Cracking the Cryptic 'Westworld' Bird Scenes
Just when you thought the cast of Westworld couldn't get any bigger, it adds a Geek Squad version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In this week's action-packed episode, we spent some of the quieter moments with Felix and Sylvester, two Delos robot-repair technicians who appear to be named after cartooncats. Like many felines, Felix (Leonardo Nam) spends most of the episode obsessing over a bird, which he nurses back to life using his understanding of biology, a fancy tablet computer, and absolutely zero help from Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum), who might be the most unlikable character on the show not named Logan. Also, Thandie Newton came back to life. Again. It was weird.
But like most seemingly odd or inexplicable moments on Westworld, the bird scenes in this week's episode were also funny, thematically rich, and perhaps important to the larger "robots vs. humans" narrative that's about to take flight. They weren't the most well-acted scenes, and they didn't have an orgy set to Nine Inch Nails in them, but that doesn't mean they weren't important. So, let's take the lab scenes apart like a man repairing a tiny bird on his lunch break.
We're finally learning about the animals in Westworld
Of the many unanswered questions fans have foisted at co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, who penned last night's episode, I've always been into the animals one. For a park with so many moving parts and potentially dangerous malfunctions, it makes sense that Anthony Hopkins' Ford and the mysterious Arnold would choose to fill their interactive fantasy world with synthetic creatures that can be controlled just like the hosts. The closing moment of Episode 1, where Dolores kills a fly with a quick slap, felt designed to unnerve and inspire further inquiry. As the scholars in the Insane Clown Posse would say: "Fucking robot-horses: How do they work?"
As is often the case with Westworld, the best way to learn something is to look backwards -- like, way backwards. Besides being very creepy, the milky-white android that appears in the show's credit sequence and in the promotional materials is an updated take on Leonardo da Vinci's "The Vitruvian Man," the ultimate Renaissance blending of scientific thought and art. The actual idea behind the famous sketch came from Vitruvius, an ancient Roman architect who probably had secret hopes of one day inspiring aesthetic decisions on a HBO science-fiction drama. Congrats, Vitruvius. You made it, dude.
About 15 years after da Vinci completed his "Vitruvian Man" sketch in 1490, the Renaissance man created another document that would prove instrumental in the study of human-piloted mechanical flight: the Codex on the Flight of Birds. According to this helpful Smithsonian video on the subject, the Codex explored "aerodynamics, recognized the need for control, stated the importance of lightweight structures, and even hinted at the force Newton would later describe as gravity." It's yet another example of da Vinci's genius, particularly his ability to toggle between heady questions about nature, engineering, technology, and art.
In the same way Nolan and Joy have mined the works of William Shakespeare, John Donne, and Gertrude Stein for literary quotes in the first few episodes, they've also weaponized scientific concepts like the bicameral mind to create a rich (and occasionally confusing) texture of scientific pseudo-authenticity. Nolan and Joy aren't creating a work of art that stands next to the work of Shakespeare or da Vinci -- I like Westworld but, like, come on -- but they're not above evoking well-known cultural signifiers to lend their show a lofty, museum-ready feel. The symbolism of the bird, particularly the way Felix yearns to fix it and checks in on it during his lunch break, suggests that birds will carry thematic weight in the show going forward.
Writers love bird metaphors
Think of Tony Soprano and his ducks. Or the pigeons Betty Draper shoots out of the sky with her rifle on Mad Men. Or the menacing owls on Twin Peaks. Or Varys' "little birds" on Game of Thrones. It's a fact: Writers of ambitious TV dramas love birds. With their fluttering wings, cute little feathers, and musical little chirps, birds have a poetry to them and a hopeful sense of possibility that something like a tiny earthbound lizard lacks. Seriously: Can you imagine Felix nursing a lizard back to health and it triumphantly crawling across the floor of the lab? I can't. Outside of the films of Werner Herzog, lizards get very little respect from Hollywood.
But it's not just television writers who love birds. In her 1994 book on writing, Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott tells an anecdote about how her 10-year-old brother struggled to complete a book report about birds for school. He was overwhelmed by the materials he was presented with. Her father, also a writer, told the boy that he just needed to approach the report in a simple way, saying, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." It's become a popular creative axiom, a phrase that can turn seemingly complicated projects into a set of approachable tasks. Lamott uses it as a way to demystify the writing process.
Critics of Westworld might say that the show struggles to take things "bird by bird." This is a series that roared out the gate with four densely plotted, theory-heavy, and often confounding episodes of television. (If these are birds, they are very, very big birds.) But, if "Contrapasso" had a slight edge over its predecessors, it was in the way the episode sat in moments and did normal television show things, like show us two low-level workers having a stupid conversation about ham sandwiches. It gave us an adventure to a dangerous town. It gave us a showdown between two of the show's biggest stars. It did basic bird things.
What does this all mean for Maeve?
Thandie Newton's Maeve is perhaps Westworld's most tragic character. Unlike Dolores, who seems to be on a path to self-knowledge that involves firing a gun, robbing wagons, and having the occasional trippy flashback, much of Maeve's time on the show is spent getting shot, drawing sketches of terrifying space men, and lying naked on a slab of metal. Her path to self-consciousness is one rooted in trauma, memory suppression, and bleak body horror. She is a survivor.
The ending of last night's episode suggested that she's about to take flight. In the same way certain characters in the Jurassic Park movies are more sympathetic to the needs of dinosaurs than others, Felix seems to have compassion for the androids he cares for more than his co-workers' safety or the Westworld code of conduct. "Come on, little one," he tells the tiny bird early in the episode while fixing it. He's much more sympathetic than his absurdly boorish counterpart Sylvester, who behaves like an obnoxious roommate in a '90s sitcom. He talks about having a "nubile redhead loaded up in the VR tank." He is the kind of co-worker you want to see get killed by a robot, and I have a feeling he'll end up being one of the show's first human casualties.
Will his death come at Maeve's newly mobile robot hands? Let's remember what she says in the episode's final chilling moments: "Hello, Felix, it's time you and I had a chat." But after that, she smiles as Felix's newly healthy pet lands on her finger. She doesn't need a computer tablet. If that image is any indication, she'll be building her revolution bird by bird.
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