season 4, episode 5, “Zhuangzi”

Ed Harris in Westworld

Ed Harris in Westworld
Photo: John Johnson/HBO

My notes by the end of this latest episode of Westworld read as such: “The Truman Show + The Matrix?”

Can you blame me? Westworld has always paved a path for itself by trying to be a 21st century meditation on consciousness, free will, and technology (not to mention memory and alienation) that felt novel even as it began as a remake of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. Yet, especially during that scene between Teddy (James Marsden) and Christina (Evan Rachel Wood)—you know the one!—I couldn’t help but think back to those two Y2K projects. After all, that 1998 Jim Carrey vehicle rested on the premise that Truman’s world was all make-believe, a constructed narrative that kept him sheltered even as he saw more and more seams of it come undone, while key aspects of the Wachowski siblings’ iconic film depended on folks’ abilities to see beyond the reality that’s been constructed for them and to learn ways to bend it to their ways. Sound familiar?

Sure, our Christina is much more than Truman-meets-Neo, but if you described her as such you’d be accurately sketching out what her arc is feeling like as the fourth season of the show tees up the world that Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson, having a ball this season) has built and the place Wood’s character occupies in it. Indeed, the episode might have yet again showed us the start of her narrative loop (Christina awakening in her bed, the same way Dolores used to back in season one), but as a whole this time around it all felt like a conscious awakening. “Every single day she wakes up, the more she sees it,” Christina says of a character she’s dreaming up who may or may not be herself, “that there’s something wrong with the world.” And yes, that was all before we’re met with a heck of a final line that left me agog.

But before we delve into that revelation, let us go back and try to make sense of this new normal. Like we learned last episode, we are squarely now in a future where Charlotte has finally succeeded in turning the entire human race into her own plaything—with some outliers here and there. And those outliers, who find themselves realizing they are trapped in a story written by someone else, are wreaking havoc on what Charlotte had always imagined would be a temporary setting before her kind would transcend beyond the physical realm. (If I’m honest, this was the part that tripped me up because I can always count on Westworld to not talk down to its viewers and, in the process, leave us hanging with some of the details around its very expansive world-building. Like, is this where Bernard was? In a transcendent plane that’s beyond the meat-and-bones reality of the humans we encounter on any given episode? Or is it somewhere else, and if Charlotte so aspires to that, why is she still roaming the streets in this IRL environment? To make humans…pay? To entertain herself as the god she knows herself to be?)

It’s one of those human outliers which kick off one of the episode’s subplots where William (Ed Harris) hunts down a woman who has seen the light—or rather, the “Tower” and realized just how fake the world around her is. And while she’s eventually “saved” (would that be the word?) by the rebels whom Bernard and Stubbs are now working with, that’s not before she manages to “infect” (might that be accurate?) William with the nagging question that’s long dominated Westworld’s philosophy from its very first episode: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”

Similarly, as I posed in the very first recap for this season, it’s clear Westworld has long been fascinated with storytelling. And that’s where Christina’s plot takes us, with Teddy eventually phrasing this very thought: “This world is a lie. It’s a story. A well told one but a lie all the same.” And she is, of course, the storyteller. She’s been the one crafting the narratives for so many folks around her—and, like Maeve before her, she’s now found a way to harness that power in a way that lets her (and us) see behind the curtain of this gamified reality.

So where do we go from here? We may be ramping up for a battle of the wills (and for the spirit of humankind) yet again between the likes of Christina and Charlotte—with Maeve, Caleb, Bernard, Stubbs, and William in one way or another aligned with both or neither for various purposes of their own. We know Maeve is a weapon…but might she be used to destroy the world Charlotte’s created? Will Christina find a way to use her storytelling powers for good, whatever that may mean? She’s been told that it was she who built “this” and she who did “this” to her…so is she the entrapped or the entrapment?

Stray observations

  • “There’s a beauty to this world. An order. So we like to believe,” William tells us both at the start and at the end of this episode. And all I kept thinking was, Charlotte clearly believes they are one and the same: There is beauty in order and there’s order in beauty. But folks like William—and even Christina/Dolores, feel differently. Or find at least some solace in the fissures, in the spaces in between. It’s what first led Dolores to first break out of her narrative. And it may well be what’s pushed William to try and see what he can learn from the OG William.
  • I can’t be the only one who, when the episode opened with Ed Harris and Angela Sarafyan walking into a bloodied crime scene, half expected us to get a CSI: Westworld kind of episode. No? Just me? Okay.
  • We went from Westworld being a theme park full of looped narratives to now a world that’s been designed as a game. The distinction may feel slight but I do wonder if it’s going to play a part (pun intended) in the episodes ahead.
  • I’m not saying you can’t have a good (let alone a great) episode of Westworld without Thandiwe Newton. But boy does the show end up lacking a lot of stuff when you let Maeve sit out any given episode. Namely, you miss out on her sly humor and her crackling action-star demeanor. (Also, this episode may have revealed some of the cracks of even a solid Westworld episode which always come up whenever the series stretches itself thin trying to be too many things at once—a sci-fi spectacle, a dystopian narrative, a philosophical parable, a character study…the list goes on. Sometimes it can weave those many threads into a fascinating whole and at others it can really just leave you wanting.)
  • Watching Tessa Thompson’s Charlotte orchestrate a dancing flash mob out on the streets for her sole benefit (“There should be dancing!”) and then having three women create a chair for her? Iconic behavior. See also: the deliciously passive aggressive meet-up Charlotte has with her “college friend” Christina. Just the right amount of tacit hostility masked as concern made the entire interaction a delight to watch.
  • I will say, it is lovely having James Marsden’s Teddy, though now I’m curious if we’re going to get an explanation as to why or how he’s back? And who’s side is he on? Any theories?

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