Warning: This contains spoilers. Not caught up with Westworld? Read our spoiler-free review of Episode 1.
HBO’s Westworld is already generating gigabytes upon gigabytes of web space devoted to its complex mythologies and mysteries. But if you were worried that the sci-fi epic was about to spin itself into never-ending circles of nothing happening, ultimately spiralling up its own rear end, rest easy: Contrapasso is a busy episode. It’s full of things happening. It might the most happeningest episode yet.
Google the title and you’ll find an Italian word referring to the punishment of souls in Dante’s inferno through something resembling their sins, or something that’s the opposite. It’s the kind of name that prompts all kinds of questions to do with hell and the afterlife. Is that what Westworld is? It’s easy to buy Anthony Hopkins’ Robert Ford as a devil-like figure punishing the hosts – “Are we friends?” asks Dolores. “I wouldn’t say that at all,” grins Ford, coldly – but it’s also easy to see him as a scientist using a commercial theme park as a means to carry out more ambitious plans. Or perhaps this is Arnold’s artificial hell, after his supposed death years ago in the park, and he’s gradually orchestrating a punishment for all the guests, as well as its creators? That Westworld can work on whatever level you choose is part of its compelling nature; like The Leftovers (if only that HBO show had as big as following as this), it’s a story of layers that can be indulged in or not, depending on your own preference.
Either way, we all know one thing: we’re heading towards some kind of robotic awakening. One that will likely spell violent things for the humans who have kept them in this world, resetting them over and over so that people can do with them what they wish.
The two most quickly gaining sentience are, of course, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton), and what’s great about Contrapasso’s fast-paced, plot-heavy hour is that it gives them both ample opportunity to take some big steps forward on their journey – while still keeping The Man in the Black and the others in the loop.
Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) remains the best of the bunch, as Wood’s performance continues to be just sublime. Here, she’s swept up with Logan (Ben Barnes) and the smitten William (Jimmi Simpson), as they head into an outer-rim storyline that sees them helping to a bunch of outlaws, led by Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), to steal some nitroglycerine from some Union soldiers. The town they operate out of is Pariah – a place that lives up to its name, with rejects, outcasts and other nasty types all hanging about (and, in one unexpected, eye-opening orgy scene, hanging out).
It’s the kind of thing that reminds you just how foul humans can be, and how foul the minds of the park’s creators must be to craft narratives that cater to such depraved whims – or just how dimly they view humanity. Sure enough, we see William join in the carnage, as he shoots several soldiers to secure the TNT, much to the whooping delight of Logan. But William’s actions are motivated here by something nicer than just greed or bloodlust: he acts to save Dolores’ life, when it seems like she could be in danger.
When the former Confederates wanting their explosives discover that they have been duped and given fakes, they blame Logan – even though we know Lawrence was really to blame, so he could get the nitro for himself. And William, who falls out with his friend, colleague and future brother-in-law, lets them take Logan away. Instead, he and Dolores hop on a train with Lawrence out of town. It’s like watching the world’s worst Best Man’s speech anecdote happening in front of you.
But while that’s all fun and dandy, the real gripping part occurs when Dolores joins in the shooting too – and suddenly, against her programming (she’s not allowed to use guns remember), shoots dead some of the mercenaries to save both her and William. “You said people come here to change the stories of their lives,” she tells him. “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.”
Westworld is a fascinating piece of meta-storytelling, analysing the kind of damsel-in-distress tropes so common in films, TV shows and video games, and it’s these kind of moments that give you a double fist-bump of female empowerment and subverted conventions, not to mention satisfying action and a fascinating glimpse of artificial intelligence slowly coming to life.
Even in William’s motivations, there’s a wonderfully subtle thread of consciousness, as he finds himself motivated to protect the programmed-to-be-a-damsel Dolores – exactly the same motivation that causes Teddy (James Marsden) to spark back into life after last week’s episode. The Man in Black (Ed Harris) tells him that Wyatt has kidnapped his beau, something that causes Teddy to leap into action. It’s a lie, but that doesn’t make it any less true for him – in which case, is there any difference between him and William?
As well as deceive, The Man in Black also pumps Teddy full of blood to power him back up – something that he manages by slitting the throat of his friendly neighbourhood host, Lawrence. Yes, that’s right, folks: you did see that Pariah gangster somewhere before, a snappy piece of double-casting that lets the question of immortality, reincarnation and memory linger under everything. You know, just in case we didn’t have enough to be thinking about.
Harris, though, gets more to do than just dispatch some grisly violence, as he and Ford finally get the head-to-head meeting we’ve been wanting since the start of the show. The Man makes no secret of the fact that he’s planning to track down the maze and work out whatever Arnold’s mystery, his legacy, is. Ford remains in control, using Teddy as a puppet to block a possible knife attack, without breaking into a sweat – Marsden’s performance has been sensational so far, but it’s even more impressive that he can just sit there in the background, as Hopkins and Harris spar verbally, without blinking. Ford, surprisingly, tells The Man that he’s happy for him to continue his “voyage of self-discovery”.
If that suggests he’s both omnipotent and omniscient, though, the episode’s other standout encounter sees Ford and Dolores finally meet – a face-off that undermines any presumptions we had from Ford and The Man’s meeting. Against Wood’s calm, serene presence, Hopkins almost seems riled, as he quizzes her about her relationship with Arnold. He seems to know that she has been in contact with his late partner since he supposed death, but might just be nervous about what they’ve been discussing. (It turns out that Arnold once wanted her help to destroy Westworld.) The fact that this is probably not the first time that he and Dolores (or he and The Man) have met only makes these power dynamics more mouth-wateringly complex.
Sure enough, when Ford leaves, Dolores seems to speak to herself. “He doesn’t know,” she murmurs. “I didn’t tell him anything.” Is she talking to herself? The voice of Arnold in her head? Either indicate a level of consciousness above what she’s meant to possess – let alone the fact that she can lie to Ford, her creator, convincingly. That same blank face is present again mid-episode, when we see her described as the ranch owner’s daughter by someone, a reference to a character in a narrative that she hasn’t played for a long time (note the colour of her ambiguous hat, far from that of a ranch girl). “Lately, I wonder if there aren’t many new paths, choices, hanging in the air like ghosts,” she tells William at one point. “If you could just see them, they could change your whole life.”
For Hopkins, that’s part of the whole point of Westworld: while the Hosts are (unbeknownst to him) busy trying to work out who they are, the park is designed to allow humans to get a glimpse of who they could be, to live out their dreams. That’s also becoming increasingly true of the hosts, though. And how brilliant that Ford uses the word dream to talk about these things, even telling Dolores that dreams are what matter, that they tell you who you could potentially become. For Dolores, of course, dreams are partly these moments she has with Ford and Jeffrey Wright’s Science Dude; brief moments of clarity in between her “waking” hours above ground. Ford lets her continue her new narrative with William and Logan, so who’s really ahead of whom here? And is Ford just letting events play out so he, too, can find out where Arnold is and whether he still plans to destroy the park?
While Dolores’ actions above ground are the most immediately grabbing, there’s still plenty going on behind-the-scenes at the park – we told you it was a busy episode – as we begin with Elsie (Shannon Woodward) finding out that the host who smashed his own face in had some kind of satellite uplink attached to him, one that was broadcasting information out of Westworld. But to who? And why? Is that to Arnold? Her colleague, Felix, meanwhile, is busy trying to get a broken robot bird to fly – both a man trying to make a machine act outside of its programming and an employee (he’s a butcher, dealing with dead bodies) trying to break out of his own loop with dreams of moving from death to dealing with life and coding. It’s fitting that it’s him, then, who comes face to face with Maeve, who (both figuratively and literally) wakes up in front of Felix – after he’s ‘repaired’ her many times – and greets him with a cool smile. “It’s time you and I had a chat,” she begins. Like Dolores, it looks like Maeve has a choice ahead of her, as to how she plays her next move. Who does she want to be? A hero or a villain? The answer to that may determine how soon the inevitably robot uprising takes place. Oh, yes. Whatever level you’re watching this show on, there’s certainly much to chat about.
Westworld Season 1 is available to watch on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The contract-free service includes access to a range of Sky channels, from Sky 1 (Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash) and FOX UK (The Walking Dead) to Sky Living (Divorce) and Sky Atlantic (Westworld, The Young Pope). A 14-day free trial is available for new subscribers.
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