What That Revealing 'Westworld' Flashback Means for the Show

arnold flashback westworld anthony hopkins

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

On Westworld, human nature is suspect, whether displayed by bots built from bolts or organic ringleaders birthed into the world the old-fashioned way. The show's first two hours raise eyebrows over the behavior of the park's robotic "hosts," who now possess tics and impulses and "memories." Is this a higher level of consciousness? The third episode, "The Stray," turns the speculative-fiction microscopes to the human characters. Specifically, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), whose tics and impulses and "memories" are as terrifying as those of any of his mechanical counterparts.

Westworld creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan introduce Dr. Ford as an enigmatic genius who works out of corporate sight. From his first whispered bit of metaphysical insight, he was catnip for sci-fi fans, a thinker, a dreamer, and a pain in the ass to the park's story-focused hacks. The second episode, "Chestnut," had him once again off the grid, ready to launch a new campaign within the walls of the park. With "The Stray," a new side of Ford's personality came forward, casting a shadow over his potential "hero" role. He is violent and quietly maniacal. He'd probably hurt a fly, then lie about it.

We first see Ford reprogramming Teddy (James Marsden) with a new backstory. "Your job is not to protect Dolores," he says. "It's to keep her here." Ford upgraded his cast of robots with "reveries" that would give them the capacity to recall their past programming, a move that could be seen as the first steps of revolt, but here he's commanding his robots to stay in line. 

Then we see the roboticist lash out at an underling staff member who has covered up a nude robot during maintenance. Ford imparts wisdom he's clearly delivered over and over and over again (and will again once more later in the episode): the robots are not real. He slices the ailing android on the cheek to make a point, and it bleeds. "A tricky thing weaving the old into the new," Ford says.

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Finally, we see Ford's big scene of the night, a disciplining talk with Bernard that segues into the first (apparent, at least) flashback of the series. Bernard is concerned about the robots who "hear voices." His superior writes it off as cognitive dissonance. He would too if each dysfunctional host wasn't uttering the same name in their outbursts: "Arnold." OK, Ford confesses, that makes sense. 

We don't know much about Westworld's origins. We know Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) has been a host since the early days. We know The Man in Black has been frequenting the park nearly as long. We know 30 years ago there was an "incident" in Westworld, but nothing monumental enough to derail the steaming locomotive of the high-tech attraction. And now we know that in the beginning, there was Ford and there was Arnold, a brilliant scientist who wanted Westworld's robotic advances to break the glass ceiling of artificial intelligence. Arnold didn't want the robots to act human, he wanted them to be human. The scientist took the mind-bending theory of "the bicameral mind" and applied it to his hosts. He wanted to "bootstrap consciousness" by acting as a God who whispered in his creations' ears. He envisioned a pyramid of human behavior to climb: first he gave the robots memory, then improvisation, then self-interest, then...

Then Arnold died, only to be written out of history completely by Westworld publicist, who printed the legend of Dr. Robert Ford's creations. It's unclear how Ford clicked with Arnold's ambitions; as he tells Bernard, he never believed in the hosts' ability to become human, and realized that if Arnold was able to make his breakthrough, Westworld tourists would detest the upgrade. Who wants their sexbots and moving pistol targets to look like a mirror image of humanity? Then and now, Ford insists on treating the robots as sub-human silicon statues to be ravaged by visitors. "The least we can do is make them forget," Ford admits.

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The big flashback gives us a glimpse of Ford, courtesy of a digitally de-aged Hopkins, looking like his Elephant Man self, some half-built hosts, and a few familiar faces in the background of laboratory shots -- spot Peter Abernathy, loaded with Arnold's "bicameral mind" code that will eventually drive him off the deep end -- but no introduction to Arnold, making his role in the company, and his eventual demise, all the more mysterious. Ford reveals that he died in the park after a long stretch of reclusive behavior. "[Arnold's] personal life was marked with tragedy," he says. "He put all his life into work." By the end, he was only speaking to hosts. Arnold's death was marked an accident, but Ford doesn't buy it. "He was very, very careful."

Did Ford, wanting the spotlight and feeling threatened by the potential of robotic humanity, play a part in his partner's death? Or is he vengeful towards the robots, leaking an aggression built up over a lifetime of watching them get away with murder? Are the "reveries" a step towards the future of artificial intelligence or a step backwards to the past, when the robots were simpler and Arnold was still around? Ford does love to sit in the dank Delos Corporation basement and talk to Old Bill, a relic from another era. Whatever happened to Arnold, Ford still carries around with him as ammunition against his successors.

"The Stray" gives us one major clue to unraveling Arnold's mystery: as Bernard returns to work, Ford stops him to remind him: the hosts are not real. "You mustn't make Arnold's mistake," he says, acknowledging that the death of Bernard's son weighs heavily on his colleague. Having seen Bernard's private conversations with Dolores, we know Ford's on to something. The grieving scientist wants something more out of the robots, just like Arnold.

The minutiae of "The Stray" frame Robert Ford as a possible villain for Westworld Season 1, or at least the adversary for the humanizing robots. His fears may also be the key to a pervading mystery: why are the robots screaming out for Arnold? Here's a heady proposition: if Bernard believes the hosts possess true consciousness, then he may also see a way to "bring back" his son. And as Ford hints, he may not be the first to dream of the possibility; what if his old pal Arnold not only treasured the robots as friends, but used them to rewind the clock on a "personal life marked with tragedy"? Maybe Dolores was built in the vision of his daughter. Maybe Peter was his father. And if Arnold died in the park, maybe he met his own maker and somehow became his final creation, a ghost in a machine.

It's far out, but not out of the realm of possibility for a show that's opened 18 cans of worms in the span of three hours. Human nature is at the core of Westworld, perhaps even more than we can possibly imagine.

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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment Editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, and Vulture. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.