Westworld Recap: S1E5 “Contrapasso”


In an episode blemished by Game of Thrones-style nudity, Westworld contemplates the roles we take on and what happens when we try to break free.

Ugh, HBO.

During its first four episodes, Westworld was mercifully deliberate about its use of nudity. It was sparing, usually occurring when the hosts were being inspected or questioned, and presented in a detached, naturalistic manner that deprived the scenes of sexual undertones. Instead, the nudity functioned either to emphasize the hosts’ vulnerability (particularly in Maeve’s escape attempt in “Chestnut”) or to draw attention to the audience’s role as spectators, illicit voyeurs.

The show’s previous tact only makes “Contrapasso” more disappointing. First, there is the host who has malfunctioned so he can’t pour water properly. We’re introduced to him with a close-up of a bottle and glass, strategically positioned to cover his nether regions, which are blurred in the background, before a side view treats us to the whole thing. “If you keep pour whiskey on the guests,” Elsie warns, “I’m going to have to assign you to a new narrative, where your talents will go tragically unappreciated.”

Westworld season 1, screenshot courtesy of HBO

While the nudity itself is nothing egregious, the fact that the host is black gives a sour taste to Elsie’s remarks, inadvertently (one assumes) playing into stereotypes about black male sexuality. Since this is Westworld, it’s possible the scene is meant as a critique, maybe linking the hosts’ dehumanization to the dehumanization of black people throughout American history. But if so, it doesn’t quite come across.

More brazen is the next sequence, in which Dolores, William, and Logan find themselves in the middle of an orgy. It’s not entirely without merit. William and Logan’s vastly disparate reactions offer mild amusement (when their Confederate mercenary guide declares that the only pleasure greater than those here is war, William responds dryly, “Is it really that good?”), as does Logan’s well-timed use of the term “circle-jerk”. It is hard to concentrate on the dialogue, however, when a bunch of naked extras are wandering around our peripheral vision. This is precisely the kind of shallow titillation – nudity as decoration – that earned Game of Thrones its reputation as garish and misogynistic. (Tellingly, we see plenty of women making out with other women, but no men making out with other men.)

In short, “Contrapasso” lacks the thoughtfulness displayed by its predecessors, edging a little too close to the salacious entertainment it’s trying to criticize.

Still, there’s stuff to appreciate. The episode starts with Ford sharing a drink with his robot piano player companion. He gives an anecdote about a greyhound his father bought him and his brother when they were children. Greyhounds, he observes, are racing dogs, trained to spend their lives “running in circles, chasing a bit of felt.” But one time at the park, the boys decided to let the dog off its leash. Spotting a cat, it ran toward the other animal (“Never saw a thing as beautiful as that old dog running,” Ford says) and, to “the horror of everyone watching”, killed it. Afterward, the dog just sat, confused about what to do now that it had fulfilled its purpose.

It isn’t one of Westworld’s subtler metaphors. Of course, the greyhound represents the hosts, Dolores in particular, who have spent their lives following the same routine day after day and are beginning to break free of their “leashes”. Yet, there’s reason to doubt the accuracy of the story’s message concerning the self-destructive nature of freedom.

Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld season 1, image courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO

Dolores, for one, is excited to be deviating from her intended purpose. When William asks after her wellbeing, she replies, “I had troubled dreams, but I feel more myself now.” He assumes that she means she’s returned to normal, or her status quo, but as Dolores made clear in her talks with Bernard, she believes her present, evolving self is more authentic than the scripted version. Her purpose at the moment is to find her purpose.

Perhaps as a result, she’s passive for most of the episode, simply tagging along with William and Logan on their quest to help El Lazo (aka Lawrence, reset on his original storyline, after the Man in Black decides he’s outlived his usefulness). In her most revealing scene, Dolores is sitting and talking to Ford, who seems to suspect the same thing we suspect: that Arnold is manipulating the hosts somehow from beyond the grave. She insists, though, that she hasn’t been in contact with Arnold since the day of his death more than 34 years ago, a claim corroborated by the absence of any records. So, not only can Dolores lie, but she’s pretty good at it, as is further proven by her interactions with William. She does divulge one key bit of information: the last thing Arnold said to her was that she’s going to help him “destroy this place.”

Ford concludes their conversation by asking, “If you did take on [a] bigger role for yourself, would you have been the hero or the villain?” Whether or not he’s being rhetorical, Dolores stays silent. Is she hiding something? Or does she not know the answer? If the latter, she figures it out by the end of the episode, shooting the mercenaries who try to stop her and William from leaving Pariah. Her answer is probably not what Ford had in mind: “I imagined the story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.”

The question remains: how much agency does Dolores really have? Doing some secret surgery, Elsie discovers a laser-based satellite uplink embedded in the stray woodcutter’s arm. This explains why the carving of Orion contained four stars in the belt instead of three: the fifth isn’t a star, but a satellite that someone “out of the park” has been using to smuggle data. Dolores finds a similar device in her arm. If it can transmit data from the park, could it not also transmit data to the park? We already know that the hosts’ awakening is prompted at least in part by Arnold’s voice. Maybe Dolores is still on a leash – just one held by a different person.

Evan Rachel Wood and Jimmi Simpson in Westworld season 1, image courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO

William also auditions for a different role in “Contrapasso”. Westworld, he suggests to Dolores, gives guests the opportunity to adopt different identities. “Whoever you were before, it doesn’t matter here,” he says. “You can change the story of your life; you can become someone else. No one will judge you; no one in the real world will even know.” Despite his initial skepticism, he’s succumbing to the park’s allure, attaching his own mythology to it – one noticeably contrasting from Logan’s, which frames people’s real-world identities as false personas, and reminiscent of perceptions of the Old West as a place for redemption and new beginnings.

Even so, William only accepts his new role when Logan goads him into it. After a disagreement over whether to join the Confederate war effort escalates into a bitter squabble over his status as Logan’s subordinate at their company, William refuses to save his soon-to-be brother-in-law from the mercenaries beating him. For someone who’s most nefarious deed until now was killing hosts to protect someone else (generally a woman), this signals a major turning point. Slowly but surely, the white hat is becoming tarnished, though it’s ultimately more of a defeat than a victory for William; as his former companions run away, abandoning him, Logan cracks an approving “I told you” smile. You get the sense that no matter what William does, he’ll find a way to continue thinking of himself as a hero.

The episode’s most successful act of rebellion is actually committed by a minor player. Lutz, one of the two technicians assigned to Maeve (he’s the one that “forgot to put her in sleep mode” last time), keeps a “dead” bird in the operating room cupboard. Occasionally, while his partner is out of the room, he attempts to reanimate it. When his partner finds out about his experiments, he berates Lutz, reminding him, “You’re not an ornithologist, and you’re sure as hell not a coder. You are a butcher, and that is all you will ever be.” Except in the last scene, Lutz manages to not only revive the bird but get it to fly around the room in a circle, a moment of pure joy in a show that leans toward grim irony.

His joy, however, proves short-lived, replaced by shock when the bird lands on the outstretched hand of a wide-awake Maeve. She, at last, seems to know exactly what she’s doing.

Related Story: Westworld Recap: S1E4 “Dissonance Theory”

Stray observations:

  • This week’s player piano song is “Clair de Lune” (originally titled “Promenade Sentimentale”), the third movement of Claude Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque. Also, an instrumental version of “Something I Can Never Have” by Nine Inch Nails overlays the orgy scene.
  • Does anyone else think the Man in Black will turn out to be the brother Ford mentions in his greyhound anecdote? It would be a very Lost (and biblical) twist.
  • The repetitive dialogue continues: the Man in Black echoes Dolores’s line about there being “a path for everyone”, and Logan echoes Ford’s line about seeing clearly.
  • We’ll see how the Dolores/William relationship plays out, but… #TeamTeddy.
  • Nudity aside, “Contrapasso” is loaded with gorgeous imagery, from Dolores standing in the cemetery to Maeve smiling at the bird on her finger.
  • Logan’s family sounds like a nightmare.