In Westworld‘s most cerebral episode yet, “Dissonance Theory”, the series explores themes of religion, hope, morality, and existentialism while still being edge-of-your seat entertainment. The title refers to cognitive dissonance, which occurs when a person holds two contradictory beliefs at once or acts in a way opposing their own beliefs. This dissonance is discomfort with being at odds with yourself. For many of the characters in Westworld, both hosts and human, this dissonance is only starting to rear its ugly head.
There are layers upon layers of depth to Westworld, much like the theme park itself. In this week’s episode alone, there are references to gamer culture and hacker culture as well as more traditional themes of good vs. evil and faith vs. empirical evidence. There’s a lot to unpack here, but that’s what makes Westworld good science fiction. For a play-by-play recap, check out the Westworld wiki on the episode here. Warning: spoilers ahead.
One of the more enigmatic characters on the show thus far is the Man in Black, played with a sinister bent by Ed Harris. Clad in black from head to toe, he began the series by brutally murdering Teddy and raping Dolores in the barn. From the start, he has appeared to be pure evil, but this episode provides clues into who he is outside of the park.
Two other guests ride with the bandits he joins up with, and around the campfire one night they try to talk to him. One of the guests approaches him and tells him he’s a huge fan, and that his foundation saved his sister’s life. Outside of the moral vacuum of the park, it appears that the Man in Black may actually be a philanthropist of sorts. If that’s the case, then he is clearly separating the hosts from their human counterparts and sees them as lesser.
Another character, Logan, holds similar beliefs. His brother-in-law William tries to protect Dolores, but Logan tells him that it doesn’t matter. He calls the hosts robots right in front of them and kills a number of hosts without remorse. Trying to identify when an artificial intelligence holds the same rights as a human has been part of science fiction for decades. Westworld just makes it more blatant by making its robotic hosts so lifelike.
It should be noted that all of the characters who behave without any real moral compass within the park all wear black hats. When Logan tries to get William to join him in being bad, he even says “go black hat with me”. This is a reference to hacker culture. “Black hat” hackers are those who violate computer security for only malice or personal gain. The “black hats” of Westworld are those who kill without thinking twice about it. In addition to the Man in Black and Logan, the only other character with a black hat is the host Hector. He is supposed to be the main villain of the park so that choice makes sense.
This business of hats also harkens back to the second episode, when William was just about to enter the park and was told to pick a hat. On his left, there are a number of white hats. On the right, a number of black ones. It’s a clear metaphor for morality and one to ponder as the series continues. What do the varied shades of brown that Teddy, Armistice, and others wear symbolize?
Logan uses several phrases well-known to gamers (folks who play video games regularly). He kills a bandit and takes his gun, commenting “upgrade” with glee. He also decides to change plans and use Slick to find a deeper plot in the park instead of returning him to Sweetwater. When William objects, Logan says that Slick will lead them to an “Easter egg”. Easter eggs are unexpected or otherwise undocumented features in computer software, often games. The maze that the Man in Black seeks is certainly an Easter egg, created by the developer Alfred before he killed himself.
The Man in Black isn’t the only one looking for the maze anymore. In the episode’s opening scene, Bernard told Dolores about it as a means of “finding freedom”. The Man in Black believes it’s the ending to the story of the park. Logan wants to find something more than killing and sex, it seems. Each character has their own beliefs about what the maze can give them. Each is at different points to finding it. Dolores hasn’t even begun her search, while the Man in Black has a scalp with its imprint and a key – Wyatt. Wyatt seems to be a relatively new feature in the park, so his inclusion in the plot is mysterious.
In the end, Logan and William part ways. William isn’t willing to be evil in front of Dolores. Perhaps he’s not willing to be “evil” at all. Logan, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He and Slick ride off together, toward the Maze, the Man in Black, and some kind of adventure.
Dolores’ ability to remember her past “lives” has been passed on to Maeve as well, it seems. After Dolores repeated “these violent delights have violent ends” to the madam, she has suffered some serious cognitive dissonance. The world she believed in is falling apart at the seams. She remembers watching Clementine die, and the men who took her away in white suits. She draws out the men (who are Westworld employees) and goes to hide the image underneath the floorboards. There, she discovers a number of identical drawings.
Later in the episode, a little Native American girl drops a doll that looks like the strange men. Maeve tries to ask her about it but is told “it’s part of their religion”. She later holds Hector (who was raised by the natives according to his script) at gunpoint and asks him about the doll. For each question he answers, she offers one of the numbers to unlock the safe. He’s programmed to want whatever’s in the safe, so he obliges.
Hector describes the creature the doll represents as a “shade”. He explains that the shade came up from Hell and can walk between two worlds. They are considered the overseers of our world, he explains. The concept of the shades is likely implanted into the memories of the Native hosts as a means of keeping them placid, much like the “dreams” of the people of Sweetwater. Maeve asks Hector to cut her, to pull out the bullet she knows is inside of her. He refuses and she does it herself. Hector does pull out the bullet and asks her what it means. “I’m not crazy, and none of this matters,” she tells him.
If the hosts are a metaphor, as they seem to be, then their questioning of existence runs parallel to our own. We all seek to find meaning in the world. Whether we find that meaning in our personal relationships, religion, or science, we all seek to understand the nature of being. Are we programmed, not in the literal sense, but by our culture and history? In some ways, religious indoctrination is a kind of programming. So is schooling, and child-rearing. Cognitive dissonance is often used as a means of maintaining social order and keeping the peace. It’s heady stuff, and one of the many reasons Westworld is one of the best shows currently on TV.
In a brief scene where Theresa meets with Dr. Ford to discuss the concerns of the board, Ford waxes philosophical on his manufactured godhood. He explains to Theresa that everyone is a guest, outside of himself and his deceased partner Arnold. He has her sit in a chair that she once sat in as a child when her family visited the park. Using this to make her uncomfortable, he warns her to be careful with Bernard. He knows everything about everyone in the park, he explains. Here, he is God. In a thinly veiled threat, he tells her not to get in his way. In the background, a massive excavator digs up the plantation beyond the restaurant where they’re seated. He reassures Theresa that his new storyline will not be a retrospective – “I’m not so sentimental”, he says.
Ford also tells her that while Arnold went mad, he sees things very clearly. In the world he has created, he understands all. The maze may be the only thing beyond his knowledge, created by Arnold in his last days. The maze may be Ford’s undoing, or it may be part of his elaborate master plan. Every time Westworld answers a question, it raises five more. As long as the editing stays snappy and the characters interesting, viewers will stay tuned in to try and make sense of Nolan and Joy’s incredible puzzle.
- Ben Barnes is clearly enjoying himself as the morally ambiguous Logan. He’s reminiscent of a lot of gamer culture and delights at gaining new weaponry and advantages over his foes. His joy is tangible enough to almost make him likable.
- The Man in Black uses explosives hidden inside of cigars to escape jail. He stuffs one in the lock and the other is in his captor’s mouth when it explodes. It’s a quick and gory gag, but a funny one. He then goes out to the firing squad to rescue Lawrence, who is tied up and blindfolded. The camera sits on Lawrence’s face as the bullets fly and he prepares for his impending death. Instead, his captors are all shot, several on-screen, and the Man in Black takes off his blindfold. His disbelief and then disappointment are brilliantly played across actor Clifton Collins, Jr.’s face.
- One of the series best moments so far comes from Maeve, who discovers that her reality isn’t all that real. After she has Lawrence dig the bullet from her abdomen, she kisses him violently. There are men firing guns through the door but she doesn’t care, because none of it really matters. Even if they shoot her dead, she’ll be back tomorrow, patched up good as new. Maeve is a fascinating character to watch and actress Thandie Newton is killing it.