Tony Black reviews the third episode of Westworld…
Inevitably the pedal eases off in ‘The Stray’, Westworld‘s third episode, which takes a step to the side in order to contextualize and deepen the character beats and motivations of the sprawl of main characters in Jonathan Nolan’s ensemble. It’s becoming clear that the show intends to paint a portrait of the meaning of identity, and the contrast with traditional narrative and the concept, essentially, of fate vs determination. The ‘hosts’ who make up the Wild West park the gamers experience, as we discover here, are steadily beginning to grow lucid in a manner (almost) nobody expected when the idea came to fruition. It’s a slowly developing idea which is beginning to blossom, and Nolan is allowing it to take time – though here he delivers a major burst of exposition, which is surprising as it is revelatory.
Surprising more in the fact Westworld, up to the point Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Robert Ford explains in a five minute speech to Jeffrey Wright’s curious Bernard a major piece of mythological backstory to the park, has not been a show which gives you too much on a plate, and that’s very much a strength. Part of me was disheartened to see Hopkins doling out some important context about the park’s creation here after only being lightly pressed, as it smacked more of HBO being jittery that the show was too nebulous & highbrow at this point, and they needed to give us something back. Guys, trust me, you don’t. The beauty of a puzzle like this is working it out ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, Hopkins only delivers I’m sure a piece of what Nolan has planned, but it does almost feel like we didn’t need to know what we know this early on.
Beyond this, the episode scatters exploration among different characters from different perspectives. James Marsden’s Teddy, aka the cowboy who always dies, is becoming an experimentation toy of Ford’s as he seemingly attempts to push Teddy’s relationship with Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores away from the traditional, accepted narrative, for what aim? It’s unclear at this stage but it’s a clever way of utilizing Marsden as an action man & continuing to develop the central romantic connection between he & Evan Wood, who remains our anchor in many ways and the prism through which we enter this world on the side of the hosts. On the whole, it’s a good blend of intrigue behind the development of the park and inside the park itself, but the episode lacks those defining moments the previous episodes have marked themselves out with as being top-tier television.
That’s not to say Westworld has faltered here, far from it. This might be the weakest episode of the season yet but for many other show’s this would be them at the top of their game. Nolan has simply already set the bar so high, the challenge will be to continue making episodes which deliver the deep, meaningful, iconic TV it’s looking more and more like this could be. ‘The Stray’, for my money, was just a little too unfocused and eager to spell a little too much out for it to truly hit those heights again. Nonetheless, this remains unmissable and continues the show’s phenomenal start.