About a dozen minutes into “Chestnut,” the second episode of Westworld, Ed Harris’ Man in Black rides up on a posse that’s about to hang a man named Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.). Lawrence doesn’t recognize the Man in Black, but the Man in Black sure as hell knows him. Later he’ll joke that he even knows the tune Lawrence likes to whistle when he takes a piss.

Only two episodes into this series, we’ve already seen Harris’ character do this a couple times; he knows everyone he meets in Westworld. That makes sense if, as the Man in Black claims, he’s been coming to Westworld for 30 years and the park recycles the same day with the same stories and characters on an endless loop. While the events of that day seem new to the robotic Hosts (and to us at this point in the series), they’re familiar to the Man in the Black, who has no doubt played out every available fetch quest and raid dozens of times. He’s sort of like Bill Murray’s Phil Connors from Groundhog Day, if the infinite repetitions turned him into a monster rather than a humanitarian. Instead of improving the lives of everyone in Punxsutawney, he ends the robotic lives of everyone in Westworld in pursuit of a mysterious maze that he calls “the deepest level of this game.” (Note he calls Westworld a game and not a theme park or vacation.)

Even if the maze turns out to be a wild goose chase, there are already a lot of levels to Westworld  and to Westworld, which is quickly building an elaborate mythology about life, free will, technology, and the art of building an elaborate mythology. That’s one of my favorite elements of the show so far; the ways in which it considers its own creation. The Westworld park represents the Westworld show, which is controlled by a staff similar to the one that makes a TV series. Writers fight for creative control with producers, who have to answer to (as-yet unseen) members of a “board” who determine who keeps their job and who goes. It’s similar territory to the popular Lifetime series UnREAL about the inner-workings of a tawdry reality show. Come to think of it, UnREAL would have made a good title for this show as well.

HBO

Westworld is a TV series based on a movie (which later spawned a sequel and a previous TV series), so the notion that everyone within Westworld is reliving the same day over and over again also speaks to the ubiquity of remakes in contemporary pop culture. When Westworld’s resident madam Maeve (Thandie Newton) gets infected with the self-awareness virus by Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), she begins to experience dreams (or maybe memories?) of her past lives, which also involve the Man in Black. It’s like a fictional character suddenly becoming aware of the fact that her existence has been restarted from scratch multiple times. In modern Hollywood, stories are like computers: They both get rebooted constantly.

The characters who most closely resemble the protagonists of the Westworld movie finally show up in this episode. They’re Logan (Ben Barnes), who’s been to Westworld before and luxuriates in its salacious pleasures, and his co-worker William (Jimmi Simpson) a first-time guest who’s more tentative about exploiting the Hosts. Their journey through the park is just beginning, but it adds another strong facet to Westworld’s dense web of storylines. It also plays a big part in the motif of pairs and doubles that reverberates throughout this episode (written by series creators Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy). Besides the two new guests there are also:

  1. Two Hosts with the awareness virus.
  2. Two scenes of Dolores waking up in her bed.
  3. Two scenes where characters claim Westworld reveals the guests’ truest selves.
  4. Two different references to snakes.
  5. Two train rides.
  6. Two bullets left out of the Man in Black’s gun when he reloads it.
  7. Two different groups the Man in Black kills single-handedly.

There’s also the mismatched pair of park director Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and the young boy he encounters on a stroll through the desert. Both of them are wearing similar outfits (and matching vests), and the quotes they share about boredom from their respective fathers suggest that Hopkins may have created a robotic version of himself as a child. It’s in this enigmatic scene that Hopkins also gets the episode’s best line: “Everything in this world is magic, except to the magician.”

Ford says that after stopping a rattlesnake dead in its tracks with a gesture; the snake is apparently a synthetic being just like everyone else in Westworld. That’s one scene after the Man in Black tears apart Lawrence’s hometown and murders his wife to get more information about the maze he found referred to on the inside of a murdered Host’s scalp in Episode 1. Lawrence’s daughter says to find the maze, he’ll need to “follow the Blood Arroyo to the place where the snake lays its eggs.” One scene later, here’s a snake. Is this the Man in Black’s ultimate destination? And why, as one of the security guard says, does the Man in Black get “whatever he wants” in Westworld?

Unless my Spanish is even worse than I think it is, there’s another connection in the episode between the maze clues and the Westworld staff. Near the end of “Chestnut,” Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) gives Dr. Ford his pitch for the park’s new story, which he calls “Odyssey on Red River.” “Red River,” besides being the name of a famous Howard Hawks Western, is basically a rephrasing of “Blood Arroyo.” (Arroyo is Spanish for stream.) What’s the connection here? Ford rejects Lee’s idea because he claims Westworld is “not about giving the guests what you think they want.” But maybe he just doesn’t want anyone finding whatever is near that river?

These breadcrumbs might not be a trail to anything, but they certainly resemble the sort of hints and teases that executive producer J.J. Abrams and his team brought to Lost. Two episodes in, Westworld doesn’t have quite the same narrative drive as the early episodes of Lost did, where there was the story of trying to survive on a deserted island and then the strange quirks of the island beneath that. So far, this series seems much more focused on overarching questions and ideas than in its central story of the Hosts slowly becoming self-aware. These violent delights may have violent ends, but they still feel like there a ways off at this point.

Again, that’s entirely by Abrams, Nolan, and Joy’s design. When Dr. Ford rebukes Lee’s Red River pitch, Hopkins delivers this speech about Westworld’s true nature:

The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties. The details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one noticed before. Something they fall in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.

So far Westworld hasn’t delivered a ton of garish things (or at least it hasn’t focused on them in the same way other HBO shows might). It’s much more preoccupied with the subtleties and details. Or maybe I am, and maybe I’m invested because I believe I am seeing things that no one has noticed before, like the Blood Arroyo/Red River connection. As the Man in Black says “The real world is chaos. An accident. But in here every detail adds up to something.” That’s why he keeps exploring. That’s why we get hooked on TV shows.

EPISODE RATING: 8/10

AND ANOTHER THING …

-Though he was ostensibly one of the two leads in the pilot, James Marsden’s Teddy barely appears in “Chestnut.” He shows up briefly at the end of the episode in a scene with Maeve, where they share a drink, and then he’s randomly “murdered” by a guest without provocation or warning. I love the idea that Westworld’s cast is big enough to rotate stars in and out of the spotlight. I also love the idea that Teddy’s lot in life is to die, over and over, no matter what he does with his day.

-While Teddy and Dolores largely shift to the background in this episode, Newton’s Maeve got a major bump in screen time. Her ability to access her memories affects her ability to seduce her brothel’s guests, which puts her in danger of being decommissioned and sent to cold storage. There’s something very sad (and very sharp) about the idea of a woman being deemed completely worthless because a bunch of sleazy men don’t want to sleep with her.

-Speaking of Maeve: The scenes of her waking up naked in the middle of a surgery, then wandering through Westworld’s underground (which in one shot seems to be hidden beneath the park’s mountains) only to stumble on a room where “dead” Hosts are hosed down and prepped for repair, is easily the most nightmarish moment on the show so far.

-Another interesting pairing or bookend in this episode: Early in the show, as Ford and Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe discuss the state of the Hosts, Ford says “You can’t play God without being acquainted with the Devil,” a line that takes on added meaning in “Chestnut”s final shot, with Ford and Lowe looking at a church spire as the latter hints at his big idea for Westworld’s new storyline.

-Maybe this is just because it’s a J.J. Abrams show where you’re constantly looking for the angles, but I remain convinced at least one of the “human” cast of this show will eventually be revealed to be a robot. We could speculate who, but for now I’m going to hold my theories.

-When William arrives at Westworld, his personal Host asks if he has any pre-existing medical conditions or mental health issues they should know about before he enters the park. He jokes that he’s afraid of clowns. Talk about a timely show!