Three episodes in, Westworld is now finally starting to lay out the table settings for what's to come. We've seen over the past two episodes both the world itself from dual perspectives, i.e. hosts and guests, and now with The Stray, we see it from the perspective of the people behind the scenes at Westworld. While they've always loomed large in the background, we're beginning to see something of the history of the park and why it is that Anthony Hopkins is so, well, off and why Jeffrey Wright's character is so reigned in and reserved.
The central thrust of the episode - Other Hemsworth and Shannon Woodward take off after a stray host who's fallen down a hole - gives us a chance to explore the maintenance of the park, the mechanics of the hosts and why it is that the hosts haven't risen up in bloody rebellion against them. Anthony Hopkins' character, in a slightly expositionary scene, goes through how hosts aren't wired for consciousness or sentience and that a former creative mind at the park - a mysterious Arnold - was interested in the real thing; mimicing consciousness and creating life from artificial means. Through a genuinely odd flashback involving a Remains Of The Day-era Hopkins, we see that the park was built over a period of three years and that the creative drive has largely gone from the park.
It's a fascinating insight and, as you can imagine, gives huge amount of room to speculate and theorise. The most likely and plausible theory is that Ed Harris is, in fact, Arnold - one of the creators of Westworld - who's returned to destroy what he's created. Now, you're asking why it is that Other Hemsworth referred to him in the previous episode and said, "That man gets whatever he wants", as if to say that he knew him. Other Hemsworth and Shannon Woodward spoke about the so-called "staff discount", which could mean that Arnold's death was kept a secret and that... wait for it... The Man In Black is actually a copy of Arnold that had his consciousness uploaded to it. In other words, the Man In Black is a host that's had Arnold's consciousness implanted and uploaded onto it. It explains why the character has such an innate understanding of the park, the hosts, the so-called deeper levels of it all and why Anthony Hopkins' character has suddenly decided to get involved in the storytelling aspects of the park.
This type of plot is classic Nolan, of course, infusing an ordinary impulse with a fantastical element to make it seem more grounded. We all want to live forever, we all want to indulge every fantasy, we all want to be able to control our dreams - but how? By using complex devices to implant memories in our dreams (Inception) and create life-like robots to service our every needs (Westworld). The dialogue, particularly in this episode, has been quite incisive and sharp - particularly in the "little chats" between Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright. Wood's performance has been a real hallmark; the way that she's able to drop her accent and mannerisms and adopt a terrifyingly blank visage is really something, and to do it so subtly is a real talent.
The inclusion of Neil Marshall as director is an interesting one here. Primarily known, in television terms anyway, for the spectacle-heavy episodes of Game Of Thrones, Marshall was instead used for a character-driven, dialogue-heavy episode that was more about world-building than world-destroying. Again, it speaks to a lot of what Westworld is about - showing you something conventional and something you'd expect, like Neil Marshall directing a huge effects-heavy episode, and then it's something totally different. The same goes for how they're treating James Marsden's character; you expect him to be the hero gunslinger, but he's nothing more than a prop for stories who can have a history uploaded to suit a narrative.
What's made abundantly clear in this episode is that something big is coming, something that will change Westworld fundamentally. It's hard to know precisely what this is, whether it's about Ed Harris finding his way to the centre of the maze or if Evan Rachel Wood is actually replaying past lives - but things are slowly getting out of controlling and straying from the natural order.
Next week can only bring further weirdness and we cannot wait to see what happens.