Westworld: “The Absence of Field” is a slow burn set-up for next week

Episode 3 of Westworld’s third season aired tonight, and I find myself…pensive about how the show is moving forward. There was a lot of great stuff this week, but the fear I voiced last week about the pacing proved to be well founded. “The Absence of Field” saw us flipping back to Dolores and Caleb’s plot, with the addition of a deep-dive introduction to the new and improved host version of Charlotte Hale. The result is a powerful, thought-provoking episode with some serious highlights, but it fails to move the overall plot forward much.

“The Absence of Field” is also lacking in the humor department, although given the subject matter, that’s to be expected. Bernard and Maeve brought a lot of tongue-in-cheek fun to last week’s “The Winter Line,” but “The Absence of Field” is dark and brooding from top to bottom, a sober examination of what it means to be human.

Image: Westworld/HBO

The world-building in this episode is as intriguing as ever, with the dystopian elements hitting much closer to home. From police cars that can override other vehicle’s control mechanisms to learning that apparently elephants have gone extinct (I can’t be the only one when Charlotte told her sort-of son that), we’re getting the full picture of this future, and it’s not very inviting.

It’s impossible to talk about this episode and not come back around to Tessa Thompson’s stand-out performance as the conflicted host Charlotte Hale. In case you need a refresher, the finale of Westworld‘s second season came with the reveal that Hale, an executive high in the Delos corporate hierarchy had been killed, and that Dolores had created a host to replace her. Originally, Dolores smuggled herself out of the park in Host-Hale’s body, bringing along the minds of several other hosts with her. Dolores has since made herself a new body, so we’re not sure who is inhabiting Host-Hale right now, although it’s been the subject of much speculation.

“The Absence of Field” doesn’t outright answer this question, but instead deepens the mystery significantly by showing us scenes of Charlotte first awakening as a host, confusion as she realizes what body she’s in. She struggles with this throughout the episode. It’s mesmerizing to watch Tessa Thompson grapple with the daunting task of pretending to be a machine pretending to be human. Thus far, we’ve only seen hosts act human when they weren’t aware they were hosts. Charlotte’s situation is a great twist on that sort of scenario, and deepens the theme of robots not being quite able to imitate real life.

Image: Westworld/HBO

But for all the gravitas Tessa Thompson brought to the screen, Hale’s plotline still felt a little slow. Even the ultimate reveal — that the real Hale was in fact the mole in Delos that Host-Hale spends the whole episode searching for — doesn’t hit with the same impact as, say, learning that Ashley Stubbs was actually a host last week. There’s a lot of foundation-building without a lot of oomph.

The same can be said for Dolores and Caleb’s arc this week. Evan Rachel Wood and Aaron Paul have great chemistry, and the scene-by-scene writing was excellent. It was heartbreaking to watch Cal realize just how deeply “Big Data” has dug its claws into his past and future, and how bleak a projection it had given him.

But none of that change the fact that this plot amounted to Cal saving Dolores, Dolores saving Cal, and the pair of them deciding to work together. That one sentence sums up nearly a half hour of footage.

This is an issue that has been troubling Westworld all season. It has incredible world-building, grade-A actors, solid scripts and interesting themes, but the plot is moving forward at a disconcertingly slow rate, especially when you factor in that this season only has eight episodes.

Hopefully all this setup pays off next week with the ominously named “The Mother of Exiles.”

Other Take-Aways

  • Who is inhabiting Hale’s body? There seemed to be some pretty strong hints that it could be Teddy Flood. (“There’s no one else I trust,” Dolores tells a newly awakened Hale. “No one knows me like you do.”) When last we saw Teddy (James Marsden), he had killed himself to escape the changes Dolores had force-programmed into his personality. In a seeming act of kindness, Dolores uploaded Teddy’s consciousness to the Sublime, the data cloud the hosts escaped to at the end of last season. But perhaps she had a change of heart. And if she did put Teddy into Hale’s body, can I just take a second to say that is so messed up. The amount of psychological torture Dolores has subjected Teddy to at this point is getting seriously out of hand.
  • Relatedly, Serac told Hale that the data about Westworld’s customers had been downloaded by Dolores. Does that mean she also downloaded the cloud data for the Sublime?
  • What host consciousnesses are in the pearls Dolores has in the opening scene? We know that Bernard is one. Whoever is in Hale is one, and whoever is in Conells (Tommy Flanagan) is most likely another, though their identities are still a mystery. That leaves two more unaccounted for, and four total mystery identities. I have a feeling that might be one of the coolest reveals of the season, whenever it does go down.

Episode Grade: B

Next: “The Mother of Exiles” is the best Westworld episode this season…minus that twist

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