It’s no secret that Westworld yearns to be a real world parable. So, it is by a sick turn of fate (or incredible HBO foresight) that ‘Trompe L’Oeil’ ends up with shocking relevance as an old white man asserts his dominance over a woman and has unwavering control of an unwitting black man.
In a twist that half the internet saw coming and the other half won’t be able to get their heads around, Westworld pulled a classic TV trick and used the death of a character as a cheap cliffhanger to make sure viewers return next week. Paired with recent political events and the show’s history of violence against women, this twist became more disturbing. It’s a bravo moment of television, a scene that will be remembered for its visual language and powerful acting.
It’s also a moment that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. This being Westworld, after all, the twist comes with baggage as the moment is convoluted and contrived. In trying to be “clever” the show stuffs too much into the scene and asks more questions than it answers. A simpler solution would have sufficed and possibly been more interesting. The scene’s emotional impact is also stymied by previous episodes’ poor structure as the key players haven’t had enough screen time and the story feels tangent to everything else that is going on. All of the scene’s resonance rests on the shoulders of the actors.Luckily, Westworld has one of the best ensembles ever assembled. The cast and the casting director deserve all the awards the show is bound to pick up as they make the material bat further than it should. The three MVPs are Jeffrey Wright, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Wright infuses Bernard with enough confusion and childlike manners that his tragedy is tragic. Knudsen’s Theresa has enough steel to stand up to the men in the room and enough sass to strike them down, but her real success is her ability to mask Theresa’s desperation with defiance.
But, this episode is really about Ford and Hopkins’ performance. With a tilt of his head and a cold stare, Hopkins telegraphs everything Ford is thinking without saying a word. It is terrifying and full of subtext. Ford is a man whose privilege is being threatened and a man who is willing to do the unthinkable to secure it.
Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is another character trying to secure what she wants but the intriguing aura she held at the start of the season has been sapped away. The storylines happening in the park are boring compared to the political machinations happening in the DELOS boardroom. The “cowboy” sections hang too heavy on stale Western tropes. The weirdness that punctuated the pilot episode has been replaced by a lifeless imitation of what people expect to see in a cowboy flick. It’s as if the show is now scared to be weird, as the intriguing sight of a dead man weeping nitro-glycerine is just a reason for a giant explosion.
If there is an episode that will go on to define Westworld, it may just be ‘Trompe L’Oeil’. The story focused on the show’s strengths — mainly its cast — and pulled off an enthralling hour of television. It’s just a shame its solutions created more problems and highlight just how contrived the show is. This shouldn’t be a surprise, this is Westworld after all.