Westworld Recap: S1E2 “Chestnut”


In its second episode, Westworld changes up its structure, immersing us in the characters’ psyches by replicating the feeling of a dream.

Déjà vu is an interesting phenomenon. It is, according to the gospel of Merriam-Webster, “the illusion of remembering scenes and events when experienced for the first time”. Yet, whereas we normally take comfort in familiarity, déjà vu unsettles. Even just for a moment, it exposes the rift between subjective experience and objective reality, suggesting that we might not understand our own lives as thoroughly as we think. Two episodes in, Westworld is saturated with déjà vu – a near-constant sense of remembrance that never quite crystallizes into recognition.

Like “The Original”, “Chestnut” relies on repetition. We start once again with a blank screen and Bernard’s voice, which issues the command, “Wake up, Dolores.” But this time, when Dolores opens her eyes, it’s night; her bed is drenched in shadow rather than sunshine. A cut transports us outside the Abernathy house, where Dolores walks toward the encroaching darkness as though drawn. She looks ghostly in the moonlight and her white nightgown. Before we find out what she is up to, however, the screen cuts to black. Why do dreams always seem to end right when they are on the verge of something interesting?

The episode as a whole unfolds like a dream. In contrast to the premiere, which followed a fairly distinct narrative structure (status quo → conflict → resolution), the various storylines here have little to do with one another, at least on the surface. Black screens mark many of the transitions, disrupting scenes rather than connecting them.

First, we meet a pair of newcomers. Logan (Ben Barnes, who somehow morphed into a Christian Slater clone in the years between The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and now) is a frequent Westworld visitor eager to share the park’s amusements with his friend, William (Jimmi Simpson, who has the kind of face you swear you’ve seen before but have no idea where). The latter, a first-time visitor, provides a convenient gateway to the Westworld orientation process. A host named Angela (Talulah Riley) asks him questions about his health, which is apparently in tip-top shape, though the question about “sexual anxiety” flusters him, and shows him a closet of Western-themed clothing. Angela slyly offers to help him change, and he seems tempted but ultimately declines, claiming he doesn’t want to keep his friend waiting.

Westworld (2016), screenshot courtesy of HBO

Even this sequence, shown from the perspective of someone not yet integrated into Westworld’s fantasy universe, has a surreal aura. After William chooses his hat (white, of course), we cut to a monochromatic, glass hallway leading to an antique wood door, and Angela is gone. The camera tracks his approach using a point-of-view shot, so it feels as though we’re floating instead of walking. William opens it to find himself entering a dimly lit lounge filled with people in period costumes. Later, when he and Logan (wearing a black hat) sit down to drink, the chandelier overhead and the glasses behind the bar counter start to tremble, and the entire room moves. You wonder briefly if this is all a dream, before it becomes clear that the lounge is a car on the train to Sweetwater, which seems obvious in retrospect.

In Sweetwater, Maeve encounters Dolores idling outside her saloon and requests that she stand somewhere else so guests don’t think “you’re representative of the goods inside.” With glazed eyes, Dolores echoes the Romeo and Juliet quote that her father whispered to her in the premiere: “These violent delights have violent ends.” Then, she blinks and returns to her normal cheery self, leaving the other woman visibly shaken.

The incident triggers something in Maeve. Her interactions with customers, which always seem to involve the same canned speech about how coming to America freed her from inhibition, keep getting interrupted by fragmented visions of a massacre. Puzzled about guests’ lack of interest in her, the Westworld staff adjusts her programming (“bump up her aggression”), but their attempts prove futile.

Thandie Newton and Jasmyn Rae in Westworld (2016), promo courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO

Eventually, the fragments coalesce into an extended whole. Maeve wakes up in a bed not unlike Dolores’s. A montage shows her and her daughter frolicking in a sunlit field and washing dishes in a rustic cabin, seemingly carefree. But while her daughter brushes her hair, the comb changes into a knife, and all of a sudden, they’re surrounded by carnage. They hide in the cabin, watching as an American Indian man masked in face-paint (this is a Western, racist archetypes and all) walks past the windows toward the door – and in steps the Man in Black. Maeve quickly realizes that her shotgun doesn’t work on him and lowers it as if to surrender. Closing her eyes, she slowly counts down from three. She wakes up. It was all a dream; it seems the advice she gave to Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), one of the prostitutes working at her saloon, works.

Except Maeve is in yet another unfamiliar place. A couple Westworld technicians are performing surgery on her, and she has awakened in the middle of it. Naked, blood gushing from the incision in her abdomen, she escapes with a scalpel and runs into another building. There she sees bodies, all unclothed, being carried into a glass room, where men in lab coats spray them with hoses. We as viewers know that the bodies belong to androids and they aren’t technically dead, but Maeve’s horror at the sight is so visceral that we can’t help but share it. As Angela says to William, if you can’t tell that something is fake, then does it matter?

Westworld doesn’t just blur the line between truth and fiction; it erases the line, demonstrating how the two concepts entwine with one another. Dreams and stories inform who we are and what we do, and vice versa. The androids, Elsie explains, possess the concept of dreams (nightmares specifically) but not memories, which leads them to dismiss their own pasts as imaginary. Guests like Logan and William see Westworld as a kind of dream, a place untarnished by the artificiality of society, where they can access their most authentic selves (overlooking the fact that the park is also, fundamentally, artificial). For the Man in Black, Westworld’s contrivances are part of the allure. He uses it to weave myths of himself – a creation story, a doctrine. “The real world,” he insists, “is chaos, an accident. But in here, every detail adds up to something.”

At the end of the episode, we return to the beginning. This time, though, Bernard’s voice doesn’t interrupt; the fragment becomes a whole. Dolores wakes in the middle of the night, walks out of her house, and stops at a particular spot. “Here,” she says to the darkness. She crouches and digs. Buried in the dirt is a gun. She picks it up.

Related Story: Westworld Recap: S1E1 “The Original”

Stray observations:

  • The tune that the piano plays is Radiohead’s “No Surprises”, a song about disquiet that sounds like a lullaby.
  • The episode title most likely refers to the term “old chestnut”, a story or joke that has grown stale.
  • At last, Thandie Newton has found a role that really lets her act.
  • Sizemore’s new story idea, “Odyssey on Red River”, sounds basically like Westworld’s other adventure storylines, but on a boat. The women are still sex objects, the American Indian characters are still savages, and the black characters are still “tragically ill-fated sidekicks”.
  • If guests’ costumes are tailored to them, you’d think there would be more people wearing clothes that don’t conform to gender norms.
  • Dolores’s vision of Sweetwater in ruins seems prophetic, but as intelligent as the androids are, it’s unlikely that they can see into the future. So, it must be a memory – perhaps of Westworld’s last “critical failure”?