Dolores Is Key to a 'Westworld' Twist You May Have Missed

james marsden and evan rachel wood in hbo westworld

This post contains spoilers for the third episode of Westworld, "The Stray." Head to our Westworld hub for special effects analysis, reviews, theories, and other deep dives.

At the tail end of "The Stray," the third episode of Westworld, creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan whip out one of the show's biggest, and potentially most telling, WTF moments yet: Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) relives a new version of her ranch capture, envisioning The Man in Black (Ed Harris) in place of Rebus, snatching her captor's gun, killing the bandit, then fleeing to William (Jimmi Simpson), one of the park's visitors. None of that is supposed to happen in her pre-programmed narrative. But it does, and it calls into question how and when this all takes place.

Sound crazy? The answers to this trippy ending may be hidden in Dolores's other scenes. Consider this:

jeffrey wright on westworld hbo

1. Alice in Wonderland

"The Stray" begins with Bernard and Dolores discussing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. "Dear, dear, how queer everything is today! And yesterday things went on just as usual," Dolores reads. "I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think; was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different." The Carroll shout-out's on the nose, but Dolores reveals it isn't the first passage about change Bernard has shown her. Does this mean he's training Dolores to question her identity? It would seem he's trying to make her more self-aware.

Near the end of their tête-à-tête, Dolores asks Bernard about his dead son, part of an ingratiating scheme. It works. Later in the episode, Bernard finds himself in conflict: should he reset Dolores so she can't remember her daily sufferings, or should he keep stoking her consciousness to potentially evolve her mind? He opts for the latter, but only if the host promises not to abandon her narrative loop. She promises. Of course, if Dolores isn't as innocent as she seems, Bernard may have fallen right into her trap.

evan rachel wood as dolores in westworld hbo
John P. Johnson/HBO

2. Discovering the gun

The next morning, Dolores wakes up in her bed like she just had a bad dream that felt too real. Her face has an expression noticeably different from the one we've seen previously. While getting ready, she opens her dresser drawer to find a pistol, which sends her mind back to The Man in Black encounter from Episode 1. The gun then disappears. Did she hallucinate seeing it in her drawer? Or was that a memory? Given the previous scene -- and first two episodes -- it's possible Bernard's talks have activated something inside Dolores' head.

james marsden and evan rachel wood on westworld hbo
John P. Johnson/HBO

3. Dreaming of romance with Teddy

When Teddy and Dolores scamper out of Sweetwater for alone time, they discuss future plans like two depressed lovers who just had awesome sex but hate their lives: "What if I don't want to stay here?" Dolores says. "Sometimes I feel like the world out there is calling me." Teddy mentions a place in the south where the mountains meet the sea. Unfortunately, they can't run off until he atones for his vague, dark past. 

If you were yelling PLEASE TAKE HER, YOU STUPID COWBOY-TURKEY at your TV during this scene, you weren't alone. Teddy has no past, only programming that insists he does. And what about Dolores? It's unclear if her part of this conversation is scripted or improvised, though with no previous hint of her wanting to leave Abernathy Ranch, it's easy to imagine the latter. She's becoming more aware. She wants to live her dream.

james marsden and evan rachel wood on westworld hbo
John P. Johnson/HBO

4. A lack of trigger finger

The second time Dolores bumps into Teddy, he saves her from a creepy patron, then takes her out for a shooting lesson. One problem: Dolores can't pull the trigger. "Some hands weren't meant to pull the trigger," Teddy says. "Perhaps it's for the best." The line sheds light on Westworld protocol: some robots seem to be specifically programmed to not shoot guns. Why would that be the case for Dolores? Since she's the oldest operating model in the park, would her still-foggy past have something to do with it? And could her recent memory activation undo the programming?

evan rachel wood and ed harris on westworld hbo
John P. Johnson/HBO

5. Long time no see, Ed

Dolores experiences déjà vu when she returns to the ranch. Viewers witness two versions of the same scenario through her eyes: bandits murdering her family and someone dragging her into a barn. In one instance, she sees her new dad and Westworld's version of Yosemite Sam. In the other: the old Peter Abernathy and The Man in Black. What's happening is she's experiencing the present while having flashbacks to the past, and projecting her memories for the audience to see -- the same phenomenon that happened in her pistol discovery scene. Next: someone's voice -- Bernard? Dr. Ford's old accomplice "Arnold"? A fragment of old code? A newly awakened subconscious? -- tells her to shoot, officially defying her programming.

ben barnes and jimmi simpson on westworld hbo
John P. Johnson/HBO

6. There's something about William

The episode ends with Dolores retreating from the farm and stumbling into William's arms. It's hard to tell exactly what's happening, and more importantly, when it's happening. But remember: Dolores sees her new dad first, then she recalls seeing her old dad; the mustachioed bandit locks Dolores in the barn first, then she recalls her Man in Black encounter. The pattern is present, past; present, past. If the end of the ranch scene follows this same pattern, Dolores receives a bullet to the stomach first, then she recalls escaping, unscathed, to William. In other words, the last scene of this episode is a memory of the past.

The entire last sequence is so important because it reveals a lot about how Joy and Nolan might be using time in Season 1. Specifically, the last few scenes either support or completely wreck the popular "William is The Man in Black" theory, which posits that Jimmi Simpson portrays William's first visit to the park, and Harris, based on what we've learned about his maze hunt, his last. If this line of thinking is correct, and the final scene does take place in the past, The Man in Black very well could be William, 30 years later. If the scene is in the present, however, William cannot be the Man in Black; they would have to exist in the same timeframe as two different people.

At the moment, it's hard to know for sure. We need more info. But if "The Stray" teaches you anything, it's that you need to pay extra attention to Dolores' scenes going forward -- how she interacts with people and what she sees. She not only connects many of the characters to one another, but, as the oldest model operating in Westworld, she also represents the key that could unlock the park's past and future.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Sean Fitz-Gerald is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He will forever have nightmares of young Anthony Hopkins. Find him on Twitter: @srkfitzgerald.