'Westworld' Episode 7: Trompe L'Oeil

November 15, 2016


This show has been dealing in deception and misdirection from the outset, so no wonder we'd have an episode that addresses the illusory nature of the show inthe title itself, a French phrase for, in this context, artistic mind-fucking. 


More elegantly, the phrase trompe l'oeil translates into "deceives the eye," often referring to paintings, drawings, or other two-dimensional artistic renderings that read, to the viewer, as 3D. Nothing epitomizes this more than what we got in our big reveal this week-- a moment which has set the internet on fire: Bernard is a freaking robot and he just bashed in Theresa's head and not because he's mad ohmygod that's brutal I thought this guy was a human now he's a machine what just happened. 


Ok, settle in, let's break this down. 


In many ways, the writers of the series have been set on up-ending the notion that humans are inherently more worthwhile, valuable, soulful, than artificial human creations. Not only have Joy and Nolan sought to criticize human purpose by making any park visitor indiscriminately bloodthirsty and sex-crazed (Man in Black; Logan), most of the lab workers equally depraved (skinny labcoat dude banging all the robots), and even the big park personas lustful, indulgent and stagnant (drunk, peeing writerboy; newcomer Charlotte), but they have purposefully developed cyborg personas like Delores and Maeve who are growing incrementally through each episode. 


The robot characters are, then, the dynamic, multi-dimensional counterpart to the static humans who control them. Thus, the reveal that Bernard is not a flesh-born human is a misdirection, but should not read so binary, as the lines between humanity and artificial intelligence are pushing closer together with each episode. (Think back to Ford's comment in Episode 3 where he comments that humankind has reached it's pinnacle. Makes sense, then, that he is trying to breed a suiting replacement.)


Yet, before veering down the road to human nihilism, let's stay focused on the literary techniques at play in the episode's final third, which were centered around the concept of blood sacrifice, eye-for-an-eye.


It is easy to read the sacrifice in this episode as an isolated and revelatory action: Bernard, under the will of Ford, is commanded to kill Theresa, his one-time lover. "I just want to tell my stories," Ford says, as he turns human to dog and sicks him on a lover in a Cyborg-Shakespearean mastermove.

This is a moment that harbors empathy for Theresa, confliction or ambivalence for Bernard, and, in many ways, disdain for Dr. Ford who, who seems ever-more the narcissistic Grandmaster. However, juxtapose this scene alongside another blood sacrifice , the disarming of Clementine, and we should have a more nuanced reading.

In just two scenes prior, we see brothel-wonderbroad Clementine McLikesitCold get hacked from the inside and out in order to satisfy Theresa and the board's own purposes: send the message that the reverie-update is dangerous and dethrone Ford. Clementine kills a nonentity in a head-bashing foreshadow of the final sequence of the episode, and is thus put out of commission by that dickish labsuit crony while Theresa looks on approvingly, and Ford eerily. 


Flash forward to the head-bashing of Theresa at the hands of another second-party who is simply acting on orders and we have instead a scene that reads as justice rather than human disaster. Role-reversal for Theresa and Ford, trompe l'oeil for Bernard, king trumps queen (more of a bishop, really) with knight to basement-4.  


To bring it back together, in suggesting that humankind are flawed, inherently violent and disastrous beings, creators Nolan and Joy have left room for a more evolved set of thinking. Enter not only Bernard, but Maeve and Dolores (the real queens) -- all of whom retain reveries base to humanity: nostalgia and bereavement over lost love (Bernard and his son), the desire to escape an oppressive, tyrannical system (Maeve), and the search for meaning and higher calling (Dolores), yet whose mechanical wirings mark them capable of enlightenment beyond our human comprehension. 

 I'll leave the predictions and easter eggs to the experts, but I would like to depart with the note that, in this precedented, yet un-presidential (lol) era of disdain, dissonance, and disappointment, fiction is a place where we can make escape. Sundays filled with mimosas, football, adventure, television, et. al. (Hi, Al), are the reprieve we need from the social bombardment that fills our screens and souls with each waking breath.


To indulge in cinema, art, television, is to be human. But, within the giving in, there are awakenings, critical connections to encounter regarding tyrants and the marginalized, compelling visions for the future, recyclings and reimagnings of the past. 


So, do sit down guilt-free in your evenings to watch, but assume a role beyond passive observer, play the critic, the contrarian, the hypeman; dive in headlong, tell a show to fuck off or find somewhere in between, but use these moments of escape to grow inside a world that is resonant of, yet disconnected from, our own. 

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