[This article contains SPOILERS for Westworld season 1, episode 2, ‘Chestnut’.]
The second episode of Westworld could be characterized by its exploration of quest narratives. Or it could just be boiled down to the hour’s exploration of the idea of a narrative itself. In last week’s premiere, the show established early on that the theme park of Westworld was very much run like a television show called Westworld. The park’s various levels and the complex histories of the Hosts were like story and character bibles, and the many technicians running around were the show’s writers and producers, all of whom answer, in one way or another, to a faceless board who ultimately decides what’s fit for audience’s consumption and what isn’t – well, unless you’re Dr. Robert Ford, a man with directorial vision and authority, and who happens to share a surname with someone responsible for some of the most influential Westerns in the history of film.
The series has already established a fairly dense set of storylines spread amongst its cast of characters, but in ‘Chestnut’ those storylines don’t necessarily take shape in terms of propelling the plot but rather the idea of the Hosts’ gradually gaining sentience as a result of a glitch – or as Elsie Hughes suggests, because of something contagious, a virus of some sort. At this point in the series, the answers to questions like the one posed by Elsie don’t necessarily matter. What matters is that the series is asking them at all. As such, ‘Chestnut’ is concerned with the idea of asking more questions, unpacking ideas and establishing a greater mythology within the show itself, just as the many quests of its characters and its titular theme park begin to establish the existence of a greater mythology, too.
One of the best ways for the show to continue asking questions and to keep its answers close to its vest is to give the characters something to do that’s in pursuit of answers to questions the show itself is asking. That’s a pretty smart move; it’s like a how a magician distracts the audience when performing a sleight of hand trick by giving them something else to look at. Thinking of it that way gives more weight to Ford’s line of dialogue to the young boy who, given his predilection for vests and understanding of fatherly advice regarding boredom may or may not be a Host version of his younger self: “Everything in this world is magic, except to the magician.”
Ford’s words are granted even greater weight by the fact that he’s controlling a Westworld snake with a series of hand gestures. The snake, of course, is part of a clue given earlier to the Man in Black by the daughter of his captive, Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), telling the black-clad gunslinger where he can find the maze. And with that begins the discussion of the episode’s biggest questions:
What is the Maze?
In ‘Chestnut,’ Ed Harris’ Man in Black throws another variable into the narrative mix, calling Westworld “a game.” Considering how Harris’ character is the only guest walking around with a specific purpose beyond indulging in the park’s many violent delights, it’s easy to see how the Man in Black might be right. His actions so far resemble the kind of quest one would have to accomplish in order to reach the end of a massive video game. This raises the question: Is this a truth about the park, or is it simply another facet of Westworld being everything its users want it to be?
There is a lot of that talk going around in the episode as multiple people reference (erroneously, according to Dr. Ford) the park’s ability to help its guests discover themselves. With that being the case, then, it’s only natural to ask: Is the Man in Black Harris’ true self or merely the avatar he’s chosen for his extended stay in Westworld? Considering he’s on a mission to find “the deepest level of this game” and that he tells Lawrence, “This time, I’m never going back,” it’s difficult to tell where the man ends and the Man in Black begins.
At this point, the maze isn’t really anything the audience can glom onto but another quest for one of the more enigmatic characters in the series to pursue. But it is another example of how Westworld is aware of its own narrative structure and the narrative structure of shows like it. And in that sense, referencing a deeper level to the game and calling it a maze is the show’s way of acknowledging and constructing a deeper mythology within what is presumed to be show’s primary narrative. In other words: like the maze MiB is searching for, Westworld ‘s Hosts approaching sentience may just be the beginning of the show’s overarching story about control and consent and autonomy.
Is the Man in Black a Villain?
The Man in Black is well versed in the world of Westworld. He tells Lawrence he’s been coming to the park for 30 years and therefore he knows all the characters and the various outcomes of their storylines, because, like the Hosts, he’s experienced them time and again. The only difference is, his memory isn’t wiped clean when the story reaches its conclusion. It would be natural to think that with three decades worth of the park’s violent delights under his belt, the Man in Black would have no choice but adopt the look and the moniker of the Man in Black.
Because in a place like Westworld the hat you wear is an indication of the choices the person underneath will make. This much is clear when Jimmi Simpson’s William first enters the park and is asked to make a literal choice in terms of the character he want to play. His co-worker Logan (Ben Barnes) embraces the black hat, indulging in sex, violence, and booze. Often, he’s playing the devil on William’s shoulder. But beyond Williams’ choice and his later actions towards certain Hostss, it is suggested that, like everything in Westworld, appearances can be deceiving. Several times throughout the episode the White Hat/Black Hat binary is tested as seemingly good guy Teddy is taken to task by Maeve for being a killer, just before a guest wearing a brown hat guns him down.
The color of the hat is a minor detail, but then again, Ford takes Lee Sizemore to task for his obscene ‘Odyssey on Red River’ story pitch, telling him:
“The guests don’t return here for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back for the subtleties. The details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one noticed before. Something they fall in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”
The show is essentially telling the audience to pay attention to the subtleties, even as garish acts unfold within the narrative. The Man in Black is a prime example. He may be running around gunning down posses and reducing the population of small towns outside Sweetwater, and, as was heavily implied in the premiere, assaulting Dolores. But he’s also known by Stubbs and is authorized to have “whatever he wants.” If he knows about maps printed on the inside of a man’s scalp and, well, pretty much everything else that goes on inside the park, is there a chance that the black hat killer wandering Westworld isn’t as villainous as this garb would indicate?
As Dr. Ford says to Bernard: “You can’t play God without being acquainted with the Devil.”
Is the Glitch Contagious?
“These violent delights have violent ends.” This Shakespearean refrain was uttered in the series premiere, and it gets repeated in episode 2, as Dolores appears to have been influenced in some way by what happened to her first father and, perhaps, whatever is making the Hosts access their memories and quest (perhaps unwittingly at first) toward consciousness. Last week, we posited that the reverie glitch was someway deliberate. That conversation continues in ‘Chestnut,’ with Ford introducing to Bernard the idea of it being some form of sabotage. Neither seems to give the idea much credence, and it still seems as though Ford knows more than he’s letting on, but the series doesn’t exactly debunk Elsie’s theory that the glitch is somehow contagious.
The idea of a consciousness being communicable through language, or that language gives rise to the Hosts’ pursuit of consciousness seems linked to the idea of the “bicameral” individual discussed in Julian Jaynes’ 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In the book, Jaynes suggests that consciousness is a learned process and that humans didn’t come with self-awareness as part of their pre-installed software package. Instead, the voice of the “self” heard inside an individual’s mind was perceived as mental commands given by gods. Humans would then submit to the voice without hesitation – not unlike the way the Hosts do with the parks’ various technicians when brought in for analysis or repair.
If the Hosts are denied consciousness when they are made, is it possible that self-awareness is something they will learn as the upside of contracting a glitch that’s spread via language? It seems plausible at this point that the Hosts are following a trajectory not unlike the one theorized in Jaynes’ book.
What is the purpose of Bernard and Dolores’s “Little Talks”?
Bernard and Dolores have been conducting secret meetings with one another for what seems like awhile. Bernard has a keen understanding of human behavior, which has been noted in his interaction with Theresa – both in the premiere and in ‘Chestnut’ – so it’s no surprise that he would have picked up on a change in Dolores’s behavior. He tells her there’s “something different about you, about the way you think. I find it fascinating but others may not see it that way.” At this point the question of what the two talk about isn’t nearly as important at the fact that the talks are happening at all. Bernard is aware of a change that should likely be documented and resolved but instead he chooses to allow it to persist and, potentially, to grow into something altogether different.
Beyond the awareness of a marked change in Dolores’s behavior is the behavior of Bernard himself. Like Ford, Bernard seems willing to allow room for chaos to enter the seemingly controlled environment of Westworld. Bernard’s fascination with uncharacteristic behavior of one of the Hosts also further blurs the lines of the supposed White Hat/Black Hat binary, putting him somewhere in the vicinity of Dr. Ford or the Man in Black in terms of what his actions – or in this case, inaction – will mean for the future of the park and the automatons created to live within it.
But unlike Ford or MiB, Bernard seems aware the complexity of such a decision, perhaps even “knowing” it to be wrong as far as the park and his continued employment there are concerned. When he tells Dolores to keep their conversations to herself, she asks, “Have you done something wrong?” to which Bernard responds, “Turn off your event log. Erase this interaction.” So at this point, it seems Bernard and Dolores’s little talks are more to establish who Bernard is and what role he may play in the Hosts’ quest for consciousness.
Is Ford’s ‘Original’ Story Related to the Maze?
At two points during ‘Chestnut,’ Dr. Ford is seen looking at a steel cross in the middle of the desert. The first time it was with the young boy who may or may not be a robotic version of his younger self, and the second it’s with Bernard. Ford’s discussion of his new storyline that’s to be implemented in lieu of Sizemore’s ‘Odyssey and Red River’ punctuates the moment, as does the suggestion that it “might ruffle some feathers” but that it’s really “something quite original.”
Again, it’s worth pointing out that the snake was seen there first, calling to mind the information the Man in Black was given by Lawrence’s daughter: “follow the Blood Arroyo to the place where the snake lays its eggs.” So is the maze that the Man in Black is looking for part of a new attraction for Westworld, or is it something Dr. Ford intends to have a deeper purpose? Or does the maze already exist, and Ford’s plan is something that will inevitably put him on a collision course with the Man in Black and his quest?
Westworld continues next Sunday with ‘The Stray’ @9pm on HBO.