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Westworld Spoilers Club season 2, episode 6: Phase Space

Westworld Spoilers Club season 2, episode 6: Phase Space


Unexpected discoveries, familiar faces, and the power of aspect ratios

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Photo by John P. Johnson / HBO

Last week, Westworld took a cue from The Matrix, turning Maeve (Thandie Newton) into a super-host with the ability to control her robotic brethren with nothing more than her mind. It made for a spectacularly bloody battle, delivering on the gory promise of Shogun World while also underscoring some of the thematic questions the show has been asking this season about the nature of free will.

It was the kind of game-changing twist that Westworld fans have come to expect from the HBO series. But in last night’s episode, showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan turn things in yet another radical new direction — this time, toward something called “the Cradle.” A piece of technology that lets the park’s masterminds run narrative simulations, the Cradle becomes a crucial focal point in “Phase Space,” and it provides the answer to a question that’s lingered in the minds of viewers since the very first shot of the season premiere.

And, as one character finds out, the Cradle is also home to a very familiar face.

Photo by John P. Johnson / HBO

The big reveal?

Early in the episode, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Elsie (Shannon Woodward) head toward the Mesa, the operational headquarters where they and the rest of the Delos employees used to run the park. When they finally get inside, they discover dead bodies everywhere, and Elsie logs into the network to get a sense of what’s actually going on.

She notices that the park’s quality assurance team has been trying to get back into the system, but they’ve been constantly blocked — by the Cradle. Bernard comments that such a thing shouldn’t be possible. The Cradle serves as a backup of all host personalities, he says, and it runs a virtual simulation of the park in which potential storylines can be tested, but it should be sandboxed from the rest of the infrastructure. That’s no longer the case, Elsie discovers; over the last week, the Cradle has interfaced with every park system, allowing it to parry the various attempts by QA to regain control. “It’s like there’s something in here that’s improvising,” Elsie says. “The Cradle’s fighting back.”

They’re unable to see what exactly is doing the fighting, however. To do that, Bernard says, they’ll need to visit the Cradle in person.

Bernard’s brain is plucked out of his skull and dumped into The Cradle

They eventually make it to the facility, which consists of massive server banks and a metal rack that looks more like a torture device than it does tech equipment. Bernard remembers being there before, shortly after Ford asked him to steal a red host control unit “brain” — the kind that was used to create the clone of James Delos in episode 4. He decides to take matters into this own hands. Bernard straps into that strange metal rack, which slices his skull open, plucks out his own control unit, and dumps his consciousness into the Cradle so he can investigate firsthand.

Bernard wakes up in the system’s virtual world on the train to Sweetwater. The Cradle is simulating the experience that any Westworld guest would have. When the train arrives, Bernard gets off, walks down the main street, and passes Dolores right on cue. It’s all perfectly typical… until he sees a greyhound trotting through the dusty streets. He follows the dog to the Mariposa, brushing by Teddy before slipping through the saloon doors.

The greyhound is curled up on the floor, patiently waiting while its owner plays the piano. Bernard catches sight of a familiar face in the piano’s reflection, and realizes who’s playing.

It’s Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). “Hello, old friend,” Ford says.

What does it mean?

Since Young Ford showed up in the season premiere to tell the Man in Black (Ed Harris) about the Door, it’s been clear that Ford still had some sort of presence in the park. His personality seemed to take over El Lazo (Giancarlo Esposito) in one episode, and then Lawrence’s daughter in another. Those could have been fragments of code left behind as part of the Door game, but now it’s clear that Ford’s consciousness is alive and well inside the Cradle. He’s been pulling the strings the entire season, a literal deus ex machina.

The discovery raises two big issues right away. If Ford has actually been in control this entire time, then it’s entirely plausible that the free will that Dolores, Maeve, and all the other hosts think they’ve been exercising has been nothing more than illusion, just another programmed narrative, hatched from the mind of Ford, with him guiding things from the digital afterlife.

It also raises the question of whether there is an actual, physical host clone of Dr. Ford walking around somewhere in the park. Bernard does state that the Cradle holds host backups. While the episode infers that Bernard stole a red host control unit, outfitted it with Ford’s consciousness, and dumped it into the Cradle, he could just as easily have helped Ford create an actual replicant, with the piano-playing Cradle version serving as that backup.

Changing the game

The fact that Anthony Hopkins is back on Westworld is a major event, but that actually isn’t the most compelling thing in “Phase Space.” The revelation with the biggest ramifications has to do with aspect ratios.

Back in the first scene of the season premiere, Arnold talks to Dolores at some unspecified time. He tells her about a dream he had and admits that he is frightened about what she might someday become. The opening of “Phase Space” picks that same scene up right where the premiere left off. It becomes clear that the conversation is happening toward the end of Arnold’s life, and that he’s debating whether he should kill Dolores and the hosts, or himself. “I’m not sure it’s my choice to make,” he says.

“No,” Dolores corrects him. “He didn’t say that.”

Arnold is confused, and then Dolores stops him in his tracks by saying “freeze all motor functions” — because this isn’t Arnold at all. It’s a host, and Dolores informs him that they’re taking part in a test to measure for “fidelity,” the same thing William told the host clone of James Delos in episode 4. What’s happening is astonishing: Dolores is trying to create a sentient host clone of her own creator, Arnold Weber. And she is using their final conversation together as the benchmark for whether that process has worked.

Photo by John P. Johnson / HBO

Those watching closely will also notice something that separates these scenes visually from the rest of the series. Like almost all modern television, Westworld is presented in a 16:9 aspect ratio. The scenes with Dolores and the Arnold clone host, however, are presented letterboxed, in the more cinematic 2.40:1 format. That’s the same aspect ratio used when Bernard enters the simulation world of the Cradle — meaning that the fidelity test with Dolores is also taking place inside the Cradle’s simulation.

The conceptual nesting dolls start getting tricky at this point. There’s Dolores, inside the simulated world of the Cradle, testing a host consciousness that she hopes will replicate Arnold Weber. Bernard, who was modeled after Arnold in the first place, has also entered that same simulation, raising the possibility that it is his consciousness that Dolores is trying to transform. Dr. Ford is also in the Cradle and could conceivably be behind the entire thing. Given Ford’s change of heart in the first season, it’s not too much of a leap to think he might want to bring his old partner back from the dead as a form of atonement.

But all of this poses the question: what happens if the Arnold personality test is deemed a success? The entire point of the James Delos experiment was to create a walking, talking host version of the company’s founder. That would seem to be the next step for an Arnold replicant, and Bernard’s body is a ready and waiting vessel.

In fact, there’s a good chance that audiences have already seen the Arnold host clone without even realizing it.

There are two “modern-day” timelines in this season of Westworld — one that starts the night of the robot uprising and one that picks up two weeks later when Bernard wakes up on a beach and joins up with Delos security forces. That second Bernard has seemed somewhat befuddled and confused every time he’s appeared on-screen. He plays along with what’s happening and the questions he is asked, but doesn’t seem to really understand where he is, or have any knowledge about the park’s modern operations.

In other words, that second “Bernard” has been acting precisely the way a newly minted replicant of Arnold Weber would.