It’s hard to know where to start with Westworld. Like the maze some of its characters are trying to find, there are no clear ways in, no easy answers. We don’t even know if they’re looking for what lies at the center or the exit.
For now, it’s mostly just about the dizzying journey, round and round until something gives. In the first four episodes, this is simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating. In “Contrapasso,” though, a hint of something more concrete finally emerges from Westworld’s many-layered mysteries.
And honestly, thank God. We’re only five episodes in, and this show is already exhausting. (Gaze upon this tweet detailing the very many Westworld podcasts already out there and try to tell me the strain of taking them all in doesn’t make your eyes cross.)
So as scattered as Westworld can be — between the restless Hosts, curious Guests, and sinister machinations of the park employees pulling strings from their sleek headquarters — “Contrapasso” thankfully has one consistent thread. Put simply, it’s that more and more characters are openly trying to find out who they really are, what their role is in the grand scheme of things, and why the hell they’re here at all. And yes, I’m talking about Guests and park employees as well as Hosts.
In “Contrapasso,” the most important and fascinating aspect of that desire emerges when they evaluate themselves and decide they’d much rather be something else.
The entire point of the Westworld park is to show people who they could be — and now that applies to the Hosts, too
Westworld is a show that loves pontifications and metaphors, especially as delivered by Anthony Hopkins (and on this front, I can’t really blame it). But one theme has come up time and time again: Westworld is a place where anyone can be anything.
As long as you’re not a cyborg, of course.
The idea of Westworld as the ultimate scene of self-actualization has been a seed from the beginning, most notably cropping up as Host inventor Ford (Hopkins) rejected a storyline that was too basic to prompt epiphanies. In “Contrapasso,” Ford reaffirms this idea, insisting to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) that dreams are all that matter, because they tell you who you could be.
It’s no coincidence that the sharpest moments of self-discovery in “Contrapasso” involve Dolores, whose slow awakening — and Wood’s incredibly nuanced performance — has been the obvious highlight of the series as its story picks up speed.
At this point, Dolores has strayed so far from her loop that when someone refers to her as the rancher’s daughter, the blank furrowed brow she responds with might as well be saying, “Oh, I think I’ve heard of her...?”
As she tells her new Guest companion (Jimmi Simpson’s William) early in the episode: “Lately I’m wondering if every day, there aren’t many new paths — choices, hanging in the air like ghosts. And if you could just see them, they could change your whole life.”
The unseen forces prodding Dolores into absorbing more of the fabricated world around her are the strongest they’ve ever been in “Contrapasso” — and by “unseen,” I don’t mean Bernard or Ford feeding her prompts in her so-called “dreams.” I mean the voices inside her own head, egging her on to dig deeper into Westworld and her own mind.
Dolores sees herself — literally? figuratively? probably the latter, but it’s impossible to know — in crowds, in the face of a woman reading fortunes, and reaches deep into her own consciousness to piece together all the voices clamoring for attention in her head. One of them is almost definitely that of Arnold, the Hosts’ enigmatic co-creator whom Ford is still wary of, 30 years after his supposed death. (More on that later.)
For now, though, I’m far less interested in Dolores’s epiphanies coming around as the result of an unseen puppet master than her trying to shed her scripted damsel identity to find a more Annie Oakley one of her own.
Despite Westworld’s best efforts to shade out some of its other promising characters — Ford, Bernard, Maeve — Wood’s Dolores continues to be the single most fleshed-out character on this show, crossed wires and all. It remains to be seen if Westworld is as interested in exploring growing consciousness quite as much as Dolores and Bernard are, but man, I hope it is.
Of course, Dolores and even Maeve (Thandie Newton) aren’t the only ones questioning their reality. In this fifth episode, we see more of that from the humans making it all happen than we ever have before.
The employees of Westworld are getting just as restless as their Hosts
The terrific irony between making all the Guests’ dreams come true while squashing any ounce of creativity in its Hosts is a gulf that grows wider with every scene. But “Contrapasso” subverts it by stepping outside the confines of the Hosts’ halting awareness to explore a bit more of what it means to be part of Westworld’s behind-the-scenes “process.”
There’s Elsie (Shannon Woodward), the acerbic behavior specialist who digs deeper into the glitching robots — literally, with a scalpel — and finds a device that makes it clear that someone is sending reports out of the park to … somewhere. (It’s probably Arnold, but again, more on that later.)
There’s the ambitious — if nervous — butcher, who spends his off-hours trying to make a robotic bird fly, even as his on-the-nose partner furiously tells him he’ll “never be anything but a butcher!”
And, of course, there’s Ford, making sure everyone knows he’s the one who can make or break Westworld, whether in a twisty new storyline or in the blink of an eye that makes Teddy (James Marsden) grab an oncoming knife by the blade without even realizing what he’s doing.
But as we see in a deliberately confusing — if brilliantly acted — scene between Ford and Dolores, even he’s not so sure he has as much of a grip on Westworld as he thought. In fact, he muses, he just might be getting conned from beyond the grave.
By appearances, it seems as if everyone involved in making Westworld tick is in exactly as precise a place as their meticulous stories inside the park. But increasingly, there’s a restlessness that goes far outside that of the Hosts — and it looks like the key to resolving it will be Arnold.
So okay, what the hell’s up with Arnold, please?
The biggest shock of Westworld so far would be if Dolores and/or the Man in Black (Ed Harris) get to the center of the maze and find anything other than Arnold.
As Ford tells it, Arnold went “mad,” consumed by the possibilities of his creations, and ultimately killed himself. As the Man in Black tells it, Arnold not only killed himself, but did so inside the park.
More than anyone, Arnold embodies the spirit of this episode’s title: “Contrapasso,” a term most commonly known from Dante’s Inferno as a form of punishment that fits the crime.
Considering the sources, both Ford’s and the Man in Black’s accounts should be taken with an enormous grain of salt. But they’re still pieces to the overall puzzle, and if it’s true that Arnold died inside the park … well, maybe he’s not even dead. He was (is?) human, after all — and humans aren’t supposed to die in Westworld.
Though it was a treat to watch Harris and Hopkins face off (while Marsden blearily blinked along in the background), the far more interesting window into this backstory came from Dolores. Ford’s pointed questioning of the very first Host makes it clear that he’s not only worried about Arnold’s continuing interference, but that he straight up doesn’t believe Dolores when she insists she hasn’t interacted with Arnold since the day he died.
It turns out Ford’s concern is justified. While in analysis mode, Dolores reveals that Arnold wanted her help with a very special and dangerous mission: to destroy Westworld, once and for all.
And judging by the blank way she spoke aloud to the empty room after Ford left, he was right not to trust her answers, even if they seem like revealing ones. “He doesn’t know,” she says in a monotone. “I didn’t tell him anything.”
So even if Dolores is trying to figure out what the hell’s going on while she’s “awake” in Westworld, she may be far more in control while “dreaming” in the lab facilities than anyone, including Bernard, might’ve thought.
Dolores’s overall role in Westworld — both as a Host in the park and a character on the series — is intriguing enough that I’ve now spent well over a thousand words dissecting it. And that’s in spite of the fact that “Contrapasso” also featured the Man in Black’s sidekick, Lawrence (the fantastic Clifton Collins Jr.), rising from the grave to become the kingpin El Lazo, and a random orgy (which somehow still continued this show’s trend of focusing on nudity and sexual desire as straight male fantasies).
But all the shootouts, group sex, and bloodletting in the world couldn’t beat the quiet moment when Ford asks Dolores if she would (or rather, could) choose to be the hero or the villain — and she, a robot programmed to respond on command, says nothing.