Westworld S01E02 Recap: 'Chestnut'

The first episode of Westworld last week was sort of a whirlwind. I mentioned in my review that, thanks to the need for exposition, the true value of the pilot was more in the world-building and ambiance. This is a universe that scoops you up and pulls you in to something that, from the get-go, was clearly very detailed, multi-layered and nuanced. Much of what we see is not what it appears to be, and that's hard to convey in a first episode. But the show's writers (in this case Jonathan Nolan and his wife Lisa Roy) confidently ask you to trust them as they embark us on this convoluted journey.

The second episode of Westworld, "Chestnut", effectively confirms this, by taking a much more linear approach to storytelling, or so it seems. "Chestnut" is like part two of the pilot in certain ways, introducing us to the park through the clean slate of a man who's never been there, who has to go through the rigmarole of being admitted into the park, of learning its rules (or lack thereof), of deciphering between the more carnal attractions it has to offer and its deeper layers, as they have been teased. This is done through William (Jimmy Simpson, unseen in the first episode but prominent here), a first-time attendee who's reluctant to buy into a lot of what he's seeing, who's noble, monogamous, and kind, and his buddy Logan (Ben Barnes), a veteran at Westworld and much quicker to draw his gun or decipher what's worth his time in the park.

Logan is a tool that tells us how we need to pay attention to all the little details. William, evidently, is the person who's going to discover those details along with the audience. As a voiceover tells us how the people who truly enjoy Westworld are the ones that discover the aforementioned intricacies, William is introduced to Dolores in much of the same way we see Teddy is in the pilot. It almost doesn't differ, even though, unlike Teddy, William is real. That's the difference between the pilot and this episode. "The Original" keeps you on your toes by showing us how just about anything could be real or fake. "Chestnut" assures us that this one thing is fake, but it nevertheless winds up having the same effect, all through the guise of the deeper layer of Westworld.

That idea contextualizes what we saw in the pilot, paints it in a different light. In that first episode, we only get a glimpse of the so-called depper levels, and only through the riddled dialog offered by Ed Harris' mysterious Man in Black, talking to us about some sort of maze he's been searching for for the thirty years he's been going to the park. The rest is fairly straightforward, between the basic constructs of the park and its overworked handlers at HQ, or the sex and violence at every corner. "Chestnut" flips the script, as we've now accepted MiB's quest, and we're forced to question everything else around it. They even go to the trouble of confirming that he is indeed a guest and not a Host.

Meanwhile, another scene is particularly jarring when juxtaposed to action surrounding Ed Harris' character. Ford (Sir Anthony Hopkins) takes a walk in the desert looking for something he's been working on for a while, something which will serve as the next storyline for the park after he rejects Sizemore's ideas. He comes across a child who says he's on vacation with his family, but when he tells him to run along, the child is very clearly revealed to be a Host. Ford humoring him, conversing with him when he would clearly know if he were a host or not seems odd. It feels like the show telling us to pay attention. The Man in Black is confirmed to be real while Ford talks to Hosts, all while both seem to be searching for the same kind of fulfillment. It's just one example of the show's attempts to sandbag the viewer, how it accomplishes that destabilization masterfully.

Seeing tings like that makes me personally question the linearity of the storytelling, whether or not all these storylines are happening at the same time. A friend of mine floated a theory that William is a young Man in Black. It's an attractive theory, I'll admit, but what it got me thinking most about was how, without any other confirmation, any story could be taking place at any point in time, especially since the events in the park repeat every day. Right now what seems the most likely is that we're seeing events at two different points in time; one thirty years ago, leading up to the foreshadowed major incident mentioned in the pilot, and one thirty years later, where the Man in Black is looking for the maze. I hate to theorize, since after publishing I'll probably remember some small detail that throws said theory out of whack, but other than those two anchors (the incident and MiB), anything else could take place at any point in time, which is a fairly brilliant and unique way of structuring a show, and what makes Westworld such a delight to watch.

"Chestnut" improves on Westworld's first episode by offering a different way of perceiving what this show is about and how it wants to tells us things. The sheer potential of this ever-expanding world continues to impress me, and for that, it gets 9 dissonant episodes out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • One little thing that I love about the show is the difference between how the Hosts speak and how their handlers and engineers do. The Hosts swear, sure, but they generally sound wise and thoughtful. The people at HQ are stressed out of their minds trying to keep this park afloat, dealing with new stories, broken robots, and political maneuvering, so they act lewd and crass. It's a wonderful little touch.
  • We didn't talk about Jeffrey Wright messing with Dolores, and Maeve freaking out and waking up during surgery, as we move forward to there being a bigger problem with the hosts.
  • Probably the most obvious imagery on the show so far is William being offered a choice between a white and a black hat, but I'm a sucker for things like that.
  • "Are you real?" "Well, if you can't tell, does it matter?"
  • "You can't play god without being acquainted with the devil."
  • "This storyline will make Hieronymus Bosch look like he was doodling kittens."