[ma.tv] Westworld S01 E07- Trompe L’Oeil

“For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come.”- Hamlet, Act III Scene 1, William Shakespeare

I’m foregoing a traditional review this week to just talk about the reveal of a certain character’s true nature. If you have not watched Trompe L’Oeil, you have been warned that this reflection will include spoilers! Cheers! - Eric Wilkinson

In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a young Danish prince laments his moral obligation to the realm and desire for revenge while wrestling with whether to continue on in life or accept the inevitability of death as a gateway to freedom. This contradiction of meaning supplants a deep psychoanalytical bend to Hamlet’s journey and as we encounter his tragedy, we encounter the difficult changes that humanity is faced with while haunted by the decisions of others based on their perception. His “to be or not to be” speech fringes on the idea of a relative truth, which presupposes the balance of both the existential weight of determining how sources of information are accepted and therefore believed, and the physical aspect of demonstrating it.

Sunday’s Westworld explores this balancing act, albeit one where the realm in question represents an outlier fantasy park of cowboys and prostitutes, but nonetheless still pertains to this deep moral questioning. Who are we in life? Or death? Or without choice? How can we accept our reality while still questioning our position? While we as an audience have largely struggled to find a singular protagonist to hang our hat on across the series first seven episodes, Trompe L’Oeil explores, with providence, the deeply rooted tragedy within the role of a Host. As Hamlet continues, his remarks become startlingly relevant to Westworld as he states, “When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. There’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life.” (Act III, Scene I)

The sinister twist revealing Bernard’s true nature, as an original 1st generation host built by Ford and programmed with a life of memories alluding tragic loss and division, represents the series first major step in peeling back the curtain. We’ve seen breadcrumbs along the way, but it wasn’t until Bernard’s visit to the Ford homestead in The Adversary, that the pieces started to come together. With his inability to recognize Ford’s presence until he chose to reveal himself, Bernard demonstrated what we thought was a lack of awareness. Now we can reframe his surprise as something far more literal and therefore indicative of the road we now find ourselves on.

As Theresa and Bernard enter the homestead, the proclamation by Bernard that he is unable to perceive the doorway to the basement was immediately alarming. As we’ve heard several times before, the Host’s are programmed not be able to recognize certain truths that would otherwise pose immediate existential threats to their subconscious. The phrase, “it looks like nothing to me,” represents this gap and the Host’s inability to reconcile with it, much like the art philosophy concept of Trompe L’Oeil itself. Trompe L’Oeil represents the deception of the eye as it looks upon an image and attempts to reconcile the dimensions, features, and factors presented to it. Dr. Ford responds to this phenomenon in a rather cold manner by stating: “They cannot see the things that will hurt them. I spare them that. Their lives are blissful. They are free from the burdens of self doubt.”

Bernard’s failure to recognize both the door, and the design schematics from Theresa, signify that Bernard’s reveries have allowed him the freedom to explore his identity and that up until this point, his self awareness has remained grounded in perceived tragedy. From the look of his schematics, shuffled together with both Dolores and Young Robert, this clarifies the irony in Bernard’s statement early on in the season to Elsie, when he stated, “it feels like I’ve been here forever.” We can now understand why he is so empathetic towards the Hosts, as it has provoked some semblance of individuality for him, and therefore bridged the divide between the creator and the creation. He is, in essence, mimicking what he knows from Ford but builds off of it as the reveries and personality features take hold, allowing him agency and perhaps, a certain degree of consciousness. If we follow the Hamlet analogy there is a strong possibility for the tide to shift against Ford, yet not without more bloodshed or potential dismantling of the status quo by the influence of either Bernard, Dolores, Maeve, or Arnold.

That final scene decisively connected tension with tragedy. Bernard’s personal search for meaning now must grapple with its own paradigm shift, and as he descends from the bicameral pyramid, one has to wonder what lies ahead for him. Wrapping back to the quote from Hamlet, used by Dr. Ford before Bernard’s bone chilling murder of Theresa in the basement, the root of “what dreams may come” alludes to a period of decommissioning that Ford may execute across the park in order to maintain control. We’ve always known this as a possibility but seeing his malice fully formed, the deliberate bend in his morality seems all that much clearer now.

Circling back to the very first moment where this theory, now a confirmed truth, about Bernard stems from, I went back and watched the scene from Chestnut between Theresa and Bernard. Below is a sample of the dialogue for your consideration. Initially thought of as a joking aside, this scene illustrates how far Ford’s deception went, and the emotional ramifications Bernard’s involvement with her, had in the final sequence of Trompe L’Oiel.

Theresa: You’re certainly a man comfortable with long, pensive silences. Although, ironically, your creations never shut up, even when there are no guests around.
Bernard: They’re always trying to error correct, make themselves more human. When they talk to each other, it’s a way of practicing.
Theresa: Is that what you’re doing now? Practicing?

Reviewing the series to this juncture, I foresee the threads of this narrative coming to a collision course with only 3 episodes left ahead. While I believe it possible for Jonathan and Lisa Joy Nolan to find a satisfying way to wrap the three main storylines together into something concise, I am still concerned that we will be left with more questions and curiosities than actual progress forward.

Next week… Trace Decay. As a side note, last week I made a mistake signifying that this episode was written by novelist Charles Yu. I have since found IMDB and Wikipedia to have contradictory information, which actually credits Yu with penning Trace Decay and not Trompe L’Oeil. Sorry for the confusion to anyone who referenced that remark from me last week. I am still planning on writing up a short reflection on Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and other notable science fiction recommendations, for those whose thirst has yet to be slated by the series. Look for that sometime in January.