Best of the West: ‘Westworld’ episode 2×7 ‘Les Écorchés’ ramps up on action, questions of free will

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As this season of “Westworld” nears its end, it doesn’t seem that its pace will let up. This episode continued with the intensity and reveals that have come to characterize the second half of the season. While it ramped up the action, it didn’t shy away from posing the philosophical questions “Westworld” is known for.

Present

It seems that we’re finally catching up on one present timeline. As the episode opens, an unconscious Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) holds a photo of his (or, rather, Arnold’s) son. Bernard’s programmed past and personality continue to be major players throughout the episode.

Ashley (Luke Hemsworth) rouses Bernard to express his suspicions of Strand (Gustaf Skarsgård). Just as the two are about to escape to call for help, Strand apprehends them both.

Strand believes that Ashley and Bernard have the key they’re looking for and accuses them of holding onto it for their own personal gain. He also believes they killed Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) because she found out too much.

Hoping to find out more about what they know, Strand leads Ashley and Bernard to the site of Theresa’s murder, where they all find Charlotte (Tessa Thompson). The four soon discover a secret room filled with dormant hosts shrouded in plastic.

Charlotte uncovers a few and recoils. Everyone’s shocked at the realization that every single host is a previous model of Bernard. Now knowing he’s a host, they haul present Bernard back to headquarters and ruthlessly interrogate him regarding the whereabouts of Peter Abernathy’s (Louis Herthum) control unit, which contains the decryption key they need. With the help of analysis mode, Bernard reveals a location often alluded to this season — Sector 16, Zone 4.

This is the place where Strand, Ashley and Bernard found the mysteriously flooded valley and the mass of drowned hosts. Based on Strand’s reply to Bernard’s revelation — that it’s time to venture back to the “Valley Beyond” — it’s confirmed that this is no ordinary valley, but rather the valley that all the hosts have been searching for.

Past

To figure out how Peter’s control unit got there, though, we need to dive back into the past again. We last left Peter in an underground laboratory, where Coughlin (Timothy V. Murphy) and Charlotte were struggling to extract useful data from the delirious host. Charlotte’s desperation mounts as Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and the other hosts break into the headquarters. As the hosts advance to “the Cradle” — where their backups and thus the keys to their immortality are held — Ashley emphasizes the importance of stopping the hosts before they can reach it.

Bernard and Elsie (Shannon Woodward), meanwhile, are still at the Cradle, where Bernard had entered the extraction unit last episode, meeting Ford (Anthony Hopkins) in his memories. Wondering how Ford still lives, Bernard reasons that the control unit he remembered printing in the secret lab was really Ford’s. Before Dolores killed Ford at the gala, Bernard uploaded Ford into this memory form of Westworld, thereby keeping him alive purely within Bernard’s own memories.

Ford walks with Bernard through this phantom past of the park as he explains more. Central to the true purpose of Westworld is the fact that the hosts’ stories and personalities hadn’t changed for 30 years. While most believed this to be for the hosts’ benefit — trapping them within narrative loops that wouldn’t disorient them — it was actually to create a controlled environment for an experiment in which the guests acted as the variables. The true products Westworld was made to peddle were synthetic human minds — which, in the words of Ford, are “the last analog device(s) in a digital world.”

Back in the park, Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her daughter (Jasmyn Rae), as well as William (Ed Harris) and Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), are on the run, with the Ghost Nation hosts in hot pursuit. Maeve and William end up taking shelter in the same house. William laments to Ford that it was too obvious of a resolution to their “game” to have the Ghost Nation hosts drive him to Maeve — the host who, when he attacked her and her daughter so long ago, first displayed a flicker of a life beyond her programming.

Maeve bristles at the implication that Ford controls her and argues that she’s a free agent. To prove this, she shoots him and commands nearby hosts telepathically to join her in hunting him. Just as Maeve takes fatal aim at William, however, she’s stopped by Lawrence, who doesn’t acquiesce to her commands. She tries a different tool to turn him against William — Lawrence’s memories. At Maeve’s urging, a distraught Lawrence remembers William’s past crimes against his family. He shoots him with the intention to kill.

Right away, a team from Delos arrives and shoots Lawrence down. Maeve looks around at the commotion only to find that her daughter has left the house. As the Delos forces gun Maeve down as well, she watches helplessly as the daughter she swore to protect is taken once more by the Ghost Nation.

Just as the security forces are about to kill Maeve, Lee (Simon Quarterman) sprints out from one of the vehicles and commands him to stop, saying that they need Maeve. As they tote a gravely injured Maeve back to headquarters, the camera pans to William, hiding behind barrels and barely still breathing.

Having walked Bernard through a very different version of Westworld, Ford now leads Bernard back to a memory copy of Arnold’s family home. Bernard realizes that this house was the site of his first creation, and as Ford recalls Bernard’s birth, his musings take on a more paternal tint. This moment poses as a contrast to the godlike tone Ford possessed as he surveyed Westworld. Regardless of Ford’s detached megalomania, his love for Arnold still manifests in small ways.

Here, we also discover that Dolores was instrumental in creating Bernard, as she had a very complete knowledge of Arnold’s personality. Yet once again, Ford has a completely different agenda from everyone else — to him, the mission of fidelity was fundamentally flawed. Ford deeply believed that the hosts were more beautiful as original works than as copies of existing humans. In the end, he reasons, while it seems that Delos’ fundamental mission is to create hosts as identical as possible to their human blueprints, it is actually the opposite — to transcend mortality by making humans more hostlike.

Ford then tells Bernard, a bit sadly, that he wasn’t built to survive. Ford once more robs Bernard of his free will as Bernard blacks out. Elsie then pulls Bernard out of the extractor and tells him that while he was in, the systems came back online. The two flee the Cradle before Dolores and the other hosts can arrive.

Ford, meanwhile, has gained a more robust presence in Bernard’s mind and begins materializing before his eyes. On his orders, Bernard sends Elsie away and follows Ford back to headquarters.

Currently at headquarters, Charlotte finally reveals that the decryption key in Peter’s head is the key to accessing a system backup. Soon, Dolores and Teddy (James Marsden) break into the office where Peter is being held and capture Charlotte and Ashley. Dolores cuts to the chase and says she wants to extract the key in her father’s head.

Dolores goes on to taunt that humans’ power over hosts is illusory. Yet in doing so, she almost exactly echoes Ford’s words that humans yearn to be more like hosts. Ironically, it looks like Dolores is still under at least one human’s control. But can Ford, in his current form, truly be called human? While his motivations carry on from his human form, in his transmutation to Bernard’s mind, has he fully become a host?

When Charlotte tells Dolores that her actions are futile and that their backups — and therefore their lifelines — are all sealed away from them, Dolores reveals that she never viewed the backups as a source of power. Hosts’ backups are what shackle them to their loops — without the backups, they are free to be whoever they want to be. Remove the backups, and the shackles are gone, too.

The backup removal mission is carried out by Angela (Talulah Riley), whom Engels (Ronnie Gene Blevins), one of Coughlin’s operatives, finds at the Cradle. Angela manages to lower Engels’ guard before pulling a pin from one of his grenades — destroying the two of them along with the backups in the process.

Right after the Cradle’s destruction, Peter seems to awaken from his disturbed trance, and Dolores goes to him. With Teddy outside dealing with the oncoming Delos forces, Charlotte — whose skull Dolores was about to carve open in an “eye for an eye” action — and Ashley manage to use the distraction to escape. After a tender moment with Peter, Dolores visibly has to steel herself before continuing with her mission: to extract his control unit and, in essence, kill him.

Lee and the Delos operatives, meanwhile, return to headquarters with a drastically injured but not quite dead Maeve. As the Delos operatives disperse to deal with other threats, Dolores and the hosts emerge.

Dolores tells the others to go ahead when she sees Maeve. Although the two haven’t always seen eye to eye, Dolores is still distraught to see someone she had viewed as a powerful figure so grievously wounded. When Maeve explains that she was protecting her daughter, Dolores warns Maeve that the family members they are given are just more shackles — all while holding her father’s freshly extracted control unit in her hand.

Dolores offers to kill Maeve before humans can get to her, but Maeve refuses — she has to keep living to rescue her daughter. Dolores accepts and leaves, en route to the Valley Beyond.

Ford leads Bernard back to the center of headquarters, where he philosophizes about the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Where there is a thing of beauty, there is a human urge to destroy it. While Ford delivers his monologue —  as the aptly placed, dirgelike strains of Beethoven’s seventh symphony sound in the background — Bernard watches the hosts and humans destroy one another at headquarters. He finally understands at this point that the “story” Ford keeps alluding to is not the creation or sustenance of Westworld’s beauty, but rather its destruction.

Later, Bernard is held back by a security employee, whom Ford commands him to kill. Bernard resists, but Ford reassures him that he’ll ease his guilt by taking the blame for it. As Bernard shoots the employee, through the darkness, his face and Ford’s flicker between one another. This final cinematographic device reaffirms their oneness. Without Bernard, and without Bernard’s mind, Ford ceases to exist. Even more so than when Ford was alive and human, they are now entities entirely dependent on one another.

Sahana Rangarajan covers TV. Contact her at [email protected].