Westworld Recap: S1E3 “The Stray”


This week, Westworld provides backstory on Bernard and the park, while the characters wrestle with their changing identities.

At the beginning of this week’s Westworld episode, Bernard gives Dolores a leather-bound book. The title, stitched in gold lettering, should be familiar to all of us viewers: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Essentially, Carroll’s classic children’s novel follows a young girl who relieves herself of boredom by chasing a rabbit down a hole and stumbling into a whimsical fantasyland. Bernard asks Dolores to read a particular passage aloud:“Dear, dear! How queer everything is today! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night.”

Prestige television loves literary and pop culture allusions. Mad Men wove period-appropriate works, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Portnoy’s Complaint, into its tapestry of 1960s ennui alongside current events and brand names. Mr. Robot is a nesting doll of references, duplicating exact plot points, musical cues, and images from myriad trendy sources (most notably, the movie Fight Club) to reflect contemporary society’s media obsession. They can be tiresome, a method of disguising laziness as cleverness, but allusions nonetheless provide a useful gateway to talking about character psychology and pertinent themes.

Westworld constructs a more insulated universe; aside from the photograph of Times Square that Peter Abernathy found in the premiere, we have no clue what lies outside the park’s borders. Yet the show is still saturated with cultural awareness, less in the form of specific references than genre conventions. For all its technological ingenuity, Westworld is creatively conservative (how a hack like Lee Sizemore came to be in charge of the narrative department is one of the show’s many riddles). Each host fits into a well-worn mold: Dolores is the virtuous damsel-in-distress; Maeve is the smooth-talking temptress; Teddy is the gallant knight in shining armor (or rather, in a hat and spurs); and so on. They even talk in clichés. (A typical exchange between Dolores and Teddy goes like this: “Promise you’ll come back.” “I promise. I will come back for you someday soon.”)

Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright in Westworld season 1, promo courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO

Increasingly, however, the hosts seem uncomfortable with their molds. “What if I don’t want to stay here?” Dolores muses to Teddy after one of their daily horseback rides. “Sometimes, I feel like the world is calling me.” Based on the last two episodes and Evan Rachel Wood’s acting, we suspect these lines aren’t programmed; on some level, she means what she’s saying.

Unlike Alice, who can’t mistake Wonderland for anything but a different place from where she was before, Dolores only vaguely recognizes that she’s “been changed in the night.” Her changes are psychological, rather than environmental, and suppressed by layers of programming. As Ford rather laboriously explains, his long-dead partner Arnold attempted to create simulated thoughts for the androids that would eventually evolve into real thoughts – in other words, consciousness. When that failed, the Westworld engineers removed the hosts’ “thoughts”, except for the scripted commands, rendering them utterly passive, denied control of their bodies and minds.

At least, that’s the theory. Bernard has been performing his own version of Arnold’s experiment in his secret talks with Dolores, encouraging her to deviate from her programming. He describes the more enlightened Dolores as a second version of her and suggests that her newfound freedom is dangerous. Is knowledge worth having if it compromises your wellbeing? But she refutes him, saying, “There aren’t two versions of me. There’s only one, and I think when I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” Whereas Bernard views change as a fracture, separating a person’s past identity from his or her present self, Dolores views change as a completion, uniting the past and present in a harmonious whole.

Bernard is right, though, about trauma. At the end of the episode, Dolores is about to get raped by another android, as her storyline dictates, when flickers of memory surface and a disembodied voice orders her to “kill him.” On one hand, this enables her to fire the pistol that she kept hidden since uncovering it in the dirt and escape (Teddy tried to teach her how to shoot earlier, but her programming prevented her from pulling the trigger). Yet the incident and its aftermath leave her shaken. Not only is the memory itself distressing, but she can’t tell it is a memory; designed to start every day with no recollection of the previous one, Dolores lacks the ability to comprehend her situation.

Shannon Woodward in Westworld season 1, promo courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO

“The Stray” is rife with people undergoing and processing change. Most literally, the title refers to a host that Elsie and Ashley are tasked with finding after he wanders away from his designated campsite. But it also encompasses other characters that have somehow strayed from where they are supposed to be.

Even as he guides Dolores through her evolution, Bernard struggles to reconcile his past with his present. We learn that he does, in fact, have experience as a parent, though his son, Charlie, died from an unnamed illness. The copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that he gives Dolores is one that he used to read to Charlie, and he shares a brief anecdote with her about holding Charlie during swimming practice. “I had to [let him go],” he says, hoping that she gets the message, “because that’s what parents do.” But when talking to his wife on a video call, Bernard insists he doesn’t wish he could forget: “This pain is all I have left of him.” So, contrary to what he tells Dolores, he does understand the value of bad memories.

Teddy is also coping with a dark past. Initially, the Westworld programmers didn’t bother to give him an actual backstory, just a “formless guilt” that he can’t absolve, which more or less sums up your standard romance hero. Perhaps realizing how silly that is, Ford gives Teddy an origin story that evokes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Teddy served in the Army with a man called Wyatt, who returned from an expedition “putting down the natives” claiming he could hear the voice of God. Suddenly, he has a purpose; as Elsie says, backstory anchors the hosts, serving as the basis for their personalities and their roles in the park. Now, when Teddy leaves Dolores, it isn’t to “do some reckoning” but to accompany a guest on a bounty hunt for Wyatt. Of course, the search concludes with an ambush, and for the third time that we’ve seen, Teddy winds up dead.

Related Story: Westworld Recap: S1E2 “Chestnut”

Stray observations:

  • There are no anachronistic song choices this week. The Mariposa Saloon piano is playing Scott Joplin’s “Peacherine Rag”.
  • Yep, I can confirm that James Marsden really rocks the cowboy look.
  • Ford describes the early, pre-visitor days of Westworld as “pure creation”, the most overt Inception reference yet.
  • In Greek mythology, Orion was a great hunter who, at one point, threatened to kill every animal on the planet. As a constellation, he is relatively easy to spot and can be useful as a navigation tool.
  • That’s Gina Torres as Bernard’s as-yet-unnamed wife.
  • We still don’t learn much about Elsie and Ashley, but they get some fun banter.