Westworld 1.04: “Dissonance Theory” Review

The Maze

A Television Review by Akash Singh


The Cognitive Dissonance Theory states that powerful motivations to maintain a consistency in cognition can in turn give rise to irrational and maladaptive behavior. Leon Festinger proposed the theory in 1957 and he defined cognitive dissonance itself as a state of tension that arises when there is a clash between what we see in ourselves and what we see in the world around us. Festinger constructed the theory out of his interactions with observing a cult that feverishly held onto the belief that the earth its members were living upon was going to be destroyed by a flood. The more fervent the belief of the cultist in question, the more likely they were to believe that they were right all along, even though the earth they were living on was still quite intact. They formed a consonance with that break in their cognition by arriving at an understanding that the earth was saved because the cult members themselves were so faithful. The break, in essence, needed to be filled, regardless of how much logic that filling may itself lack. “Dissonance Theory,” notably missing from its title the key “Cognition” aspect of Festinger’s theory, titles an episode that is intellectually obsessed with that concept. What it an individual’s perception of themselves at any given moment? What is their perception of the world at that juncture? Do those two things inform one another as much as an individual thinks or far less? Does the individual even believe that the world around them informs their perception of self or vice versa? When that assumed consonance descend into dissonance, what does that relationship, however it may exist, change? When the alteration(s) occur, how does the individual’s perception of the world around them change, if it all? What’s the magnitude of that change and how does the magnitude correspond to their potential reaction(s)? Last but not least, what will those reaction(s) be?

That’s perhaps one too many questions in a singular paragraph, but “Dissonance Theory” as a fantastic episode of television does the same. Notably omitting the key word “Cognitive” from its title, the episode penned by Ed Brubaker and Jonathan Nolan is concerned primarily with those questions and how the hosts and the humans are finding themselves within these unnerving conundrums. Maeve, having taken a backseat of sorts in the previous episode, arrives at the forefront once more as the host who is the most advanced in terms of her understanding as to how her perception of the world around her may be accurate after all. In terms of programming, it makes sense that the hosts feel that the Western town of Sweetwater is where they breathe and exist. Anything else, like every meeting in the cold, chrome chambers of Westworld, is a dream. But that reality in Maeve has begun to splinter apart bit by bit as Dolores’s warning words rang loud and clear in her mind. Her perspectives about the dissonance in her world are rattling to her because they belay a complete betrayal of what she has thought, felt, and done. A doll dropped by a Native American child (the tribe of the child is, as of yet, unspecified but I suspect that is by design as the least thing I expect writers like Lee to be is culturally aware) reminds Maeve of men in hazmat suit-esque attire. One of those men in her dreams murmured something about finding a bullet that was lodged in her abdomen and Maeve in the park awakens to that idea. What if there was a bullet lodged firmly within her abdomen? If she found it, there would be proof at last that the structural connection between her being and the world around her was a mirage functioning as a construct of reality. If there wasn’t one, than her dreams were nothing more than that, but that idea gives Maeve more pause than confirming her fears. There’s a terror in the unknown, but luckily (if that’s the correct verbiage to espouse here) there’s the vagabond Hector whose presence Maeve has been expecting from before. She leads his hesitating knife into her abdomen and out arrives a little bullet. Nothing, she notes with an understandable harshness, matters anymore.

Dolores’s worldview is collapsing inwards as Maeve’s is collapsing outwards. She begins the episode (as has become a recurring motif of the show) with another Bernard session that rang off at least fifteen alarm bells that this endeavor wasn’t going to end particularly well. Dolores seemingly felt moribund in that moment, her grief over the death of her parents overwhelming her senses. Her parents were hurt, she remembered that much and it clearly pained her. It hurt, losing everybody she cared about, it hurt more than she could bear. But when Bernard asks her if she wants the pain to go away, Dolores is surprised at the suggestion. Why would she want that? It was, as Dolores notes with the utmost sincerity, the only thing she had left of them. That grief didn’t close the walls around her as one might expect, but it allowed her to feel things she couldn’t before. Her dialogue on grief wasn’t completely original, but her adaptation of it from scripted dialogue about love is indicative of an ability beyond simple programming. She’s concerned that there might be something wrong with the thoughts arriving from her mind, but Bernard assures her that’s not the case, with the caveat of course that he was not the only one with the authority to make decisions. Dolores voices her concern that maybe something is wrong with this world, a world where something is hidden beneath. If that wasn’t the case, she thought, then there was something wrong with her, perhaps she could even be losing her mind. Bernard has a suggestion for a relief from her conundrum, a way for her to garner some consonance. It’s a special kind of game where if one finds the center, then they could be free. “I think… I think I want to be free,” Dolores notes and her eyes grow wider in a fervent aspiration.

Sidse Babette Knudsen’s Theresa Cullen has largely been an enigma so far and it is in good part due to Knudsen’s charisma on screen. Theresa is a woman who’s climbed the corporate echelon to further her career and like every woman has dealt with plenty of misogyny on the way. She’s well aware that the word “bitch” is thrown around about her behind her back but she’s past the point of really caring. Her relationship with Bernard is touching but she draws a sharp line delineating that relationship from her professional existence because the last thing she needs as a professional woman is a romantic entanglement undoing her hard work. That delineation becomes much more difficult to manage when she is sitting across the table from Dr. Ford, who places her in the exact same chair she had set in when she was a child. The extreme creepiness of that taken into account, Dr. Ford proceeds to make it quite clear where he stands in terms of his relationship with the board. What he wants ultimately has plenty of clues but not a cohesion and that is difficult circumstance for someone like Theresa who, for now at least, appears to be the complete opposite. Her dissonance is cleared in the episode’s best scene as she sits across from Dr. Ford on a patio overlooking an agave plantation. The board, which should be descending in the next episode before the foreshadowing becomes too much, apparently isn’t too fond of Dr. Ford’s constriction of this particular storyline. Theresa presents that with a straight face, spinning it as a good thing for Dr. Ford that he would be able to have more time for his creation. Dr. Ford, however, isn’t interested in any spins, elaborate or otherwise. His worldview is at a juxtaposition with Theresa’s and as far as he is concerned, everything would go exactly the wants and the threat of what would happen otherwise is notably lacking in subtlety, as is his mentioning of Bernard. Theresa is notably unnerved but she doesn’t back away. The board, she notes, would side with her. The pausing of all the hosts in the plantation was the most arresting moment of that debate, a blatant display of power meant to erase any potential conflict that might arise before it actually did so. Arnold had gone mad, perhaps because he preferred the hosts to humans and in trying to garner consciousness, he had lost his way. Dr. Ford had no plans to follow that path for he had found his consonance, one that he would hold onto and cast aside anyone who dared to prove it a mirage.

Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:

+“There is clearly a pattern of behavior here.”

+“I’ve read every page except for the last one.”

+“You sound like a man who’s tired of wearing his guts on the inside.”

+“We have a request for a pyrotechnic effect.” I don’t know why, but this was particularly hilarious.

+“I used their blood to paint my skin.”

+The side journey with the Gunslinger and Armistice was fascinating and I can’t wait to see more of it. She has a tough, calculating demeanor and their character dynamic is intriguing as all hell.

+So the Gunslinger is massive philanthropist in real life?

+“I admire the audacity of it.”



Episode Title: Dissonance Theory

Written by: Ed Brubaker & Jonathan Nolan

Directed by: Vincenzo Natali

Source: Simply Psychology

Image Courtesy: Inverse


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