clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In “Les Écorchés,” Westworld leaves no character unscorched

Can data theft start forest fires? And other questions Westworld’s “Les Écorchés” gave us.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

This second season of Westworld has had more jittery stops, starts, and resets than Bernard’s brain. There are only so many times you can see Teddy get off that train, or hear that telltale “Welcome to Westworld” theme, before you start longing for a release from repetition that the show has perpetually denied viewers.

Seven episodes into season two, the show is clearly and deliberately keeping most of its characters rooted in place even as they travel. Sure, everyone is going to meet up eventually, but metaphorically and often literally, they’re trapped — stuck in the park with no way out, stuck in cycles of manipulation, stuck in endless programming loops, and stuck experiencing realizations that we’ve already had revealed to us.

Les Écorchés” (“The Scorched”) spends a lot of time revealing or revisiting things we already knew: Bernard killed Theresa! The park is about data collection! Ford is still manipulating things! They all have to get to the Valley Beyond!

The episode also delivers multiple characters right back where they started: Bernard gets yet another hard reset, while Elsie is once again left unknowingly assisting a Bernard who’s under Ford’s control; Dolores encounters Maeve yet again, only to leave her to explore her own version of free will yet again; Maeve helplessly watches her daughter’s kidnapping all over again while the Man in Black’s quest stalls out, apparently all thanks to a phone call ex machina that everyone’s favorite smarmy exec, Lee, could have made at any time during Maeve’s trek across theme parks.

While that’s the kind of frustrating storytelling device that feels like cheating, Westworld does give us some forward movement: Charlotte and Stubbs discover Ford’s hidden stash of Bernard clones, and Dolores snatches her father’s coveted head chip — and presumably any hope of immediate rescue for the humans from outside the park — from the grasp of Delos.

Though it’s repetitive, this episode isn’t without its fiery pleasures — along with a few disappointments and one weird sideline. Let’s round them up, shall we?

Good: the show heard we love suffering Bernard, so it gave us multiple Bernards, all suffering!

And which Bernard might you be?

In many ways, Westworld has anchored itself around Jeffrey Wright’s tremulous and magnetic performance as the perpetually breaking Bernard, and every time it feels like we’ve reached the limit of things for Bernard to discover about himself, his past, or the many lies that have been fed to him, we somehow find more. The discovery that he’s just one of many clones of himself, however, makes a world of sense: If he was designed to serve both as Ford’s minion and Arnold’s clone, naturally Ford would want to perfect multiple copies of him, then unleash them onto an unsuspecting park.

This twist fits both the size of Ford’s ego and the endless abyss that seems to be Bernard’s pain, as well as the show’s repetitive cycling. Did you like watching him go through the agonizing torture of waking up and realizing how many of his memories are false? Congrats! Now you can watch multiple versions of him wake up all over again — then watch them break down while confronting each other. It’s an all-Bernard angst-fest all the time, and I’m excited for it.

Good: immolation via Beethoven

Movement on Westworld has always felt cyclical, but perhaps no episode until this one has so openly embraced the show’s circular evolution as part of its cold philosophy. It’s not so much android existentialism Westworld offers us as it is a kind of posthumanist shrug about the inevitability of violent human-host tension. But this episode drops a pretty strong hint about how these cycles will be broken.

At the climax of this episode, Ford muses to Bernard that the burning of the Library of Alexandria didn’t actually destroy countless works of civilization, but rather perpetuated their existence as part of a new story: the burning itself. As he narrates this tale, the episode’s centerpiece moment of violence, a brutal and beautiful human-host battle, plays out against the backdrop of the famously repetitive, inexorable rhythm of Beethoven’s “Allegretto.” Beethoven, Ford told us last season, became his music, just as the humans will ultimately become their creations; this destiny will be achieved through repetition and cyclical evolution, of the kind Bernard and his many iterations have already undergone.

As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff observed last episode, Westworld has been, er, heating up its usage of fire metaphors. This scene seems to suggest that the way forward, out of all this nihilistic violence, is through fiery immolation. Ultimately, these cycles of violence will result in a massive conflagration. (Dolores has already offered us a little one, thanks to last episode’s train earthquake.) But from the ashes, humans will emerge, phoenix-like — perhaps as human-android hybrids: a little scorched, but safe and sound.

Bad: the show is already immolating good characters!

You are lost and gone forever (until the next flashback), Clementine!

Westworld went through such great pains to wake up its ensemble of hosts that it’s jarring to see some of our favorites, still newly awake, drop without so much as a farewell. This was the fate of both Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) and Angela (Talulah Riley) this week; though Angela at least got to explode herself and take out a Delos flunky into the bargain, there was no similar last-stand moment for our favorite brothel girl.

The “deaths” of these ladies could be a precursor to revival. It will be hard to bring back Angela’s exploded remains, but since we now know clone copies of the hosts exist, anything’s possible. But both Angela and Clementine, like several of the other hosts, have been sadly underused on this season despite their awakening. Angela’s been able to parade around like Truth emerging from her well, but she’s gotten to do little more than function as a sexy vengeance fantasy.

Clementine, by contrast, has barely left the lab, and has had little chance to do more than be violent and vaguely confused. She’ll probably be back in some form, but her unceremonious dispatch is indicative of the show’s tendency to get lost in its meandering philosophical ideas without giving its characters anything to do.

It’s not like Westworld is incapable of giving its side characters things to do! Just look at this next guy!

Good: that mustache guy who’s watched too many Bruce Willis films

The best moment of Westworld this week involved a character who was barely a character, more properly a redshirt — the collective nickname for easily dispatched cannon fodder in sci-fi shows, who exist mainly to show up and die.

We’ve seen these faceless characters throughout the show, but this week, just as I was thinking about the sheer number of anonymous security personnel at Delos who seem to arrive just in time to be killed, the show gave me a duel between Teddy and a mustachioed security guard who was determined not to go down without a fight.

And what a fight! It made me wish the show had actually allowed James Marsden to be dispatched by a white-haired rando who screeched, “Happy trails, motherfucker!” at him in his final moments, but, alas, it wasn’t to be. You will live on in our hearts, anonymous security guard.

Bad: Westworld keeps moving ever closer toward becoming Battlestar Galactica

The comparison between Westworld and the reboot of Battlestar Galactica — Syfy’s beloved, troubled show about androids versus humans in space — is very obvious, and has been since the show settled into its season one premise. Like BSG’s Cylons, hosts are engaged in a war with humans; like Cylons, they can be “asleep” and following subconscious preprogrammed directives, and they can “wake up” to full awareness of what they are. Like Battlestar Galactica, Westworld exploits the tension and suspense of knowing that anyone we meet could be an android.

But at this point, more than halfway through season two, it’s discomfiting that the show seems to be cribbing yet more things from Battlestar Galactica instead of leaving its influence behind. In this episode, the show unveiled two developments straight from the Battlestar playbook: the revelation that multiple copies of hosts exist, and the reveal that Bernard (Bernard Prime?) has a “head Ford” guiding and directing him around the compound.

Granted, Ford is in Bernard’s head because he uploaded a copy of himself there, rather than the sort of mystical human-host mumbo jumbo that enabled this device in Battlestar Galactica. But even if this show doesn’t try to go full-on Cylon religion, it’s just introduced the possibility that multiple copies of multiple hosts, each with a potentially different set of memories and operating within a completely different timeline, could be running around Westworld. And it’s shown us that humans, including both Ford and Arnold (and presumably William, who was testing this tech on his father-in-law), can upload copies of their consciousnesses into the data banks of hosts.

Introducing so many elements of confusion can quickly cause a plot to lose its way. We’ve seen this kind of ever-scaffolding plot play out in lots of series from Battlestar Galactica to Lost to Heroes and even non-sci-fi shows like Unreal. If you keep throwing new plot developments at the audience without properly dealing with the old ones, you have a storyline where plot twists become cheap substitutes for actual plot progression. In the case of Heroes, this frustration resulted in such a massive viewer loss that the show was canceled; in the case of Battlestar Galactica, the show’s finale ignored a cadre of never-resolved questions, while Lost’s no-answers finale famously caused a fandom meltdown that’s probably still causing fights in a bar somewhere.

Westworld’s writers are undoubtedly familiar with these pitfalls — after all, they cheekily offered to provide a season’s worth of spoilers to Reddit, which bespeaks confidence about where they’re going. Except, never mind, that offer turned out to be a giant Rickroll. And Jonathan Nolan’s previous show, Person of Interest, was often guilty of this, though it couched its escalating twists in a turn to science fiction. Westworld doesn’t have that same tonal surprise to fall back on: We know what kind of story we’re in, and though last season’s plot developments were easy for hardcore fans to predict, they made logical, if not always linear, sense.

To be fair, some Westworld fans guessed weeks ago that there were multiple Bernards thanks to tiny context clues, just as they figured out last season’s dueling timelines early on. So it’s possible the potential for confusion is all in my head! Still, thanks to its plot-stalling and repetition, season two already seemed to be less surefooted than season one; now, with the added possibility of even more confusion about which character and timeline we’re in, it feels like the show could be headed toward a new variant of the Lost/Battlestar Galactica conundrum: Giving audiences the chance to play the show’s game of deduction and deciphering becomes a substitute for giving satisfactory narrative payoffs.

Weird: Dolores’s plan for her dad’s head

Poor Abernathy: His fate was sealed from the moment his daughter picked up that rotator saw. But we’d like to think that the guy didn’t have his head carved open for naught, so what is she going to do with his brain, exactly?

We know Abernathy’s head unit contains most of the precious data that Delos is collecting from Westworld’s guests. And we know that Delos is basically holding off on rescuing the humans until they deliver Abernathy’s brain — or so Charlotte claims.

But how exactly is any of that supposed to aid Dolores? Sure, getting her hands on the data before Delos keeps Delos from being evil, and further strands all her human prey in the park with her. But how is data theft supposed to lead to her ultimate end game against the humans? Moreover, given that Ford claims to have foreseen and predesigned everything Dolores is now doing, how is data theft supposed to lead to human-hybrid evolution? Or to the giant fiery inferno of Ford’s dreams?

Perhaps her sole plan is to use it as bait to lure the humans into the Valley Beyond, where she can then trap them and set them all on fire or something. But that would be a little disappointing, given that Abernathy’s brain holds a fun mix of privacy-invading data and Shakespeare. If this is truly the last we see of Louis Herthum’s tortured father figure, we hope that at least Dolores does something worthy with the bytes he left behind.