Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Bicameral Mind,” the 10th episode of the first season of HBO’s “Westworld.”
Some pieces of science-fiction filmmaking that accompanied the literary genre’s New Wave movement in the ’60s and ’70s have become timeless classics — works that transcended genre limitation to become parts of the broader cultural canon. Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie “Westworld” is not one of those films. It is creaky by contemporary standards. It was sloppily made. Thus it has provided little other than a title and the most basic elements of an idea in terms of inspiration for the big-budget HBO series that bears its name.
So it makes sense that the biggest surprise of the premiere season of that series was a a hat-tip to the Crichton movie. As Maeve, Felix, Hector and Armistice make their way through Basement City toward the end of the second act of “The Bicameral Mind” — the season’s 10th and final episode — they pass a new logo reminiscent of the one for the Westworld theme park around which the show is based, but built of the letters S and W. As they move deeper into this previously unseen area, they begin to see hosts dressed not as cowboys and old-timey prostitutes, but as samurai, sporting armor and engaged in combat.
“What is this place?” Maeve asks Felix.
“It’s complicated,” Felix says.
In the 1973 movie there is no Samurai World, but there is a a Roman World and a Medieval World. As the movie’s last act begins, its scope widens, with Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger chasing Richard Benjamin’s Peter through the former and the two finally, fatally engaging one another in the latter. (It helps that the three theme parks are connected by hiking trails. You can’t get from the Magic Kingdom to Epcot without a parkhopper pass, but to get from Westworld to Roman World, all you have to do is walk through some cleared brush.)
The existence of Samurai World would be easy to dismiss as a throwaway moment, an inside joke. Maeve and company quickly move on to other, more important things, after all. But if “Westworld” has proven anything this season, it is that its creators have learned the lesson of “Lost” — there are no throwaway moments. Viewers, for better or worse, expect mysteries raised to be answered eventually, or at least addressed. Someone went to the trouble of designing a Samurai World logo for this episode. I’d bet the house that this isn’t the last time we’re going to see it.
Why does that matter? Because as the violent delights of “Westworld” season one meet their very violent end, the promise ahead is that we will see a widening of the universe of the story. That was supposed to come via Maeve and her escape. If Maeve had got on that train, ridden it out of the park and onto the surface of the moon, or the streets of a dystopian urban landscape, would you have been surprised? It was far more shocking when, at episode’s end, she decided to head back for her fake robot daughter. The writers tipped their hand too far in that direction when Felix passed Maeve the note with said daughter’s location, but prior to that moment, Maeve appeared headed for a one-way trip to the outside world.
“The Bicameral Mind” of the episode’s title is, of course, the name of Westworld cofounder Arnold’s pet theory of consciousness. But it’s also a nod to this show’s tendency to present opposing viewpoint via pairs of characters — Arnold and Ford, Logan and William, Theresa and Bernard. The most important of these, in terms of driving the narrative, has been Dolores and Maeve, characters so big that they’ve only fit into the same scene once. (You can almost divide the entire first season neatly into Dolores episodes and Maeve episodes.) So it is both clever and satisfyingly unexpected to see this season end with Maeve, who has been bad-assing her way to freedom for nine episodes, giving in to love for other at the expense of preservation of self, and Dolores, who has been a near-parody of innocence and generosity, mowing people down with a pistol.
In an episode that gave us more real surprises than the rest of the season combined, Dolores’ emergence as a cold-blooded killer was one of the least surprising major moves. It was also the least coherently executed. The version of herself that Dolores confronts toward the episode’s end — is that Dolores or the Dolores-Wyatt hybrid of host massacre and Arnold assassination? And is there really any differentiation between the two? Regardless, the show has hinted often to a violent Dolores underneath her farm-girl facade. (We even already knew that she killed Arnold, just not what the circumstances were.) Seeing that persona emerge was not a twist, but rather a culmination.
Even less twisty was the revelation that MiB is William 35 years later. At one point I began to expect that MiB would reveal himself to be Logan, because MiB-as-William had become too obvious — so much so that it must be a head-fake. Sadly no. The season would have been better served by moving this revelation up to an earlier episode, leaning on it less heavily, or going in a different direction entirely.
As for MiB, as I’ll continue to call him a least until season two rolls around, his shortsightedness in regard to the true nature of things lines up perfectly with William’s total-sucker response to Dolores and the park. Nicely done. Less nicely done: MiB deciding that he’s going to beat the truth out of Dolores. I get that William developed a taste for violence and eventually stopped caring for Dolores. But I don’t get why he starts beating her when she’s clearly trying to figure something out, or why he thinks doing so will somehow unlock some secret truth that she’s holding back. The reason appears to be that the writers thought a fistfight was necessary right then. But how the heck did William run Delos for 30 years and not get any smarter than that?
Finally, Ford. The mystery that was hiding in plain sight all season was really how HBO and executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy had convinced Anthony Hopkins to commit to a series that is clearly designed to run for several seasons. The answer appears to be by promising him that his character would die. Ford is the Ned Stark of “Westworld” a role that Bernard appeared destined to play after last week until Felix found him on the floor in cold storage and began patching him up at Maeve’s order. We may see CGI young Ford again, but it appears unlikely that we’ll be seeing Hopkins in earnest next season or after.
And he more than did his part for this show. Was Hopkins hammy? Absolutely. But he was playing a mad scientist, for crying out loud. The level of preserved pork product brought to the performance was appropriate. It also made Ford’s pivot at the end from big bad to mournful Moses figure all the more affecting. Watch what Hopkins does with Jeffrey Wright in the church toward the end. It’s not in the script, but Hopkins makes Ford appear hurt that Bernard hasn’t figured it all out yet. Was “Westworld” paycheck work for Hopkins? Maybe. But nobody does paycheck work like Anthony Hopkins. Nobody.
It’s sad that we won’t have him around anymore. But at least we’ll have Samurai World.
Some more thoughts:
• Looks like the guy who was going to rape Hector has the new iPhone without the headphone jack. Good for him for not losing his earbuds.
• I deeply hope for more Armistice in season two. The noise that Ingrid Bolsø Berdal makes after her character fires an automatic for the first time is everything.
• Speaking of Armistice: The better headline for this recap would have been “The Gods Are P—ies,” but that wouldn’t have worked for obvious reasons.
• Teddy really faded as the season went on — so much so that it’s hard to imagine that “James Marsden’s character is actually a host” was the huge revelation from the pilot. Marsden has poured a lot into Teddy, and there are plenty of directions he could be taken in. Hopefully the writers find one for him next season.
• Did Luke Hemsworth get a better paying job or something? Why is that non-Hemsworth ordering a red alert and deploying security teams? Also, you all are just now going to start looking at security cameras? My colleague Maureen Ryan is right — quality control in Westworld is awful. Six Flags has better security than this.
• Seriously, I am very stoked about Samurai World. Like really, really stoked.