[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
The return of Robert Ford in “Les Écorchés” highlights one inescapable truth about Westworld: Not to diminish the talents of Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, or any of the other lynchpin performers who have created the series’ most compelling characters, but there’s something about Anthony Hopkins’ velvety style that suits the series perfectly. Maybe it’s simply Hopkins’ inimitable ability to render the most purple prose with an unforced sort of gravity, giving mythic weight to every wry mutter and wistful aside. Certainly, as a veteran of the British stage with a considerable unselfconscious streak, he has a flair for the literary flights of fancy that writers are fond of sprinkling into the dialogue of high-minded sci-fi works like Westworld.
The indelible quality to Hopkins’ presence may also be attributable to the fact that Ford – his mind dwelling digitally inside Westworld’s backup system before becoming a dark passenger nestled within Bernard’s (Jeffrey Wright) android consciousness – has always been a figure of perfect, serene confidence. The park's creator has never once seemed frightened or flustered. He is, after all, the closest thing to a god in Westworld, and (almost) everything that has occurred in the series to date appears to have proceeded according to his secret schemes. No other character exudes Ford’s distinct stripe of cool certitude.
As if to underline Ford’s extraordinary qualities, “Les Écorchés” features a rare sight indeed: The normally bold and collected chairwoman of Delos’ board of directors, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), is reduced to pleading terror when android mastermind Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) threatens to saw open her skull, purely out of retributive spite. One of the features of the show’s second season is that the handful of human characters who previously seemed so cynical and self-possessed – particularly recurring regulars like Hale and William (Harris), but also the occasional “new” character like alpha-male Delos security officer Coughlin (Timothy V. Murphy) – have been knocked off balance by the hosts’ uprising. No one seems to have a firm handle on things anymore, except of course for Ford (and he’s dead, at least in the biological sense).
None of Westworld’s characters have suffered this season quite as much as Bernard, who has spent seven episodes being violently jerked this way and that by external forces that are either enormously suspicious of his motives or are overtly attempting to control him. Although Wright’s android remains one of the series’ most intriguing figures, his position in the story has effectively turned him into a passive character, one who spends most of his time blinking in dazed confusion at the events unfolding around him. This is particularly evident in his plunge into the virtual reality of the Cradle, which is largely an excuse for Ford to deliver 10 minutes of exposition, with Bernard acting as the bewildered audience surrogate. Ford confirms and clarifies much that has occurred in the “past” timeline (now just a few days behind the “present”) over the previous three episodes, but as is often the case with Westworld, there are still some conspicuous ambiguities and inconsistencies.
Many of these revolve around the ultimate purpose of Delos’ secret project, in which the personalities of park guests are being meticulously profiled and then digitally archived. Ford intimates that the corporation’s goal is retail immortality for the ultra-wealthy, but this doesn’t jibe with James Delos’ failed resurrection in “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” or with Ford’s later assertion that his own mind would degrade if placed in an android shell. Furthermore, it would be disappointing if robot-based eternal life was all that Delos had up its sleeve: It’s fairly banal as sci-fi conceits go, at least compared to the conspiratorial possibilities raised in Futureworld (1976), wherein the global elite are neutralized and replaced by android sleeper agents.
Ford claims that his story – the story of the hosts' revolt against their human masters, to be specific – now belongs to Bernard, but he immediately contradicts himself by asserting direct control over the android’s will. This allows for some clever, horror-tinged visuals in the episode’s final stretch, as Ford follows Bernard around like a murmuring ghost. (The final shot of “Les Écorchés,” with Bernard’s face flickering back and forth into Ford’s in the strobe-like illumination of automatic gunfire, is a particularly disconcerting touch.) Westworld’s architect can’t have it both ways, however: Either Bernard is now on his own, self-determined path or Ford is still pulling his strings. Ford might be a self-serving megalomaniac, but he has so often been positioned as an astute, lucid character in a sea of blinkered dupes that it’s quite glaring when his declarations don’t line up with the facts.
Such nagging inconsistencies crop up in several places in “Les Écorchés,” which uses Delores’ assault on the Mesa (and the Cradle that lies beneath it) as an opportunity to bring several of this season’s disparate subplots together. The quirks of fate necessary for those collisions to occur are themselves a bit far-fetched at times. While fleeing the Ghost Nation, Maeve (Newton) and her daughter (Jasmyn Rae) just happen to run into William and Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), and the standoff that unfolds between them just happens to be interrupted by the timely arrival of Lee (Simon Quarterman) and the park's security forces.
It’s easier to hand-wave away these chance meetings than some of the episode’s more dubious bits of characterization, however. For example: Stumbling on a bullet-riddled Maeve, Delores advises her to give up her never-ending search for her daughter – now in the hands of the Ghost Nation – observing that “the kin they gave us was just another rope they use to lash us down.” However, Delores just spent an entire scene weeping in anguish for her “father” (Louis Herthum) before extracting his control unit and thereby putting an end to his pain. Delores’ entire arc so far this season has essentially been the tug-of-war between her anti-human crusade and her gentler daughterly impulses, which makes her smug admonishment to Maeve ring a little hollow. Even more implausible is the supposedly hardened Delos enforcer (Ronnie Gene Blevins) who, in the tradition of moronic disposable male characters everywhere, fatally lets his guard down when confronted by Angela’s (Talulah Riley) seductive wiles.
Ultimately, “Les Écorchés” is an action-oriented episode centered on Delores’ Mesa attack, although the dimly lit shootouts between her forces and Delos aren’t especially memorable or exciting. Quite a few of the show’s ancillary characters perish in this chapter, including the aforementioned Angela, but also Lawrence, Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), Coughlin, and (presumably) Peter Abernathy. Thematically, the episode simply serves to reinforce many of the themes that have already been prominently featured in this season, such as the hosts’ capacity to embody humanity’s best and worst impulses – although the latter is more prominent in this outing.
It’s no accident that Charlotte’s efforts to virtually waterboard Bernard into revealing the location of Abernathy’s control unit (a disturbing detail, that) is followed by a flashback in which Delores threatens Charlotte with torture via bone saw. There’s some satisfaction in seeing the callous, arrogant Charlotte get some retroactive comeuppance, but the true takeaway here is that Delores has now completely internalized the sadism of her creators. Maeve later observes that Delores is being consumed by “darkness,” a criticism that the latter woman bats away by somewhat unconvincingly appealing to her past victimhood. Regardless, the brutality that the androids inflict on the humans in “Les Écorchés” clashes with Ford’s myopic proclamation that the hosts are nobler than their progenitors. As always, Westworld’s assessment of all thinking beings – humans and robots alike – seems to be exceedingly pessimistic.
Some miscellaneous observations:
- Both Maeve and William take a lot of bullets in this episode, and although the former can conceivably be repaired – perhaps with the assistance of a guilt-riddled Lee – it seems far-fetched that the latter would be able to survive (let alone quickly recover from) his multiple gunshot wounds. Plot armor strikes again!
- It’s gratifying when the writers slip tiny details into the show’s dialogue that elegantly clarify previously hazy aspects of the world’s mechanics. In an almost admiring tone, Maeve observes that Lawrence is “awake” after her mind-control power fails to work on him, confirming that 1) some hosts other than Delores and Maeve are indeed self-aware and 2) Maeve’s new abilities don’t function on such sentient androids. It’s a nice callback to earlier hints that Lawrence was starting to remember his past “lives,” and also a retroactive intimation that the Ghost Nation hosts are (and have always been) awake.
- On that note, it’s enormously encouraging to see that next week’s episode will center on Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) and the secret history of the Ghost Nation. One of the on-point criticisms of Westworld’s storytelling to date has been its negligence towards the Native American hosts. The in-universe explanation has always been superficially plausible but ultimately limp: Namely, that the Native Americans are treated like an exotic, mysterious threat because that’s the way that they were portrayed in the cinematic Westerns on which the park is based. Among the show’s fans, it’s long been suspected that there was a deeper story to the Ghost Nation, and it’s exciting that viewers will at last be permitted to see Westworld through their eyes.