Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched “Westworld” episode 6 titled “The Adversary.”
Over its first five episodes, “Westworld” began to build from a show with a lot of potential to a very good show. But very good is not good enough. With its outsize budget, its all-star cast, its union-hackle-raising orgy scenes, “Westworld” must clear a higher bar than most shows. Evan Rachel Wood told Variety that when she first met with showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, they told her they wanted the show to be “the greatest show of all time.” It’s good to have goals. But short of GOAT status, “Westworld” needs, at the very least, to be great. Anything less will be a disappointment.
On Sunday night, “Westworld” delivered its first great episode of television.
That said, “The Adversary” did not lead with greatness. We open with Maeve in the shot we’re so used to seeing Dolores in, lying on the bed in the sunlight, face up. (This was the first Dolores-free episode, underlining the trend that Maeve-heavy episodes are Dolores-light and vice versa.) We can tell by the way Maeve walks to the brothel that something is up. She’s not just walking with purpose. She’s walking like a guest — taking for granted much of what’s going on around her.
It’s at the brothel where this episode drifts toward the show’s worst impulses. After some office chitchat with the bartender and Angela Sarafyan’s still unnamed prostitute (she has a name on iMDB, but it’s apparently not worth saying out loud on the show), Maeve coaxes a guest upstairs, then coaxes him to choke her to death mid-coitus. Whenever “Westworld” — or “Game of Thrones,” or “The Walking Dead,” or any other show — does something like this, remember the words of Walter Sobchak: “No, Donny, these men are nihilists. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
But that is where quibbles with “The Adversary” end. Everything that follows is what the dogged viewer has likely imagined an ideal episode of “Westworld” to be — something not unlike an ideal episode of “Lost.” Characters are appealing and darkly funny. Storylines move at a surprising clip and tease mysteries without being confusing. Easter eggs lurk in the shadows.
First Maeve. The revelations are big — she now appears to remember much of what happens when she is being repaired. With said memories, she is happy to get herself killed so she can spend more time talking to Felix, who, with his bigger-things aspirations, is ripe for a caper. There’s an urgency to the Felix-Maeve scenes that the show has not given us before now. This is in part because of the big leap that the Maeve makes — with the writers sticking the landing — from being troubled by a growing unease to diving headlong into a new reality.
It’s also in part due to the sudden emergence of Felix as an important character. If it were Bernard or Ford or Elsie having these interactions with Maeve, the stakes would feel lower. Each of those characters exudes authority — an interest in maintaining the status quo, even if each also has interests that compete with the status quo. Felix is invested in smashing the status quo, or at least finding a way to lift himself out of it. He has little to lose and a lot to gain, so he makes a far more interesting partner in crime for Maeve. And the scene of Felix guiding Maeve up and up through the ascending levels of “Westworld” is the most beautiful, most engaging thing the show has done so far. It’s a high point of a high point. Hat tip to director Frederick E.O. Toye.
Another high point in this episode — Elsie finally doing things that don’t make you wish Elsie would just go away already. Elsie’s problem thus far is that she has been a blunt instrument used almost exclusively for exposition or comic relief, and not used particularly well. It’s another statement to Toye and the writers that the scenes of Elsie in the Warner Bros. creepy-prop storage facility can feel cheesy and fun but genuinely scary at the same time.
Also terrifying, but in a different way, was the scene of Ford and Bernard in the Robot Ford Family Home. “Westworld” has struggled at times to power dramatic tension through its violence, in part because the whole basis of the show is that the violence cannot harm the human characters. Between the scene in the house and Elsie’s message to Bernard, it’s clear that the show will now set out to undermine that premise — and it’s clear that will definitely provide some dramatic tension.
That said, it’s clear now that most of the real drama in “Westworld” is coming from its basement offices, not from inside the park. Presumably those two worlds will begin to blend, particularly as Arnold continues to creep into the picture. If the former boss of Westworld has indeed been hiding in the park, as Elsie indicates, and the woke Maeve is planning for “fun” with Felix and his frenemy Sylvester, it may be only a matter of time before Westworld’s office drama overwhelms the faux-Western soap of the park.
• Sylvester! The Felix-Sylvester-Maeve combo might be the most promising character grouping yet. Just as the emergence of Felix last week felt like a treat, the emergence of Sylvester as more than a disposable bad-guy obstacle was this week. Sure, he’s still a crummy heel, but he’s a crummy heel with depth.
• Because this is “Westworld,” we got a heaping helping of gratuitous violence, this time courtesy of Teddy and an old-timey machine gun. MiB-Teddy is no MiB-Lawrence, but it was interesting to watch the violence in the park become more threatening as MiB fought to keep Teddy from getting himself killed.
• Are we supposed to believe that Ford has never seen a drawing of the maze? Is that what was implied when he saw it carved into the table in the village, then found it again in the notebook, next to the drawing of Dolores’ face?
• Theresa as Bond villain should have been expected.
• So far Lee Sizemore seems like an absolutely expendable character, but here’s hoping that changes, as it appears it might. Simon Quarterman is far too fun to watch.
• That sure looked like Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger from the 1973 feature film behind Bernard in the lower level. Whether that turns out to be a one-off Easter egg or a hint of something more to come remains to be seen.
• Speaking of the lower level, the old computer terminal that Bernard uses there shows a different Westworld logo than the one displayed throughout most of the show. But we have seen that logo at least one other time — when William and Logan first arrived.