Review: Westworld Episode Three, "The Stray"
Finally, things are starting to get interesting. After two episodes, “The Stray” presented viewers with a reason to invest in characters and narrative alike. Despite starting the episode off with heavy-handed exposition with the progressively complex A.I. designer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and the increasingly self-aware and powerful Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), many of the most interesting moments of the season occurred tonight.
Although the episode moved the chess piece forward significantly, some of the core elements of the show continue to hold it back. William (Jimmi Simpson), a completely uncharismatic and uninteresting character at this point -- despite having enjoyed plenty of screentime -- has a shootout with a wanted man which serves as the catalyst for his adventure. Shootouts are fun and all, but ultimately if the visitors to the park can’t die, then who cares?
Westworld employees Elsie (Shannon Woodward) and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) venture out into the park on a quest to find out why the A.I. are malfunctioning, but ultimately come away with as close to a definitive answer as the show has provided thus far. Upon discovering a wounded host (the stray), the two fall under attack, but predictably one saves the other before the A.I. can harm either one of them. Stubbs’ use of a device that can control the host’s movements may have provided for some Thrones style gore, but the underlying message is that it is nearly, if not totally, impossible for the humans in the show to suffer physical pain. If there’s no real danger, then it’s simply hard to get invested in any scene with violence, which is surprisingly pretty common in this Western.
Something that the show doesn’t seem to grasp quite yet is the human element of story. Dr. Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) tinkering with memories and story for the A.I. in Westworld may be in keeping with the established lore of the show, but it makes the hosts completely uncompelling. The idea that they simply have a limited backstory that can be toyed with at a whim completely nullifies the purpose of a backstory to begin with. There is nothing engaging about an artificial history, one that exists one moment and can be erased the next. The narrative moments of the hosts may provide for pretty backdrops and hit-or-miss dialogue, but without any tangible impact on the future, they struggle to feel like anything more than padding before the next gun fight.
Artificial moments aside, the revelation that Bernard’s personal pain may be driving his actions at his job is an intriguing one. The idea of a truly pained character on this show is welcomed, as there has been little reason to invest in his motives thus far. Like many ideas on this show, it’s not totally original, but Wright is convincing enough for my interest to be piqued.
This episode showed viewers simultaneously what is compelling about this world and what is not. Trying to tell human stories through A.I. will never truly work, but adding new twists to the plot and giving characters like Bernard weighty, character-building moments does. If the show can build on the fresh ideas that the plot offers and give viewers more reasons to relate to the characters, then HBO may have the next hit they have been looking for.
Westworld is on Sundays this Fall at 9 p.m. (ET) on HBO, HBO GO and HBO NOW.
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