Veneers of Civility
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Trompe-l’œil is a French term meaning “deceive the eye.” It is a technique in art that employs realistic imagery to carefully craft an optical illusion of a three-dimensional structure. The most shocking installment outside of the pilot, the episode is aptly named for the rug it pulls out from underneath the audience in those final, chilling moments. It’s a heartbreaking, terrifying reveal that, as Westworld tradition has become, raises just as many questions as it answers. The largest question it raises is the question of the unreliable narrator. The term “unreliable narrator” was coined in 1961 by American literary critic Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction and that now perfectly describes the circumstances with Bernard. The episode’s biggest reveal arrived slowly and methodically, all of the prior foreshadowing clicking firmly into place as Theresa makes a horrifying discovery. It’s a reveal that works because Westworld is terrifically plotted out, but before I get into the mechanics of that and the rest of the episode as a whole, I have to address the well-executed but disappointing death that closes out of the episode. Sidse Babette Knudsen is a terrific actress and she has given an exceptional performance in a role that didn’t always give her the most to do within the script itself. Theresa was a woman who had established her clear-cut professional demeanor that was instantly a contrast with the behavior of most of the men around her, especially Dr. Ford and Lee. She knew that she had to be that way as it was, because as a women she largely had two options before her on her professional pathway. She could either be the one who always acquiesced and in that pathway there was no advancement and respect. The other pathway was to be as efficient as possible and giving the most importance to that efficiency meant that she would be called a “bitch.” She voiced her awareness of that word, the underlying struggles that it encapsulated, and how she had to simply ignore it because of her status as a woman in a corporate culture
In a series still lacking a number of human characters that I actually care about in any significant capacity, the relationship between Theresa and Bernard was a significant source of warmth. The two had possibly the most functioning adult relationship that I’ve seen on television in a significant while. It happened to be an age-appropriate relationship between a white woman and a black man, both middle-aged and engrossed within their professional lives. There’s often a considerable amount of drama created between co-workers in a romantic relationship in a narrative because it can be one say emotional mine to dig into. Theresa and Bernard’s relationship was one of those relationships where that simply didn’t really exist. The two clearly cared for another but there was a mutual understanding that their professional lives took precedence over everything else. For Theresa especially, she couldn’t risk a romance bringing her career downwards and it always seemed like Bernard had the right amount of respect for her position. She was in turn tough on him but in a fair way and every week throughout the twists and turns of Westworld, this was the relationship I looked the most forward to. And now it’s gone in a gripping sequence that nevertheless had some possibly troubling gender and racial undertones towards its ending. The reveal that Bernard was in fact a host was deliciously done, his being sort of cracking apart as Theresa discovers the diagram of his existence that he couldn’t see. Dr. Ford’s peacock monologue was deliciously evil but his murder of Theresa at Bernard’s hands felt thoroughly disgusting and demoralizing on a show that really has a significant problem with that aspect of its narrative already. Now that Theresa is dead and Bernard is gone as a human, whose left to garner our sympathies? William is as dull as a doornail, Dr. Ford is a monster, Charlotte is hardly sympathetic, Sylvester’s a bumbling idiot. That leaves Felix as the contender for the most amount of human soul Westworld has to offer.
If Theresa and Bernard were deceived in their own right by their own eyes, that similarly goes for the rest of the characters inhabiting a world that might actually look brighter than our own at the moment. Charlotte is deceived by the naked Hector laying immobilized on her bed, unaware of the key line of a blood sacrifice bring repeated at the episode’s climax. Her representation as a member of the Delos board is more of an enigma at this point than anything else, but it does point towards a conflict where Dr. Ford may be on a “righter” side of things, although it’s going to be difficult for him to be seen as redeemable in any way after his orchestration of Theresa’s murder. Delos and Dr. Ford have some sort of agreement that allows his a great deal of autonomy but with the caveat that what he is creating gives the corporation a great deal of profit incentives (or something that is just, if not more, valuable). But Ford now has gotten into the habit of using half of the park’s resources for some new narrative and that is something that Delos can’t stand for. Charlotte wants a demonstration that proves that Ford’s updates, his “reveries”, are truly too dangerous to continue operating. Theresa is understandably concerned at this request and it’s the first time she appears to lose the veneer of practicality and efficiency. It’s not within her job description. Her discomfort, understandably in part added to because of her relationship with Bernard, is thoroughly on display as poor Clementine arrives to be more of a guinea pig than she already was. She is first attacked by a host programmed in her mind to be read as a human but like the programming so far has taught us, she isn’t supposed to be able to hurt a human. Then both of them are awakened and Clementine bashes his head into the glass walls. It’s a grotesque demonstration, but it’s even more disturbing in its ramifications as we see Clementine be the one who gets at the very least erased of her personality as a punishment. I don’t know if the script writers thought through the undertones of two women being the primary victims of violent punishment, but that sequence adds another discomforting pall to an episode that was chock full of them.
Maeve remains the most engaging character in the Westworld narrative by a mile. A good chunk of that is because Thandie Newton’s performance is the most polished, complex, and accomplished (in a cast that includes Evan Rachel Wood and Anthony Hopkins, that’s saying something). Another chunk is that she has the clearest, most identifiable struggle as almost everyone else is still mired in some sort of mystery. The maze can play back in with Maeve, but even that side-story lacks the urgency that Maeve’s desire to escape brings with it. She has Felix take her to Clementine, supremely indifferent to the mixture of exasperation and terror etching itself upon his visage. She watches the drill go into Clementine’s nostril, the tears almost drilling down from her eyes and onto her visage. She’s had enough. There may be a million plots and subplots going on throughout this series (Case in point is a supremely dull subplot this week where Dolores and William have sex without any of the sensuality that is required in a sexual scene like that. At least she had chemistry with Teddy), but there hasn’t been more of a thrilling moment when Maeve is sitting on a gurney in a lab coat, looking and behaving as if there were no more regal individual on the planet than her. She is horrified, disgusted, and infuriated in every measure possible and no one can blame her for being furious at realizing what her existence had been for far too long. There’s nothing for her there except further dehumanization and the longer her games go on, the less leverage she is going to be able to extract from the lab technicians she needs to work for her. She is aware of that paradigm and after witnessing Clementine’s suffering, Maeve puts her foot to the gas pedal and makes the most sensible, logical suggestion that anyone on Westworld has done yet. She wants to get out of the park and Felix and Sylvester were going to help her. She wasn’t afraid of death for she had died a million times. The obstacle that would block the path of action for most people didn’t exist for her. Maeve was, after all, a fucking expert at death.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+The episode opening on Bernard was a great touch of foreshadowing
+“The real value is in the research project.”
+Clementine’s backstory is so tragic.
+“I can have whatever life I want.”
+“The only thing I had as a kid were books. I used to live in them. I used to wake up dreaming that I was in them.”
+“You don’t want to fuck with me, Felix.”
+“Out of repetition comes variation.”
+“Always doing things for other people, aren’t you?”
+“At first I thought you and the others were gods. Then I realized you’re just men. And I know men. You think I’m scared of death. I’ve done it a million times. I’m fucking great at it. How many times have you died?”
+Delos’s interests are obviously more than tourists playing cowboy, but what are they?
+“You’re a fucking monster.”
+“Is this what happened to Arnold?”
Rest in peace, Theresa Cullen.
Episode Title: Trompe L’Oeil
Written by: Halley Gross & Jonathan Nolan
Directed by: Frederick E. O. Toye
Source: Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction
Image Courtesy: Comic Book Movie