[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Westworld” Season 3, Episode 3, “The Absence of Field.”]
As millions tune into “Westworld” to escape reality, HBO’s sci-fi series has proven it works best when sticking to it — well, its version of the real world anyway. Last week’s entry, “The Winter Line,” spent most of its time screwing around in a digital construct, which turned the low stakes adventures of Maeve (Thandie Newton) into tedious walk-and-talks. This week, “The Absence of Field” dives right back into the real world, and the host version of Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) kept raising curious questions, making bold choices, and discovering critical secrets. Meanwhile, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Caleb (Aaron Paul) help up a revealing B-plot involving a dash of action and a key partnership.
Episode 3 may not be the game-changing entry fans have been waiting for, but it’s an involving hour filled with smart, subtle touches and Thompson’s excellent performance.
The latter is clear from the get-go. Charlotte’s panicked, earnest final words to her son, Nathan, stand in key contrast to how the actress enunciates the host version of Hale. Real Charlotte was forceful, sharp, and carried a heavier intonation than the soft-spoken, doe-eyed newborn who meets with Dolores. When Robo-Hale asks her creator why she chose to bring back “him” as well (presumably Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard), she’s irritated but not indignant; curious but not casting blame. There are subtle differences to each version of Charlotte that Thompson has to bring out if the episode is going to work — especially given how much of its emotional core comes down to Nathan rightly recognizing that the woman tucking him into bed isn’t his real mother.
Thompson also picks up on the creepy undertones of her character’s disturbing arc. Yes, it’s visually unsettling to see Robo-Hale drag her nail through her skin, exposing a line of blood she isn’t even aware she’s making. And it’s a credit to showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, as well as episode author Denise Thé, that Robo-Hale is peeling her skin off when confronted with a question Real-Hale knows the answer to, as if she’s trying to rediscover Charlotte’s core by digging it out of her body: Who’s been secretly buying up shares of Delos? The man Real-Hale was working for, Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel), of course.
But that early moment of self-mutilation is much more jarring given how well Hale carried herself until that point. Whenever she’s speaking to Charlotte’s associates at Delos, Thompson knows just how to turn to the camera when the audience needs to see beyond her feigned exterior — and just how to snap back to her robo-role so that no one questions her identity.
John P. Johnson / HBO
Watching Thompson would be reason enough to recommend this week’s “Westworld” — her scenes with Wood amp up all the aforementioned shivers to superb levels of eeriness — and yet there’s still more good stuff going down. Dolores and Caleb’s story arc starts high and slowly brings itself back to Earth, but even the slower, exposition-heavy moments click. Starting with the interrupted ambulance ride, the opening scene is a savvy blend of efficient exposition within an exciting package. First, we learn that future paramedics are completely dependent on technology to tell them what to do (and that Caleb has enough emergency training to get the basics right). Then, there’s this awesome one-two-three combo that shows off Caleb’s smarts, loyalty, and courage:
1) “Hey, isn’t it weird that we’re getting stopped by the cops?”
2) “I better check my crime app to make sure this is a legit stop. It’s not? Well fuck these guys then.”
3) “Call the cops.” “They are the cops.” “Then they won’t mind wAIT-ing for uniformed patrol to back them up.” (Side note: The way Aaron Paul emphasizes certain syllables when challenging people is a magnificent verbal flex.)
Capping the scene is Caleb’s can’t-help-but-be-impressed horror at Dolores’ ruthless slaughter of the corrupt police officers, which reveals a bit more of who this mysterious woman really is to the new man in her life. From there, it’s a steady drip of information between the duo — or really, from Dolores to Caleb — and their walk on the pier confirms a prominent theme of “Westworld” Season 3: predictive algorithms. Joining “Devs” in telling a story about how advancements in technology will lead to people predicting the future, Dolores’ knowledge of Rehoboam — the software program housed in a giant black orb that charts a trajectory for every human life on Earth — allows her to inform Caleb that he’s going to commit suicide in 10-12 years.
John P. Johnson / HBO
That’s what the machine said, and not only is it one bummer of a fortune telling session, but it’s also why he’s striking out on job interviews. The higher-ups know his fate and don’t want to hire someone who’s not going to be around long. “They won’t invest in someone who’s going to kill himself,” Dolores says, “but by not investing, they ensure the outcome.” It’s a good line culled from an old theorem and one that unites the oppressed blue collar worker with the oppressed theme park attraction. Together, they can start a revolution — or die, on their own terms, trying.
Episode 3 ends with Robo-Hale discovering she’s the mole inside Delos — or Real-Hale was, at least — which should set up a contentious meeting next week, as Robo-Hale meets with “an old friend” (presumably William, played by Ed Harris) to keep control of their company. But there are plenty more lingering questions: How will William respond to being courted by Charlotte? What state of mind is he in nowadays, anyway? And what is Serac planning to do with Delos if he takes over? Does it have to do with the clone world Dolores mentioned to Caleb? Finally, who is Robo-Hale, really? What host did Dolores smuggle out of the park and then put inside the Hale host?
When “Westworld” sets itself in reality, much more relevant actions can be taken. Now that everyone has already escaped, perhaps next week we’ll get to see all the players come together.
“Westworld” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.