in preparation. But that Ford is the god of the machinery is no surprise, when it comes to Hosts. And yet “Dissonance Theory” also suggests that he’s another kind of god: one that is controlling the Guests. This comes up in two places in the episode.

First, William’s friend Logan (Ben Barnes), who seems like kind of a nasty chap, suggests to him that the park sent Delores to him. “I’m sure the people at the controls are monitoring my every mood,” William says, scoffing.

Chris Browning, Ben Barnes, and Jimmi Simpson in HBO's Westworld, episode 104.
Just a couple of guys hanging out at the park.
John P. Johnson / HBO

“That’s exactly what they’re doing,” Logan replies. “Come on. You really think it’s a coincidence that the only thing you even smiled at in Sweetwater just happened to drop into your lap?”

“This is why the company needs to bump our stake in this place,” he continues, which plays into Ford’s suggestion at lunch with Theresa that “the money men” are there, though they “didn’t understand what [they] were paying for.”

But at lunch, Theresa also realizes that Ford chose the table they were sitting at because it was the exact same table that she sat at when she visited the park with her family, decades earlier. “We know everything about our Guests, don't we?” Ford says with a wry grin. “As we know everything about our employees. I do hope you will be careful with Bernard. He has a sensitive disposition.”

(There’s a fan theory that Bernard is a Host himself, one of Ford’s creations, and this line made me shift from unbelief to maybe-belief, because the way Ford talks about his closest deputy here is just so clinical. But who knows? Ford is a tricky guy.)

So he’s created a world that spies on the people who participate in it. That’s ethically dubious, to be sure, especially since the park caters to the very wealthy, with its $40,000-a-day price tag, and to those who want to exercise their basest instincts. Are they being just watched and catered to, or are they being recorded or even broadcast? Is this an elaborate scheme to blackmail the world’s wealthiest and most powerful when their darkest desires are given free rein?

We don’t know yet, and without that bit of information it’s hard to know if Ford is a genius or a villain.

Arnold is almost certainly the key

But we do have another bit of potentially damning information about Ford, being teased out very slowly in the form of Dolores’s flashbacks. In this episode, she catches glimpses of a memory: a church, walking into it, violence, terror. The church seems to match the chapel we saw at the very end of episode two. Whatever happened there, it wasn’t good.

Ford keeps bringing up Arnold, his co-founder, which is interesting mostly because the Man in Black knows all about Arnold, too.

“You ever heard of a man named Arnold?” the Man asks Armistice. “You could say he was the original settler of these parts. He created a world where you could do whatever you want, except one thing: You can't die. Which means no matter how real this world seems, it's still just a game.”

“But then Arnold went and broke his own rule,” he continues. “He died, right here in the park. Except I believe he had one story left to tell — a story with real stakes, real violence.” He draws out the scalp with the maze printed on it and shows the map to her. “You could say I'm here to honor his legacy. And I think your tattoo is the next piece of the puzzle.”

If Ford and the Man are the only people who definitely know Arnold’s story, apparently firsthand, then the show might be readying them for battle. Maybe this is a Paradise Lost sort of situation, where the real hero is Satan, the romantic figure rebelling against the imposition of heaven’s will. If Ford is in fact exploiting the Guests along with the Hosts, then the Man in Black’s quest to free the Hosts will have big consequences for Ford.

On the other hand, who knows? Nothing quite adds up yet. But that’s the fun of Westworld.

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