The title refers to stories. My dictionary offers as a definition of “chestnut:” “a story that has become tedious because of age and repetition.” Part of the virus that is beginning to infect the hosts of Westworld is the idea that repetition is causing the memories of the hosts to become problematic. Age and repetition make the story tedious. Likewise, Westworld itself is one giant chestnut generator - the same story is told over and over. We saw in the first episode and repeated again with this one, the same stories; the same events are repeated over and over for new guests. The danger is that variations are being introduced into the chestnut. Repetition plus revision make the story potentially unpredictable and therefore dangerous.
Westworld (and Westworld) is a world of stories. The scientists make the hosts, the hosts fulfill the needs of the guests, but it is the guys who make the narratives that make everything else work. Westworld runs on stories. People pay to be dropped into stories and much is made in this episode of the “new narrative” that Sizemore is working on, and then much is made of the fact Ford rejects that narrative, but has his own story planned. Westworld is a world of competing stories.
Logan (Ben Barnes) brings his workmate, William (Jimmi Simpson), to Westworld for a vacation of sex and violence. “This place seduces everybody eventually,” Logan tells William. “By the end you’re going to be begging me to stay, because this place is the answer to that question you’ve been asking yourself…who you really are. And I can’t wait to meet that guy.” Good writing, but that’s also just it - it’s a story. Logan creates a narrative about Westworld for William, and throughout the episode we will see stories and the idea of stories (and this story specifically) deconstructed.
Think about Westworld for a moment. It is an immersive theme park in which people pay to participate in a narrative as someone other than themselves. But as Vonnegut reminds us in Mother Night, we should be careful about what we pretend to be, because in the end, that is what we truly are. We become what we pretend to be. We act out stories that show us who we are.
The Man in Black tells his old associate Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), “That’s what I love about this place - the secrets.” And Westworld (and Westworld) are full of secrets. Lowe and Cullen are having a secret affair, Ford has been planning a secret storyline, and Kissy’s (Eddie Rouse) skull contained a map of the maze that not even Kissy knew was there.
The biggest secret, however, is the reality kept from the hosts. Maeve has a breakdown and is brought in for repairs. She “wakes up” behind the scenes and learns the true nature of her world. In a scene somewhat suggestive of The Matrix, she learns that what she thought was reality is a fiction created by the men and women behind the curtain.
Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) runs a diagnostic on Maeve, telling her assistant that if the hosts ever learned the truth of their reality, it would end the park as we know it: “Can you imagine how f**cked we’d be if these poor a**holes ever remembered what the guests did to them?” The hosts must never learn that they exist to be shot, sexually used and abused, and otherwise serve to slake the appetites of the guests. No sentient being would agree to remain in this role. The very nature of the park is a great secret kept from those who live and work there, even though it is obvious from the behavior of the guests. But it is a secret kept only by wiping the memories of those hosts.
Maeve and Delores and others are beginning to remember. Secrets will be revealed over the rest of the season, and that becomes the prime mover of the series: what happens when more hosts learn their reality?
The credits feature the image of a player piano (also known as a pianola), and indeed, the saloon in Westworld (the park) features a player piano. The use of the pianola, by the way, gives the lie to Westworld. In this episode we saw recruiters from the Union Army asking people to join the fight against the secessionists, which means the setting is sometime between 1861 and 1865. Yet the setting seems much closer to the 1880s, and the player piano is very much a product of the 1870s. In other words, Westworld and Westworld are filled with anachronisms. For the record, that’s fine - no one goes to Disney World for the historical accuracy. One goes to have fun and to enjoy the story. It also indicates that the park is based not on a “real” West, but on a West of the imagination, that combines all elements and times.
But let us reflect on the pianola, the player piano, if one will, for a moment. The player piano is a musical instrument that removes the need for a human operator. It is a device that replaces the human with a mechanical device. The challenge for a player piano is that music is not simply notes struck, but notes played at different durations and, in a piano, the force with which they keys are struck results in forte or pianissimo notes. So, the challenge to pianola manufacturers was how to make the songs played as real as possible. The pianola represents an attempt to remove the human player without removing the human qualities behind the music. What is that if not a metaphor for Westworld and Westworld?
Tying the pianola to the theme of stories, the Westworld player piano is of a variety that relies upon a perforated paper unscrolling from a drum in order to set the parts of the piano in motion. The holes in the paper determine which keys are “struck.” In other words, it is both the paper and the spaces in the paper that create the song. The narrative is a flow of the text and the “holes” - the spaces in between.
And this is where the second episode, in its finale, blends these three elements into a larger theme. As jazz enthusiasts would say, one must listen to the notes not being played to truly understand. It is what is not said, it is the “holes” in the paper that actually makes the melody happen. And Ford reminds Sizemore, the problem of stories is that the recipient also needs to do some of the work. The guests are not in the park for the stories themselves.
Sizemore has proposed a new narrative, “Odyssey on Red River,” that Ford rejects for being mere titillation and garish pleasure. Ford tells Sizemore his narrative offers them nothing, and the goal is not to tell guests who they are. Recall - the episode began with Logan telling William the place is seductive because it shows you who you really are. Logan and Sizemore are wrong, according to Ford. Guests return to Westworld because, “They want a glimpse of what they could be.” It is not the action-filled surface of the narratives that affect guests, it is the “subtlety,” the small moments that reveal potential. “The only thing your story tells me, Mr. Sizemore, is who you are,” Ford sadly concludes. A story that is about the author is not a story about us. We hear this argument in voice-over as William is the one who picks up the can Dolores drops in the street in her narrative where she meets her “hero.” When their eyes meet, both are transformed by the encounter because it is real, and at heart that is the concern of Westworld: the “real” is a very tricky thing.
Let’s jump back to the opening of the episode. William asks Angela (Talulah Riley) if she is real, and her response forms the central conundrum of the episode: “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?” He then asks if the guns are real. Her response is even more telling: “Real enough. But you can’t kill anyone you’re not supposed to.” We have no way of knowing what is real and what is not in Westworld [made abundantly apparent by Ford’s walk with a little boy (Oliver Bell), who seems to be a guest but is, in fact, a host]. And even the things that are “real enough” are slaves to the narrative. The guns work, but you cannot use them realistically except in the service of the story.
Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), rebuffed by William due to his relationship “back home,” tells him, “Real love is always worth waiting for.” When William picks up Dolores’s can, it is this line echoing through our heads. She is a host, he is a guest, but the show implies a reality to their feelings for one another. We cannot define the real, but we know it when we see it, and we value it - it is “worth waiting for.”
The Man in Black kills Lawrence’s wife and threatens his daughter. “When you’re suffering” he tells him, “that’s when you’re most real.” Lawrence, his family, his cousins, and everyone else the Man in Black guns down are hosts and therefore “not real,” become more real when they suffer. A seemingly throwaway line is actually at the heart of this episode, as the hosts become self-aware, it is their suffering that makes them “real,” not the pleasure they give the guests.
We learn that the hosts constantly talk, carrying on conversations even if no guest is present. They are “always trying to make themselves more human,” so they practice with each other. The hosts seek to reach the level of Angela - you cannot tell if they are real or not. But the idea that they are now having conversations and lives separate from the narrative and their role in it seems to suggest they are becoming more real all the time as well. (Tangentially, I am reminded of Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” about an automated house that continues doing everything it has been programmed to do decades after a catastrophe has wiped out life on Earth. In the absence of humans, house and hosts will continue to do what they do - does that not make them more real in some sense, as they are no longer dependent on us?)
This brings us to Slavoj Žižek and his book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, a philosophical analysis of the American response to 9/11. (Tangentially, Žižek’s title comes from one of Morpheus’ lines in The Matrix.) We value the real, but there are many “reals.” In previous work, Žižek posits three levels of “the real:" “the symbolic real” (a way of understanding the world through reductivist metaphors), “the imaginary real” (monsters from a horror movie), and “the real real,” which is an authentic, unchangeable truth separate from our perceptions of the physical reality that surrounds us. (I know, my head hurts, too). Westworld plays with all three of Žižek’s reals. It is a symbolic real and an imaginary real that threatens constantly to become a real real. But Žižek would agree with Angela - we can’t really tell what’s real, so one perception is as good as another until we get independent confirmation. Žižek indicates that we thought reality was one way, and 9/11 showed America a very different reality. Westworld plays with this idea: it is in this “fake” world that we find something real. Indeed, Ford seems to argue that only in an imaginary world is an encounter with the real possible. This idea, of course, brings us full circle back to Vonnegut: Whatever you’re pretending to be, you really are. We discover the real in make believe, and it is not what we thought it was.
And an extra bonus pop-cultural/theological afterthought
We have entered Westworld twice now, each time a different way. Episode one opened with hosts and their creators. Episode two opened with two newcomers, including one actual new newcomer, and so we encounter the world in a different way through different eyes. Perspective and context are important. Stories don’t mean - they generate meanings. We bring our histories, ideas, and baggage. So, fans, such as myself, can sometimes go deep with references that are not there, but the echoes are meaning-making anyway. “Chestnut” as a catchy, throwaway line was, for me, a stone thrown into water, making many rings of reference.
Ford tells Lowe, “You can’t play God without being acquainted with the devil.” Trite, yes (Indeed, this line is a chestnut.), but it opens up cans of theological and popular cultural worms. This line is both Biblical (I’m hearing echoes of Ecclesiastes 1:18: “With much wisdom comes much sorrow, the more knowledge, the more grief.”) and an echo of Frankenstein and any other narrative in which a mad scientist dares to seek things that man was never meant to know!
Ford then gets medieval with Lowe with a mention of Occam’s razor. “William of Occam was a thirteenth century monk. He cannot help us now, Bernard. He would have us burned at the stake.” I fully concede the thought process is the direct result of my own background in both theology and eighties cinema, but the use of Lowe’s first name in a line about medieval monks and burning at the stake immediately took me to two other Bernards.
The first is Bernardo Gui (1261-1331), also a thirteenth century monk who would have burned them at the stake. Gui was a French Dominican Inquisitor, best known nowadays as represented in the Umberto Eco novel (and Sean Connery-starring film), The Name of the Rose. For those not familiar with that text, it is another mystery concerning the pursuit of forbidden knowledge that might just change the world. F. Murray Abraham chews the scenery with the malevolence of a diabolical Cookie Monster as Bernardo Gui, who would like nothing better than to burn William of Baskerville (Connery’s character, the name itself a blend of Sherlock Holmes and William of Occam) at the stake. Gui represents the repressive forces within the church that would use violence to suppress knowledge. One might argue the scientists of Westworld use both physical and programming violence to surpass the knowledge of the hosts.
The second is Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), another French clergyman, Cistercian monk, and a doctor of the church. He was also a contemplative mystic who spent a good deal of time in prayer and reflection, despite founding 163 monasteries, reforming the Cistercian order, and penning a great deal of theological treatises. Dante made Bernard his last guide in The Divine Comedy, seeing the poet through the heart of heaven. Bernard wanted to lead all people to Heaven. Bernard Lowe seems to follow in the footsteps of this Bernard. He is Ford’s reformer and acolyte. He is contemplative, like Ford, and in many ways the de facto head of the Park. Ford calls the shots, but Lowe actually runs the creation and maintenance of the hosts. But the Heaven of this Bernard is an artificial one, with an artificial snake that Ford (“God?”) plays with. It might even be a bit of Hell, instead.
And did I mention one of Bernard of Clairvaux’s sigils is a devil on a chain? He is a man of God who is an acquaintance of the devil’s. Robert Ford would approve.