“I’m only a tune someone else composed.” – Ford
Wow. Staggering dazed and dazzled from the aftermath of perhaps the busiest hour of Westworld yet, my head feels a little like that of Delos badass Coughlin (Timothy V. Coughlin), after having it punched to mush by Terminator Teddy (James Marsden). There was the explosive, accumulated release of action and story that usually accompanies the penultimate episodes of Game of Thrones. There was also some virtuoso philosophical riffing on the supreme theme of the series, free will and its limitations.
So much was crammed into ‘Les Écorchés’ it’s difficult to know where to start, let alone where it can go from here. As each main character – with perhaps William/ Man in Black (Ed Harris) as the exception – has been directly affected by the assault of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her team on the Mesa, we’ll start with her, as she’s been arguably poorly served this season up until now. For the first time in a while, Wood has been given some iron with which to flex her acting muscles. In one of a series of beautifully played two-handers, she clashes with Charlotte (Tessa Thompson). Charlotte’s attempts to brazen her way out soon gives way to terror under Dolores’ steely gaze. The gist is the dramatic irony of the hosts wanting to become human, to gain free will and agency, whereas Delos are attempting to transplant human consciousness into synthetic bodies in the pursuit of immortality. Charlotte however was never looking likely at winning an argument against someone armed with a bone saw. Luckily, in one of a few moments of convenient deus ex machina interventions – apposite given the season’s themes – Coughlin and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) intervene and Charlotte’s able to escape.
Arguably, and surprisingly given the nice and squishy carnage throughout, the episode’s centre piece is the tour-de-force meeting between Bernard and Ford that takes place in the Cradle, just before its destruction by a kamikaze Angela (Talulah Riley). “Haven’t you wondered why the stories have hardly changed in 30 years?” coos Ford (this rather undermines Lee’s claims as being the central narrative writer, but we’ll gloss over that). The hosts were the constant in the experiment that is Westworld, with the guests the variables. Much like Dolores with Teddy, Ford tells Bernard he’s simply not ruthless enough to survive and forces him from the Cradle. Bernard ends the episode in an ecstasy of violence, with Ford at his shoulder like a malevolent angel. This exchange beautifully encapsulates the themes of the show. Okay, it’s something of an expositional synopsis for those not paying attention at the back, but when written and delivered with such aplomb that hardly matters.
Maeve (Thandie Newton) and William get the worst of it this episode. Both are badly wounded in an altercation with each other. Fittingly, it takes place at Maeve’s former homestead, the one to which we keep flashing back and witnessing the MiB killing her daughter. The MiB, like a typical human, continues to think that the World revolves around him and that Maeve is functioning as another avatar of Ford as she riddles him with bullets. Before he’s finished off by a traumatically enlightened Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), the unlikely White Knights of Delos save his skin and make Maeve his colander twin. William’s left to bleed in the dust. Having been betrayed by Lee (Simon Quaterman), Maeve ends the episode bleeding on a gurney. Dolores offers to play Kevorkian. Maeve refuses and Dolores, in uncharacteristically merciful fettle, leaves her be.
Bookending all this is the discovery in the present timeline of a room full of replica Bernards; there for the purpose of receiving Arnold’s transplanted consciousness. This gives away his host status to Charlotte and Strand. He does however, grant himself a stay of execution by being able to pinpoint the whereabouts of the control unit Dolores retrieved from Abernathy’s head.
For all the onscreen action, it really is the ideas that underpin the show, and what the viewer can take from them, that makes Westworld something special; even when it appears to split off on tangents, such as the Shogun World excursions. The show functions as a microcosm of society and invites us to evaluate how we manipulate others to achieve our own ends, and how we’re manipulated in turn. It especially makes us look at how we’re manipulated as viewers. The prelude to the slaughter initiated by Dolores in particular was interesting in how it was coded. Director Nicole Kassell and cinematographer M. David Mullan contrast Dolores and her army with that of the Delos operatives. The hosts are shot in slow motion, in a hazy, yellow, soft focus that looks like it was filmed using candlelight. They then cut to the uniformly black-clad mercenaries, filmed in sharp hi-def in the sterile, spartan conditions of the Mesa lab. It makes use of the full romance and ingrained iconography of the Western genre now imprinted in our collective conscience. It also implies that Dolores and her band have a cause, against the mercenary motivations of the Delos employees. Whatever nefarious means Dolores has employed to get to this point, in this scene our feelings are heavily manipulated in her favour.
There are also little threads of meta-narrative woven through the show that almost hints at its awareness as fiction. When Ford states that he is a tune someone else composed, this is a variation on Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” from As You Like It. It however also feels like a delightful wink at the viewer about the popular music Ramin Dwivedi uses and interprets in the show. Don’t forget we were also reintroduced to Ford sat at the piano in the Mariposa at the end of the last episode. It’s arguably throw-away but enriches the experience just that little bit more.
Overall, for the sheer panoramic scope of the episode, ‘Les Écorchés’ has to go down as a triumph. It’s managed to balance the philosophical weight of ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ with the stylish violence of ‘Akane no Mai’, and has done without plunging us into a morass of confusion. Hats off to Jordan Goldberg and Ron Fitzgerald for some superlative writing that not only pulls together various plot strands like an elegant helix of DNA but offers plenty of lusciously ripe dialogue; perfect for rolling round the mouth of a returning connoisseur like Hopkins.