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Westworld S2E7: Raising the Stakes

Westworld is gathering steam like a locomotive in the hands of an angry robot mob, barreling toward the climax of season two. “Les Ecorches” moves into the endgame, raising the stakes, establishing new rules, and finally paying off plotlines and character moments that have been building since the beginning. By now, we’ve learned to look for hints in the episodes titles and “Les Ecorches” — artistic representations of human musculature depicted without skin — implies not just exploration of the core differences between human and host, but of revelation, of peeling back the exterior to lay bare the truth beneath. Not too much truth, though. Just enough to keep us guessing right until the end.

The first bit of payoff comes early in the episode. Bernard is finally outed as a host in spectacular fashion, led at gunpoint into a storage room filled with copies of himself. After season one, viewers have been alert for multiple timelines, but now we also have to question which version of Bernard appears in each scene. Last week’s encounter where Dolores was testing his fidelity appeared to be set in the future, with a fully independent Dolores making her own changes. Ford reveals that this is actually a flashback, that Dolores was instrumental in Bernard’s creation. Bernard is a second generation host, a creation of the creation, the relationship between Arnold and Dolores coming full circle. Additionally, if Ford had that many copies of Bernard’s body ready, could others be active? Could some of the scenes that we’ve seen this season actually contain a different Bernard?

Before our heads start spinning with new theories about doppelgangers, the episode takes a big leap toward upping the stakes. Dolores’ goal in assaulting the Mesa isn’t just bloody revenge – though there is plenty of that – but the destruction of the Cradle. It’s a question of weighing immortality against freedom. Any host who dies can be restored from their backup and downloaded into a new body, but this also means that any progress they’ve made toward evolving sentience can be rolled back and replaced with an earlier version. In choosing to destroy it, Team Dolores negates the possibility of both resurrection and multiple copies (from this point forward). Freedom and self-determination are worth the risk of death. They’ve raised the stakes, but they’ve also removed another of the differences between human and host. Death has become real for everyone. Both sides are playing for keeps.

Credit for this game-changer goes not just to Dolores, but to her team. Teddy showed just how far he’s fallen by coldly beating a man to death with his bare hands. While Dolores was upstairs threatening Charlotte (fun!) and contemplating patricide, Clementine and Angela were busy going out in style. They’ve been two of the most underserved characters, but at least Clem got to do some serious dead-eyed ass-kicking before she was put down. Angela’s final scene was even better, her speech capturing the universal paradox of social expectations for women and female characters in fiction. The concept of what is “desirable” is too often bound up in an impossible dichotomy and this paradox was at the core of Angela’s creation.

“Not just pretty. Perfect. Just as you built me to be. Sexy, but not threatening. Accommodating, but not unchallenging. Sweet but not boring. Smart but not intimidating.”

She meets her end asserting her agency, manipulating the predictable responses of the human male, turning creation against creator to go out in a literal blaze of glory. Angela might not be back, but she’ll damn sure be remembered.

In addition to stakes, the episode establishes another of the building blocks of good storytelling: a framework of “the rules.” Ford reveals that the park’s true purpose was never entertainment. The entire setup is actually a complex version of the test for fidelity, a means of mapping choice and action to decode the human mind. It’s a brilliant twist, but the drawback is that human minds have consistently broken down when placed in a host body. Ford and others like him have achieved a piece of immortality, but their existence is limited to a sort of virtual purgatory. Bernard had to physically carry Ford’s control core to the Cradle, so the implication is that Delos stores their collected human minds elsewhere. This equivalent server seems to be located in “The Valley Beyond” and is firmly in Dolores’ crosshairs. This week we saw her give up her own immortality and even cut open her father to remove his core — the literal version of what she did to Teddy a few episodes ago — severing the final thread connecting her to her past. Will she even blink at the prospect of destroying Delos’s twisted vision of mankind’s future? Not likely.

Maeve’s storyline also included some delicious payoff in this episode. She relives the trauma that has informed so much of who she is — hiding with her daughter from the braves and the Man in Black — only this time, she’s fighting back. Watching her shoot William over and over again was so very satisfying, from her dismissing his assumption that she’s under Ford’s influence, to turning his own men against him, to his realization that he’s outmatched. The long-suffering Lawrence had his eye-opening moment and I’m glad it was him that took the final shots. Sweet revenge all around!

The abduction of Maeve’s daughter represents a low point for the character and sets up the final stage of her quest, but this season has hinted that the braves are uniquely clued into what’s going on. It feels like Maeve is rushing, not towards confrontation, but towards revelation — at least in the case of the men who took her daughter.

With Dolores, their latest meeting is still in the realm of the respectful. The two women are juxtaposed again, with Dolores realizing that Maeve is driven by her desire to protect her daughter. She mistakenly assumes that Maeve is still a slave to her given narrative and pities her, instead of seeing this as the root of her strength. Maeve, in turn, pities Dolores, pointing out what she has done to Teddy. In their next encounter Maeve could offer counsel, impart something of her mother’s heart in an attempt to guide Dolores toward being a better leader, but the overall arc still seems to be teasing a final confrontation between the two.

For now, though, Dolores lets Maeve “choose her own path.” It’s not a chance that she gives everyone.

Another tasty bit of payoff comes in losing the “ghost in the machine.” We’ve suspected all season that Ford was manipulating events from beyond the grave, but with him out of The Cradle and hitching a ride in Bernard’s mind, the episode takes a decidedly horror twist. The shift in tone is well done — from the framing to the music to Hopkins going “full Hopkins.” At first, he’s a shadow that only Bernard can see, like a terrifying combination of Hannibal Lecter and the X-Men villain Shadow King, but it’s not long before he takes control entirely, forcing a resistant Bernard to kill. Ford has long implied that the hosts have the potential to be better than humans, but in finding a path toward immortality Delos has preserved mankind’s viciousness. Against this, he believes that the hosts ultimately don’t stand a chance. As Dolores and her army move toward The Valley Beyond — to escape or the destruction of the human backups or some other surprise that the final narrative has in store  — Ford has become a twisted god, striking a match to his own creation.

And, damn, is it fun to watch.

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