Dissecting That Weird Dolores Scene in This Week's 'Westworld'
This post contains spoilers through the fourth episode of Westworld, "Dissonance Theory." Head to our Westworld show hub for more reviews, theories, and deep dives.
"Dolores... do you know where you are?"
"I am in a dream."
Or is it a memory? "Dissonance Theory," the fourth episode of Westworld, picks up with a familiar beat: the idle conversation between Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), a park roboticist who struggles with humanity, and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the oldest "host" in the park, who may be evolving towards it. Bernard summons Dolores to the Delos labs to introduce new marching orders into her loop. "It's a game, a secret," he tells her. "It's called the maze. The goal is to find the center of it. If you can do that, maybe you can be free."
"Free," in robot terms, might mean merging the two halves of the bicameral mind into human intelligence as we understand it today, and finding the center of the maze might be the means to bootstrapping consciousness. Bernard wants Dolores to get there. The host senses her own potential, and accepts the challenge. "I think I'd like to be free," she says.
What neither realizes is that, in all likelihood, Dolores already went down that rabbit hole. Or came close.
The beauty of Westworld is how the formal details -- lush visuals, cinematic camerawork, a hyper-attentiveness to detail (yes, that player piano is real) -- inform and amplify the burning questions at the center. While working on Lost, Westworld executive producer J.J. Abrams described his puzzling sci-fi series, and his philosophy for cultivating intrigue and water-cooler talk in general, as a "mystery box."
The HBO series works the same way, and "Dissonance Theory" is a prime example. To unpack Westworld's mystery box, you have to admire the wrapping paper, then tear through it for the surprise. The gift in "Dissonance Theory" is Dolores' moment in Las Mudas.
Dolores appears in the faux border town shortly after waking up near the doting William, picking up where Episode 3 left off. She investigates the fountain in the town's main square. Wood gives this surreal sequence an air of familiarity as the camera spirals around her. And with a whoosh -- or perhaps the sound of a rumbling storm? -- a young girl appears next to her.
We've seen this foreboding young host before, of course -- she's the daughter of Clifton Collins Jr.'s Lawrence, the child who informed the Man in Black that the maze "isn't meant for you" and told him to "follow the blood arroyo to where the snake lays its eggs." She pops up again and helps trigger a memory (vision?) buried in Dolores' cortex.
"Where are you from?" Dolores asks.
"Same as you."
The non-answer prompts a command, audibly whispered by... someone: "REMEMBER." Is it Ford? The Man in Black? Bernard? Arnold? The disembodied voice causes Dolores to access lost memories: We see a white church with the same steeple that Ford showed Bernard a buried version of in the desert at the end of Episode 2. We see two versions of Lawrence's daughter, past and present. She shakes off the reverie, and now the girl's drawing in the dirt: It's the maze map seen on poor Kissy's scalp.
A few seconds later, a man in a long coat -- is he a Delos employee, or a host activated by Westworld security? -- arrives on the scene to escort Delores back to Abernathy Ranch. Lawrence's daughter has disappeared. When the man firmly takes Delores by the arm to bring her back to her loop, she suffers a second round of flashbacks: We see her walking into the church; Lawrence's daughter wearing a pink dress; and Dolores in a graveyard, where she digs out a gun as a man of the cloth hovers over her. Snapping out of her daze, she grabs the man holding her by his arm and delivers a face of extreme anger. (Evan Rachel Wood should probably win an Emmy for that face.) William walks out of the saloon behind them just in time to keep the confrontation from escalating.
Context is key to why this scene resonates: Just beforehand, we see a Delos analyst approach Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) in the Westworld control room to inform him that Dolores is "making a pretty big deviation from her loop." She says that, due to Ford's massive narrative disruptions, she can't ascertain whether the wayward host is accompanied by a guest, but they do confirm that it's Dolores in Las Mudas. "Flag her for behavior, they can pull her today," says Stubbs.
It would seem to follow logically that the guy who arrives in Las Mudas to usher Dolores back to her Abernathy Ranch is a security guard following Stubbs' orders from the previous scene, and that he has been directed to allow Dolores to continue off-loop if an accompanying guest did turn up. But maybe we shouldn't assume that.
Westworld is not upfront about its timeline. We don't know for certain whether Bernard's conversations with Dolores occur concurrently with the day-to-day activity we see at Delos HQ or in the park. Our knowledge of how TV shows are usually put together trick our brains into assuming Dolores' encounters with Bernard, Teddy, the Man in Black, William, and everyone else in the park are happening in a single timeline. But there's no clear answer. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy stage scenes in vacuums. Conversations about who, what, where, and when are spoken in the vaguest terms -- just watch Ford's showdown with Theresa. Certain characters, perhaps by design, don't cross paths with each other; for example, when William strolls into Sweetwater, Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) is at the brothel, but Maeve (Thandie Newton), who we know had a past loop involving a frontier war, noticeably is not. Everything blurs.
My thinking here is that Nolan and Joy built Season 1 like a series of "reveries," where past events leak into the present without differentiating between the two. The camera functions like a host -- an unreliable observer bouncing back and forth between the layers of time like Jonathan's brother Christopher Nolan did in the dreamscapes of Inception. In the Las Mudas sequence, "Dissonance Theory" stylizes the flashbacks in a traditional manner: a flash of footage accompanied by a whoosh! and a bzzzz! But because of the looped lives of the hosts and the subconscious nature of reveries, there's no reason to think Dolores' perspective would signal every slide from past to present. Which changes the implications of her moment in Las Mudas.
A prevailing theory posits that William and the Man in Black are the same person, separated by a few decades of Westworld park wisdom. This scene leans into that idea hard, albeit with some crafty mystery box gift-wrapping. Stubbs and his associate likely do see a present-day Dolores in Las Mudas (though that's never stated outright) -- that's the Dolores that we first see at the fountain, all alone. When the camera whirls and a very subtle sound cue plays, it's a hint that Nolan and Joy might be dialing back the clock.
If this is the case, the encounter with Lawrence's daughter is itself a flashback to the first time Dolores tried to navigated the maze. We can then assume that Dolores' visions involving the church and graveyard are flashbacks because of traditional style. In this context, they could be things she actually did in the past, or they could be events planted in the depths of her robotic mind, pieces of a puzzle she needs to assemble if she wants to solve the maze game.
So when the church montage ends and the man seems like he's arrived to take Dolores back to her loop, per Stubbs' orders, we can't assume that this encounter happens in the present, thanks to the reverie style of the entire sequence. More likely, this is something that happened to Dolores in the timeline she's in with William, decades before Stubbs gives his order. To make it clear (ha!):
Present: The first appearance of Dolores in Las Mudas
Past: The confrontation with the man and William's intervention
Even further in the past or "imagined": Dolores' encounter with Lawrence's daughter and the church vision
Past "memories" have shown Dolores standing around dead bodies; presumably this is a vision of the oft-alluded-to incident that occurred in the park 30 years prior to the present-day events of the series, and the third episode's final beats, in which Dolores pictures the Man in Black, shoots a bandit host, suffers a shot to the abdomen herself, and then flees back to William, all seemingly in the same stretch of time. If Dolores is connected to The Incident -- and come on, she has to be -- it's likely she went through the maze years before hearing about it from Bernard in "Dissonance Theory."
The Las Mudas moment bundles all the evidence together. William seems to have led her there in the past, intentionally or not, and that experience is what's drawing the older William (the Man in Black) back to decipher the maze game. It can't be just a coincidence that the Man in Black stopped in Las Mudas before continuing on in the game. And if what I'm detecting is true, present-day Dolores is hot on his heels, her memories giving her an advantage.
"Dissonance Theory" makes a point of juxtaposing William and the Man in Black; not only do they not share any scenes together, each of their moments are dropped into place like diptychs. Dolores will talk to William about herds of cows brought back to the slaughter and then the Man in Black appears cliffside, ready to ride into a shootout. Westworld is meticulous on every level, framing things just so in order to play by hidden rules and convey the sensation of an awakening mind. Not only is Dolores' perception coming into focus, it's beaming through constant repetition -- a mundane enslavement. Nolan and Joy's formal choices amplify the confusion and terror -- Dolores' and our own.
Is this legit? Westworld is too skilled at being enigmatic to know for certain. But Dolores' mind, rich with reveries, is spinning and jolting out of control. As Ford said earlier this season, "It's a tricky thing weaving the old into the new."
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.