We didn’t know what death on Westworld looked like until this week.
Sure, we’ve seen the hosts die many deaths — some off-camera and some bloody — but none have been permanent. That left a big blank space around how the show would handle death as we went into episode seven.
How a show like Westworld handles major character death is crucial to its overall tone. AMC’s The Walking Dead has been steadily escalating the gore and horror of characters’ deaths throughout its run, to the point where viewers are having a hard time coming back. Game of Thrones is famous for its surprise deaths, with major characters usually getting time to bleed out on screen … before sometimes returning.
By contrast, this week’s death on Westworld was restrained, but absolutely terrifying.
The first person to die is Theresa Cullen, the head of Delos QA. So yes, I struck out predicting this death, but there’s still time!
We learn that Bernard is a host in a slow, excruciating reveal, which culminates with Ford ordering him to kill Theresa. She’s isolated, with no cell service, in the basement of Ford’s secret house in Sector 17. And she is killed by her lover, someone who she trusted — if not with her secrets, at least with her safety.
It’s impossible to talk about this scene without discussing the way it plays on our fears of domestic violence. For women especially, this nightmare looms large. According to CNN, half of the women who were murdered in 2012 were killed by a family member or domestic partner. That’s the baggage that viewers bring to a scene like this, and it was incredibly effective in conveying a very specific and negative emotion.
Just evoking that dynamic is uncomfortable enough, but this scene took it straight to horror movie territory by turning Bernard into a monster that Theresa has no hope of reaching in any way. He’s not only more physically powerful, his higher brain functions have been completely turned off.
“He’s just not himself,” is a phrase we often associate with abuse victims who are trying to cope with their situation. In this case, not only was Bernard “not himself,” but the Bernard Theresa thought she knew literally doesn’t exist. My stomach was in knots as the interaction between Ford and Theresa slow-boiled to what I knew had to be the conclusion: her death at his hands.
But this scene would not have been as powerful as it was if the showrunners had rubbed our faces in Theresa’s death. Instead, we couldn’t get a clear look at it. One wide shot showed the violence out of focus and in the background — with the whirring of the diagnostic machine at the forefront of the shot. The second shot of Theresa’s murder veered off to show Bernard’s face, placid and unemotional, as he killed her.
Westworld feels very intentional in how it chooses to show violence. Hector Escaton’s death by gunshot to the neck in episode one served a purpose: it makes us laugh and cringe at the guests, and the machinations of Westworld’s narrative team. When Lawrence gets his throat cut it’s equally surprising, but any sadness you felt about Lawrence biting the dust is undercut because he’s alive and onscreen again in just a few minutes. The stakes are low. Violence is part of why we’re here, and it’s definitely a large reason the guests are at the park. The show makes it OK to have “fun” with onscreen murder.
But now we’ve seen a real death. A permanent death. And it’s treated with restraint: no showboating, no blood sprays. Just a quiet moment of violence. A woman murdered by the man she worked with, and was sleeping with. There was little ceremony. Bernard calmly puts his tie back on after it’s over. Theresa’s body, we assume, is left there.
The elephant in the room, at this point, is Elsie. She disappeared under scary circumstances in episode 6, and in this episode all we know is that she’s “on leave.” We aren’t told whether that’s code for “rotting in Ford’s basement” or if she’s still alive. Given how much weight Theresa’s death was given, I’m willing to bet that Elsie is still alive somewhere — at least for now. That’s the kind of prediction we couldn’t really make last week, when we didn’t know how Westworld would handle a real death.
I hope Elsie is alive and stays that way. With Theresa’s death and Clem’s “retirement,” we’ve lost two woman characters in episode 7. Clementine’s lobotomy means that the character we knew has been erased, after being beaten as a way to prove a point about power and control. Bernard has also died, in that the sympathetic figure we thought we knew was a hoax. He never existed, and the thing that stands in those shoes is capable of terrible things.
So far Westworld has been pulling its punches when it comes to portraying violence against major characters. This episode reminded us how much we have to lose.