Secrets are revealed in an unrevealing way on Westworld

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Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, the 1975 Warner Brothers movie adapting the pulp hero to the big screen, is not very good; I’ve seen it half a dozen times or more, because it’s easy to make fun of with friends, and it has a certain corny charm that works on me even when it gets dumb or tedious (which, to stress, it pretty much always is). But the ending of the film is unsettling in a way I don’t think anyone involved was really prepared to deal with—a creepiness that comes directly from the source material, and something I had cause to remember while watching tonight’s Westworld. Doc beats the villain, and instead of heading to jail, said baddie gets trotted off to a… hospital, of sorts, where he has his brain rewired until he’s a very good boy indeed. This is presented as a triumph; at worst, there’s some mild comedy in watching a bastard go all soft. But it’s unsettling, delivered so casually as to assume everyone in the audience is automatically on board—oh, let’s Clockwork Orange criminals, I’m sure it’ll be fine! Nothing much else to do with them anyway.

To give it credit, “Passed Pawn” is at least aware of why this might be a problem. The big revelation of the episode is that Caleb was a victim of Serac’s great plan for the future. The artificial intelligence programs (both Rehoboam, and the earlier version we meet tonight called Solomon) Serac and his brother built to save the world both ran into the problem of certain people—“ouliers”—who were just going to fuck things up if left to their own devices. So Serac’s big genius leap was to “reprogram” the problem children into behaving the way he wanted them to, in order to better account for the variables. Not all of the reprogramming worked, but Caleb’s did; and the other big revelation is that not only was Caleb working for Serac’s system without realizing it, bringing in other outliers as a bounty hunter, his best bud Francis wasn’t shot overseas. Caleb did the shooting himself, when the system needed to tie up some loose ends, and then brainwashed him out of remembering it.

This is a frustrating development. In terms of just basic world-building details, it sounds very cool—maybe not a stunning leap forward or anything, but it’s a clever development that makes sense with the information we already have at our disposal. There’s an allegorical quality to it that helps it resonate with earlier arcs on the show, namely the way we’re once again watching powerful men dictate the course of the lives of others for their own purposes; it’s something the episode itself points out at one point. People are just another version of hosts for Serac, and even if that doesn’t precisely illuminate hidden depths in the narrative, it at least reassures us that the folks working behind the scenes haven’t forgotten how their show started. There’s something very satisfying about this kind of metaphorical rhyming, and it at least helps build the illusion that even though Dolores has left the park, she’s still fighting the same battle she was from the start.

The reason this is frustrating to me is the problem Westworld always stumbles over eventually: there’s a good story here, but the way the writers have chosen to go about telling it just never does the work of presenting that story to its best effect. Finding out Caleb has a secret past is interesting because the past itself is relatively interesting. But it’s not a revelation that really changes how I view the character, or pays much of anything off; there was a hint or two that there might be more going on with him, but his past already felt like so much of a blank slate that nothing much has changed. It’s cleverness without the context or framing to make it more than clever. I apologize for using this comparison again, but I can’t really avoid it: this is like reading the Wikipedia summary of a season of television, in that it allows you to intellectually admire the plot without ever getting a sense of it being more than a collection of sentences.

That’s true for pretty much every reveal in “Pawn.” All the new information could’ve been fascinating—nothing comes across as absurd or badly reasoned. But almost none of it has charge or impact beyond a “…huh.” The closest we get to an emotional climax is Maeve and Dolores fighting it out, which is fine, but the tension between these two characters hasn’t built up enough for the fight to be anything more than that. Charlotte is apparently on Maeve’s side now, I think, calling in a couple of Maeve’s former associates to cut Dolores-Musashi in half, but Charlotte seems like the only Dolores that Maeve would have a grudge against, considering what went down last week. None of this is beyond the pale, none of it is material that’s so fundamentally badly conceived that it couldn’t work. But the way it’s presented, it’s like everything got thrown into a blender and we’re seeing the result.

All of this is a lot more sophisticated in its presentation than Doc Savage ever managed, but it suffers in the end from a similar inability to manage its resources to their best advantage. The discovery that there’s another AI, and that Dolores has decided to consult it in order to come up with the next part of her plan, feels like that bit in the video game where you get an arbitrary quest to go pick up some data logs because the run-time wasn’t quite up to snuff.

The idea of Solomon is neat, and I desperately wish we’d gotten more of the process of Serac and his brother building these machines, but you could’ve told me that Dolores just needed some secret password kept in the old system, and I would’ve found it just as likely. A lot of the drama in the show at this point is dependent on the plausibility of Dolores playing nth degree chess, of her and Serac and the various AIs being so far ahead of everything else that we can barely grasp their decisions, let alone predict them. But because the storytelling is clumsy, it’s impossible to ignore the wire frame underneath everything, the fact that it’s just a bunch of writers telling us that Dolores is playing etc. There’s no presumption of faith, no suspension of disbelief.

By the end of all of his, Caleb has decided he wants to kill Serac (as Bernard helpfully points out, Dolores was created with a sense of “poetry,” and so he believes she’s arranging a human to bring about the end of humanity), Dolores has had her arm blown off, and Maeve is defeated at her moment of triumph by an EMP blast. In terms of staging and pacing, the climax is a good action sequence, but that’s definitely something that Westworld has always been good at doing. I just wish it had figured out a way to manage character building and drama as well as it does robots beating the shit out of each other.

Stray observations

  • Bernard and Stubbs and William Watch: I think I’m just going to have to accept at this point that Bernard and Stubbs are never going to really come into their own. This week, they’ve freed William, found out about Caleb, and discovered that Dolores put a virus into William’s blood that let her find some information. Neat. (I may be underselling that last bit. Also, William is dead according to the computer system, although this is presented so casually I’m assuming it’s just standard “the authorities won’t be looking for you” talk.) Oh, and William has decided it’s his job to kill all the hosts, starting with Bernard and Stubbs. They smile and nod, and at the end of the episode, William has a shotgun.
  • God, some of the dialog in this feels like it was picked up in bulk at the local Cliche-o-Mart. Caleb, talking about his time in the Russian civil war: “It was anything but civil.”
  • So I guess all those frozen people are dead for real now, thanks to the EMP.
  • Did anyone recognize the voice Caleb hears in his head at the end?

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