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“I simply wanted to tell my stories. It was you people that wanted to play God with your little undertaking.” – Ford
When I first watched Trompe L’Oeil, my initial reaction was excitement, because I knew a lot of people who are hot and cold on the show needed an episode like this to remind them why the show has been worth their investment. I viewed it on Friday, and had to stay quiet all weekend, and also agreed to requests from important people not to post a review until Monday morning, to ensure the west coast could enjoy the hour without possible spoilers. When I was asked to time my article, I knew we were in for something special, at least relative to the bigger moments.
Bernard Lowe is a host, and has been one for quite some time. He had no idea, as none of the hosts do, but this reveal can be viewed as a net positive, provided it never becomes a narrative crutch for the series. One of the Outkick readers mentioned this as a possibility a few weeks ago in a tweet, citing his subservience to Theresa as the rationale. While the second part of the prediction might not entirely fit, he was dead right on the other portion. So, props to David Yancey… you nailed it. When you call it, I’ll give you a shout out. Every single time.
The question everyone needs to ask about Westworld at this point is what this twist means for the show going forward. We’ll speak about the short-term story implications in a moment, but first, the idea of Bernard being a Ford creation is a terrific plot device. It opens up so many options down the line for Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. It’s great, provided it remains rare. A lesser showrunner could very easily fall into a trap of relying on “Guess what, he’s a host,” whenever the script goes cold. One of the biggest mistakes shows make is striking gold on a concept and then beating the hell out of it for the next handful of seasons.
Never should Westworld be defined by how many sleeper hosts are in its world. We need to be able to trust what we see. You can only pull the same tablecloth out from under fine china so many times before a beautiful dish tumbles off the side. Once that plate shatters as it makes contact with the floor, it can never be used again. Even if it’s just cracked, you worry about a leak, and the value is eternally stripped away.
The biggest error Homeland ever made, other than putting Dana Brody’s character on camera and having Nick’s vest malfunction, was pulling swerves on the audience in scenes where the logic failed. You can always use a twist, but if has to make sense based on the way the people are reacting on screen. Multiple times, something would happen in Homeland that contradicted something else that took place weeks before. Viewers began to recognize that the show was using tricks, but it was intentionally lying to its audience in order to accomplish its goals. It has recovered, but in Season 2, it was dangerously close to becoming a farcical embarrassment as a drama that was all over the Emmy Awards the year before.
What it means, however, is Ford has a plant in a position of authority within the company power structure, and while Charlotte Hale fired him after the “sham of a test,” he’s not going anywhere. Jeffrey Wright deserves a ton of credit for his performance, because he’s had to play human, but not TOO human for seven weeks, and then become a robotic killer in the final five minutes of last night’s episode. We didn’t watch him cry, and when we go back and look to how we learned about Bernard’s life, much of it came through snippets that easily could have been mental projections. When he awoke from the Charlie hospital nightmare, it still didn’t register that it was the equivalent of a Dolores or Maeve vision, but once Ford let us in on the secret, everything about Lowe’s existence passed the aforementioned logic question.
He never saw the door, he couldn’t see the blueprints, and Ford explains that all the hosts were created with the ability to mask anything that might harm them. It’s invisible to him, and after wondering why he asked Theresa, “What door,” the answer was readily available within the same sequence. How he gets his job back, that’s a quandary for which we don’t have a remedy, but considering Ford’s obvious power, and how he dismissed even the possibility of the board forcing him into retirement, one would think he can position his trusted servant wherever he’d like.
We have to be building to a Ford vs. Board battle, and it’s going to be an insane moment when brash, arrogant Charlotte comes face to face with the truth of her own mortality as a power broker. She moves like she’s Ford, acting like the world is hers, but as everyone who has tangled with him to this point in the series has found out, this world is only his. He built it to ensure that fact, that only he (and Arnold, who may or may not be hanging with Elsie in a cave somewhere) could control, manipulate, or destroy the place. The Delos research project and the intellectual property they’re interested in aren’t going anywhere, at least for now.
(By the way, could Arnold be a host? Once human, but someone whose version of “going crazy” was trying to become what he believed was the superior form? Also, and this was suggested to me by a friend and media colleague, perhaps he’s Ford’s Tyler Durden. Maybe he never even existed, and is simply the other half of Robert’s psyche.)
This was an episode focusing on three separate plot points, with Bernard and Theresa being the big finish. The second took us back on the train, as Dolores and William consummated their relationship, and then Miss Abernathy drew the mountains and the river that the two would end up staring at in “real life” with Lawrence after the ambush. Does that mean that this entire storyline is just another…well, just another storyline? How could she draw something she had never seen before, especially from such a non-coincidental vantage point?
Maybe William is merely playing a role many guests have played with her in previous iterations? Perhaps not, but here we have another instance where a host knows too much about his or her surroundings.
We know enough to understand she’s not just dreaming of things she hasn’t experienced, as none of the hosts have that capability. It goes to Charlotte and Theresa explaining Clementine’s behavior and how some hosts can respond to grudges, all based upon incomplete memory erasures and reverie-wipe failings. William has had a few important lines, but maybe none has been as powerful as his realization that the guests come to Westworld for “dreams of excitement or conflict,” while Dolores wishes for the exact opposite. When we go back and note the highest-octane portions of the William and Dolores coupling, virtually all of it feels like part of a fantastic ride, but it’s easy to view it through the prism of a park narrative, rather than as something external of the usual track. Was it scripted, or was it lived?
Finally, Maeve wants out, and she’s willing to murder Sylvester to find some semblance of freedom. She watches the Clementine retirement in sheer horror, and her mind is immediately made up. It’s time to go. One interesting tidbit comes from Sylvester, who tells her that everything she is, down to the skin make-up itself, is designed specifically to prevent a host from leaving Westworld. She doesn’t seem to care. I wonder if we’re building to a Bernard vs. Maeve showdown at some point, where Ford activates him to stop her, not knowing she has an off-the-charts attribute score. Remember, Lowe is a host built to live in the real world, but under the watchful eye of his creator, moving and acting in harmony with Ford’s every desire. He couldn’t, then, have the same levels of intellect and lack of loyalty that she does, so she might be far more dangerous.
Although, the way Bernard dispatched of Theresa in the basement would indicate he’s strong enough, if he isn’t outsmarted. He’s also not an idiot, but his brain isn’t set at maximum, or at least the sectors responsible for free will are closed off or blocked entirely. He’s not Lenny from “Of Mice and Men,” but his liberty isn’t absolute. The fully aware Maeve is formidable, and frightening. Thandie Newton is doing some of the better work of her entire acting career right now, and it’s because her character permits degrees of intensity, and that’s mixed with true nuance. Right now, her eyes are akin to someone on a weekend coke bender, but it fits, so the reaction shots as she walks, talks, and thinks seem to flow in a natural way.
I’ve basically written this review in reverse, so we need to talk about trompe l’oeil, which roughly translates to an illusion, or something created to influence or maximize sensory deception. It could relate to Bernard not seeing certain things, or to William believing he’s not amidst a story, or perhaps even Maeve believing her escape is actually feasible. Hosts are being misled about their fantasies, dreams and visions. Everything in the show is some variation on this theme. Last night’s biggest bit of prestidigitation was reserved for us, however. The viewers watched Westworld for seven hours and, even if there were suspicions, we were all still relatively shocked upon discovering, along with Theresa, the Bernard blueprint in the basement. This is a show that will likely toy with us repeatedly, and I welcome it, provided it continues to follow the rules.
It was heartbreaking to watch Bernard try to tell the story of his dead son, soberly exclaiming, “I was a father,” which in fact he was not. It was as true as the death of Dolores’ father or Teddy’s history with Wyatt. All of it, the highs and lows, were implanted for a purpose. Yet another illusion, but one that can be repeated over and over again with similar results. The only thing that’s accurate about Westworld is Robert Ford is not to be messed with, in any capacity. He does have the answers. He holds the key the Man in Black seeks, and he calls his world a dream. “Did you really think I would let you take it away from me? Like I said, I built all of this,” he tells Theresa just before Bernard violently takes her life.
Who steps up to challenge him next? Where’s Elsie? How will Theresa’s absence be explained? Just some of the questions on the surface of the final three weeks of the season. It should be noted, this is the last episode HBO is sending out early this year, as the risk of spoilers is too great. Thus, barring an unforeseen change, I will be seeing the end of the initial run at the same time as you. This was a well-timed episode. Last week was too much of an amoeba and was at times very amorphous in its approach. This week, things happened.
Big things happened.
Patience remains a virtue.