Major spoilers ahead for Westworld episode one and speculation about where the rest of the season is headed. If you're fine with that, read on and buckle up, but keep your Stetsons on unless you want to be brutalized by a psychopath collecting scalp mazes.
There's a lot going on in Westworld. There's high technology, there's villainy, there's gun crime and rape. Big worlds and miniature worlds that feel big, robots and memory resets. There's milk, and it's disturbing. The Season One premiere established far more ideas, themes and mysteries than most scripts could handle, but here they are handled in deliciously in creepy style.
While the series' most obvious intrigue comes from the extent to which Dolores (the brilliant Evan Rachel Wood) has developed, or is developing, Artificial Intelligence — that fly-swat in the closing scene certainly suggests she's playing the long game — the premiere also established a whole saloon-full of side mysteries, the most sinister of which takes the shape of the Man in Black (Ed Harris).
The Man in Black is not a very nice guy. You probably clocked that when he shot Teddy (James Marsden) and left him to bleed out on Dolores's porch, or when he took the scalp of Kissy the card dealer. It's that latter act of deplorable villainy that we need to talk about, giving rise as it did to the Man in Black discovering an enigmatic map seemingly tattooed onto the underside of the dead host's scalp. Yes, in the "how fucked up can television get?" stakes, Westworld has more than just a few letters in common with Westeros.
In case you need a reminder, here's what the map looked like.
Rather than offering any clues as to the ongoing enigma of how the hosts developed AI, or what they intend to do with it, the map seems to play into one of the other mysteries set up in the premiere — the question of whether Westworld is simply an advanced virtual reality experience, or whether it's some kind of game complete with rules and an end destination.
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The map definitely suggests we're in game territory, and seems to exist as an Easter Egg or clue designed to help a player access that "deeper level" which the MiB spoke of. He also mentioned having been a guest at the park for thirty years. Can it really be a coincidence that it was exactly the same length of time since the park experienced its last "critical failure"?
If there are levels within Westworld, the park, it's not a stretch to imagine that there are levels within Westworld, the show. Are Bernard, Theresa and Lee truly human, or themselves super-advanced robots? Perhaps that's a little too shamelessly Inception-esque a reality for creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy to journey into. Either way, the map has significance. Is the human outline at the centre representative of the gamer, trapped inside the maze, or is it what the successful player will find when he accesses the game's deepest level?
It's probably perilous to try and work out what's going on at this early stage, but I'd be tempted to guess that the Man in Black was a prototypical android who developed some sentience and caused the aforementioned earlier critical failure. His smugness in stating his superiority over the android hosts seems like a red herring, meaning he's really one of them, simply programmed to have awareness of the existence of the real world outside of Westworld. Perhaps only true AI can find its way to the "deeper levels" of the game, and the MiB is designed to root out whether or not that's something the androids are capable of.
Expect Westworld to ask a whole lot more questions before it starts answering any. For now, just keep your head down and enjoy the ride. Oh, and don't drink the milk. Episode two airs Sunday October 9 on HBO. Check out the preview of what lies ahead in Westworld below: