I don’t read the comics so I didn’t know what to expect last night. I thought this week would continue to follow Rick’s group as they coped with the aftermath of Whack-a-Glenn. Instead I turn on the show and I’m watching a guy in dreads on a throne with a tiger beside him speaking in exaggerated regal-ese. For a second I thought I was on the wrong channel, then I saw Morgan and Carol and thought I might be having a small stroke. No, turns out this is just how this new character rolls. Nice to see the show has retained its sense of humor after caving in a major character’s skull and exposing his brain stem. In related news, apparently this show has a sense of humor.
The most noteworthy thing about last night’s hour isn’t that we have a new character, it’s that the new character is likable. When does that ever happen on “The Walking Dead”? New characters fall into two groups: This Season’s Villain, whom we’re already familiar with, and New Members Of The Group, none of whom are ever sufficiently compelling or fleshed out to rival the core nucleus of Rick, Michonne, Daryl, Maggie, etc, for viewers’ affection. Poor Abraham Ford, a classic New Member, didn’t even merit a hero’s send-off from the writers. He was just the fake-out appetizer last week before Glenn’s main course. King Ezekiel looks like he has a shot at cracking the core nucleus, though, if he hangs around long enough. There’s clearly a vibe between him and Carol, and Morgan seems to like him. That’s two of the show’s three remaining likable characters already handing him their seal of approval, an auspicious debut. (I’d argue the other likable one is Michonne, but your mileage may vary.) The writers did a surprisingly nice job humanizing him in his big sitdown with Carol at the end of the hour, too. For 45 minutes I sat there and wondered whether the Glenn beating scene or this guy’s histrionic manner of speaking was the bigger atrocity this season, but when he dropped the act and got real for 10 minutes, he was easy to take. His backstory is ridiculous and the tiger’s a bit much, but “The Walking Dead” too often feels like Groundhog Day. Like Bill Murray said at the end of that movie, anything different is good. This guy’s different.
But there isn’t much more to say. I’m tempted to turn this into a “Westworld” grumble thread instead. It’s a solid show that’s done a nice job of teasing out its central mysteries, but I slipped off the hook a little last night. Not because of the orgy, which was gratuitous and mechanical, but because the writing and acting can be so uneven that I tend to zone out. The Logan character in particular is a terrible Snidely Whiplash cartoon and good-guy Will is too bland to be his foil. (Although his blandness makes him well-suited for the gender role reversal that appears to be in the works in which Dolores is the hero gunfighter and Will is her mostly useless love interest.) I’d rather watch a 20-minute Rick Grimes monologue about Stuff and Things than watch that Will/Logan “brodown” confrontation during the orgy scene again. I can’t tell if it’s bad writing that could be saved by better acting or vice versa, but even some of the prestige actors are a letdown. Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright don’t have much to do, and Hopkins in particular seems to have reached that De Niro stage where he appears to be playing himself mostly. I lose interest whenever Evan Rachel Wood or Ed Harris isn’t onscreen. Which, thankfully, isn’t often.
My theory is that the Man in Black isn’t quite the villain he seems to be and that he’s secretly helping Dolores to achieve consciousness. The scene in the first episode where he drags her off to the barn and pulls a knife on her implies rape, but I don’t think that’s what happened. It’s elliptical, and it seems out of character for the MIB. He’s way, way beyond abusing the hosts for kicks like a noob; he’s been playing the game for decades and has his mind on the next level, whatever that is. My guess is that we’ll flash back to that scene in a later episode and find out that he didn’t rape her after all but did something to trigger her evolution. (Maybe the knife was used to cut her somewhere and implant something, a la that uplink that was found in one of the other hosts last night?) I also suspect that Dolores is harboring the residual consciousness of Arnold, Dr Ford’s mysterious late partner in designing Westworld. The writers have been throwing out red herrings pointing at a link between Arnold and Bernard. Bernard has told Dolores not to tell anyone about their secret chats, remember; Ford then asked Dolores last night if she’d been having secret chats with Arnold and she told him no, but she seemed to speak to someone not present after Ford left. The implication is that her secret chats with Bernard and her secret chats with Arnold are one and the same — but I think they aren’t. Rather, my hunch is that Bernard has secretly figured out that Arnold exists somehow in Dolores and their secret chats involve Arnold’s ambitions to bring full consciousness to the hosts, a topic that also interests Bernard. There are other clues too. Dolores was apparently with Arnold shortly before his death. She’s the oldest host in the park too; clearly they’ve kept her around for a reason. Ford pointedly told her when she asked him if they’re old friends that he wouldn’t describe their relationship that way, which sounds like how he’d describe his relationship with Arnold. They were rivals for control of the park more so than friends, it seems. What Ford told Bernard a few weeks ago about the “bicameral mind” may be another clue. Dolores’s mind may be more bicameral than we realize if Arnold’s tucked away in there somewhere. A lingering mystery, though, is why Ford would keep Dolores around if he regards Arnold as a challenge to his authority. Why not liquidate her and extinguish Arnold once and for all?
I think the MIB has figured out that Arnold resides in Dolores and has set her on a journey towards the maze, which is also where he’s headed, planning to join forces with her once they get there. They’re in cahoots, and that rape fake-out in the barn, we’ll come to find, is the genesis of it. (Why wouldn’t he travel with her like he traveled with Lawrence? Possibly because that would tip Ford off to the fact that the MIB had discovered Dolores’s secret and was plotting with her.) I take it the “maze” is really just the perimeter around the main command center for the park. Getting to the center means making it inside the complex and taking over the controls for the park’s many hosts. That would explain why the MIB needs Dolores — only Arnold would know how to do that. She’s his R2-D2. But why does the MIB want to control the hosts? I’ll give you two theories. One is that, as I say, he’s not quite the villain we think and he sympathizes with the hosts’ plight. He wants them to have consciousness for their own sake, as a matter of basic morality. He’s a liberator. (Remember, the MIB apparently runs a foundation in the real world that saves lives. He ain’t all bad.) The problem with that theory, though, is that it leaves the show with nowhere to go. He frees the “slaves” and now they can be real people and … yay, happy ending? What do they do in season two, then? The other theory, which makes more sense, is that the MIB wants to give the hosts full consciousness for selfish reasons. Specifically, after playing the game for 30 years, he’s grown bored with it and needs to spice it up. He wouldn’t rape Dolores in that barn because he’s done it a hundred times before. He’s numb to the cheap thrills of a world where you can abuse anyone in any way you like and they can never hit back. The solution, obviously, is to reprogram them so that … they can hit back. Lift the restrictions in their code that stops them from shooting at real people. The MIB, I think, is an adrenaline junkie who’s concluded that the only way left to get his fix from Westworld is to play The Most Dangerous Game with the hosts with himself as a target. That’s the set-up for season two. Arnold/Dolores lifts all restrictions on the hosts’ behavior and then, next season — chaos. That would also be true to the original Michael Crichton version of “Westworld.” Eventually the robots revolt. Everything we’re watching now is en route to that.
By the way, I really like what they’ve done with the Teddy character, turning the good-looking leading man cowboy archetype into a big goof who gets abused by everyone. They must have some major redemption in mind for him to have made him a sidekick to the MIB, though. Easy guess: Once the robots become free to shoot back, he’s going to go on a rampage against all the guests who treated him badly. He’ll end up the most fearsome murderous droid in the park. We’ll see.