Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: “Written in the Ashes” by K. Hollan Van Zandt

Today, Fresh-scraped Vellum is one of the final stops on the blog tour for Written in the Ashes, a wonderful historical fantasy by author K. Hollan Van Zandt. It’s published by Harper Collins and available here. I was also lucky enough to interview Ms. Van Zandt, and that interview follows my review of the novel.

Written in the Ashes is an epic and magical tale centered around the Great Library of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Set in the early fifth century, the book introduces us to famous historical figures such as Hypatia of Alexandria, one of the most remarkable women and scientists of her age, and Bishop Cyril (later canonized a saint), who sought to cleanse the city of its Pagan roots, with Hypatia being the foremost Pagan among them. 

The story’s main character, however, is Hannah, a slave who was kidnaped from her home in Sinai and sold in Alexandria. There, she is purchased by the son of a wealthy merchant named Alizar, who comes to appreciate Hannah’s intellect and gift for music. He arranges for her to study at the Great Library, where she’s introduced to Hypatia.

The Great Library of Alexandria*
One of the most beautiful facets of this book is the way the author brings Alexandria, and especially the Great Library, to life. The library has its own zoo, a botanical garden, a chamber filled with butterflies, and secret doors accessible only from the maze-like, water-filled catacombs that flow beneath city the streets. The Great Library was a bastion of learning and science, and stands as a symbol of things readers today would hold precious. Though to the Christian clerics of that age, it was the epitome of Pagan heresy. 

If Hannah is the protagonist, alongside Alizar and Hypatia, then Bishop Cyril and his mob of violent clerics, called the Parabolani, are the chief antagonists. Think of the Faith Militant in Game of Thrones, only historically real, though Bishop Cyril is more Tywin Lannister than High Sparrow. When Hannah observes the Parabolani killing women accused as witches and persecuting the city’s Jews, she cannot stand for it, and quickly runs afoul of the Parabolani, who end up hunting her for much of the tale. 

The danger posed by Cyril’s clerics eventually causes Alizar to move Hannah to the Isle of Pharos, where she joins the Temple of Isis. Here is where the book ventures into the realm of historical fantasy, with the introduction of the Nuapar. They are sect of monastic warriors, founded in ancient India, who wield mystical powers. Their leader, Julian, one of Hannah’s love interests in the book, even sends her on a quest for the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, a mystical relic that Alizar believes will allow the Pagans to prevail against the Christians.

Religious tensions play a significant role in the novel, but that is a function of the period of history in which the story takes place. Mysticism also plays a big role, though nothing is as important as the hero’s journey Hannah undertakes in the classic Campbellian sense of the term (there’s even a visit to the Delphi Oracle). That journey, mixed with the fascinating settings and characters who inhabit the story’s world, is what makes this novel work so well. If you like intelligent historical fiction with strong female characters, a glimmer of magic, and a fairly unique setting, you will enjoy Written in the Ashes.

K. Hollan Van Zandt

Interview with K. Hollan Van Zandt

Q. What inspired you to choose the Great Library of Alexandria in fifth century Egypt as the major setting for your novel?

Well, I was dating an Egyptologist in my 20’s, and had already been the pen pal of bestselling novelist Tom Robbins for over a decade. So I knew I wanted to write a book, and Tom was encouraging of learning the craft and really committing myself to it. I asked my lover how it was possible that we knew what Caesar ate for breakfast on the mornings of his battles but we don’t know when the greatest library in antiquity burned to the ground. He had no answer, insisting scholars didn’t know. So I began my own research at the UC Santa Cruz, which culminated in the discovery that Hypatia was the last known librarian of the Great Library. (This was before Google.) There was a synchronicity in that I had written a short story years prior about a woman running the library who had been brutally murdered, but I thought the story was rubbish, so I had tossed it in a drawer. Suddenly, my paths converged with chilling accuracy, and I knew I had to write about Hypatia because I had already seen how she died playing like a movie in my mind, even before I knew who she was. What happened to her and Alexandria during a tumultuous time of religious extremism could also have been ripped from today’s headlines.

Q. You really brought the city of Alexandria and its surroundings to life. I suspect those details were based on a mountain of research, but how much of your Alexandria – especially the catacombs and the Great Library – is the product of your imagination?

Actually, there is nothing of the city of Alexandria itself from that era that came from my imagination aside from the structure and organization of the Great Library and the Museion. I studied extensive maps of the 5th century; the modern findings of the French dive team who are still hard at work in the Alexandrian harbor where the city ruins of the era I wrote about now sit at the bottom of the sea; and there was a Nova special I watched that showed the catacombs beneath the city, which were only discovered in 2000, and archeologists had merely 2 weeks to explore them before a freeway, tragically, was to pave over the whole area sealing it off from further research.

Q. There are a number of wonderful characters in the novel, but Hannah is the protagonist and her transformation carries the story. What – or who – inspired Hannah? 

I am a great lover of the work of Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. In writing about Hannah, I wanted to explore the heroine’s journey, if you will, because I feel that women have a different path to self-realization than men do, and for us, especially at this time, it is about the courage to find our voices and fight injustice. Our journey as women demands we carry many roles, and so Hannah is also a single mother in the story, fighting for her child as well as her people. She is guided by principles of integrity and honesty and kindness and compassion. Sometimes she is wounded by her own soft-heartedness, so she must learn the balance of loving herself, and fighting for what she believes in.

Mort de la philosophe Hypatie*
Q. Did you find it challenging to take an important historical figure such as Hypatia of Alexandria and turn her into a significant character in your novel?

Writing about Hypatia came so naturally to me it was like writing about a long lost friend or sister. Far harder to render was Bishop Cyril, who while an egregious and single-minded antagonist, has a major transformation toward enlightenment at the end of the story—which he also did in real life and was canonized by the Catholic Church for in spite of the near genocide of the Jews he instigated in the city. I wanted Cyril’s transformation to be believable, which was challenging given the many horrible things he did during his reign in Alexandria, including inciting the mob to kill Hypatia, who he perceived as his final roadblock to ultimate power, and he was right. He reigned the city unchallenged after she and Orestes were killed. History is often unfair, and after reading so much about this era, it made it hard for me to believe in karma, frankly.

Q. One of the things I enjoyed most about Written in the Ashes were the magical and mystical elements woven into a tale that otherwise could have been a work of pure historical fiction. Some historical fiction purists, however, dislike stories with fantasy elements. Did you have any concerns about adding these magical elements to your novel?

Thank you! (laughs) It made the book nearly impossible to sell, which was devastating given the success of a work like Diana Gabaldan’s Outlander, which has sold millions of copies worldwide. But the publishing industry is still narrow minded. It is the readers who tell them what inspires them, and they gradually catch on. I took my cue from movies I’ve loved, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I grew up in Los Angeles, and my book was optioned for film by an Academy Award winning producer, so there is this hope that there is a place in people’s hearts where history and magic meet. I think the Steampunk movement is also evidence of this.

Q. Speaking of magical elements, the Nuapar are perhaps the biggest practitioners of “magic” in the story. What inspired you to create the Nuapar, and give them such an important role in the novel?

Alexander the Great, you may recall, tried to invade India and failed. During his trek through the Himalayas, he met yogis, called saddhus, who had renounced the world in favor of spiritual discipline. Alexander loved the yogis and recognized their powers, and was possibly won over by their excellent hashish. He befriended a mystic he called Kalanos, and brought him home to Greece to show his people. Their friendship is also the stuff of legend. They supposedly founded a mystery school together that housed the Emerald Tablet. Kalanos was recorded to have died by lighting himself on fire while seated in lotus posture in deep meditation on top of his own funeral pyre, where he simply disappeared. Then legend records him re-appearing throughout the Mediterranean for the next eighty years. So I merely gave the Nuapar the powers of the great yogis. I have 7 yoga certifications and have studied many of these ancient arts both from India and Asia, and they all have documented stories of the kinds of things the Nuapar can do, like levitation, manifesting a second body to appear to someone far away, and super-human battle skills. Some may call it magic, but it does appear with proper initiation, far more than what we think is possible can be achieved with our minds.

Q. The book’s second act involves Hannah’s quest for the legendary Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. Was there some historical connection between the Great Library of Alexandria and the tablet? Or was there another reason you chose to feature it in the story? 

I loved writing about the Emerald Tablet, which is a real legend from Alexander the Great, and not one I concocted. Alexander supposedly found the Tablet during his quest to the Siwa Oasis, the one wherein the Oracle proclaimed him the son of the god, Zeus. While there, his soldiers had sex with some of the local women, and so 700 years later, this resulted in the prominence of albinos that still live there in the oasis today due to the limited gene pool—another fact I found too magical to ignore. The Emerald Tablet remains one of the greatest alchemical secrets of our world, and much has been written about it, even by Isaac Newton. It was said the Emerald Tablet returned with Alexander to Alexandria, then was lost again. So I did weave this legend into the novel, knowing what the tablet would have represented during an era when magic and science were considered the same thing.

Q. Do you have another novel in the works? And if so, can you offer a hint on what it’s about?

I just finished a YA novel set in London about an American teenage girl who is discovering she is bisexual and having a very hard time with herself (denying it, mostly, while acting out), and the confusing love triangle that ensues between her neighbor, who is a model, and her Irish boyfriend. It’s a bit of a love letter to London, as well as a fictionalized memoir about my teen years. I wanted to tell the truth about the hardship of being a teenage girl, with all the sex and alcohol, ambition and confusion that entails. I believe kids are a lot smarter and more mature than we give them credit for in most YA novels wherein the hardships are battling vampires or finding a date for the prom. The reality is that LGBTQ kids are committing suicide every day. This book is a love letter of hope to them. Beyond that, I’m working on a memoir. It took me 15 years to complete and publish Written in the Ashes, so I’m taking a break from all the intense research for now. Thanks for interviewing me! Your readers can find me at

Thanks to a new feature on Amazon, you can read a preview of Written in the Ashes here.

* Artwork is in the public domain in the Unites States

Friday, November 25, 2016

There Are At Least Four Timelines on Westworld

HBO’s Westworld has been chock-full of mysteries, but with two episodes to go, one thing is becoming quite clear: Westworld is taking place over multiple timelines, and after last week’s episode, there are at least four of them.

The William & Logan Timeline 

I’ve written before about the two-timeline theory, which posits that the scenes with William and Logan are taking place years before the present timeline. Proof abounds, including the old logo William sees when he arrives at Westworld, the Union army narrative that appears to be gone by the present, and the appearance of Laurence as El Lazo with William and Logan in Pariah moments after the Man in Black slit Lawrence’s throat. Last episode, however, confirmed the two timeline theory beyond any doubt with the reappearance of Talulah Riley.

Riley played the beautiful host who greeted William at the beginning of episode two. We haven’t seen her since (except for the promo video Maeve sees during her tour with Felix) until she suddenly reappears in the scene involving Teddy and the Man in Black on the road to find Wyatt. In fact, when the Man in Black sees her, he says: “It’s you. I figured they’d retired you. I guess Ford never likes to waste a pretty face.”

The only way to interpret this line is that Riley’s character greeted guests in the past, and has been gone so long the Man in Black thought she had been retired. In other words, these events have to take place in different timelines. Riley’s reappearance also lends more evidence to the longstanding fan theory that either William or Logan is the Man in Black. Both would have known Riley’s character from their early days in Westworld, and I cannot believe it’s a coincidence that the Man in Black recognizes her in the present. 

Delores & The Distant Past

Delores’ flashbacks in the William & Logan timeline reveal a much earlier timeline she lived through in the village with the black-steepled church. During the flashback, it looks like the techs are training the hosts for their very first narrative by teaching them how to dance. Maeve was there, as was Lawrence’s daughter, who remembered Delores from the earlier timeline. 

From the flashbacks, we also know that something terrible happened there. In fact, something so terrible that by William’s timeline the village has been covered over except for the black steeple peeking out of the dirt. Could her flashbacks be showing us the critical failure at the park 30 years ago that was mentioned in episode one? 

For weeks now, fans have speculated there are three timelines on Westworld, suspecting that Bernard’s dialogues with Delores in the early episodes were actually scenes of Arnold and Delores before the William & Logan timeline. This theory is proving truer with each episode. In fact, it now appears that Bernard, who we know is a host, was either created in Arnold’s image (if Arnold was human) or is literally Arnold 2.0, as Ford’s dialogue last episode seemed to suggest. 

In the beginning of episode 8, after Ford tells Bernard to bring himself back online, he reveals that Bernard is the “author” of so many of the emotions he’s feeling after realizing he killed Theresa. “When we started,” Ford says, “the hosts’ emotions were primary colors. Love, hate. But I wanted all the shades in between. The human engineers were not up to the task, so I built you, and together you and I captured that elusive thing – heart.”

Ford is clearly talking about Westworld’s early days and admits he created a host to help him build other hosts, ones with heart. We also know Ford’s original partner was Arnold, who was keenly interested in making the hosts as real as possible. He even wanted them to think for themselves. And now, when Ford is talking about the early days, he refers to himself and Bernard collectively as “we.” The most compelling reason for this is that Bernard is Arnold 2.0. 

I’m not saying the two are identical, for at times Ford is clearly speaking of them separately. For example, when Bernard becomes so angry it seems he is going to hurt Ford, Ford says: “You’re not the first man to threaten me. Arnold came to feel the way you do. He couldn’t stop me either.” But the pieces of this theory fit together like a good puzzle. Ford built Arnold, who was so interested in the hosts thinking for themselves that he encouraged Delores (one of the first hosts) to question her own reality. The result of this appears to be the incident from Delores’ flashbacks in the place with the black-steepled church. Around this same time, I believe, Arnold met his end, only to be rebuilt as Bernard. 

The Present – Where Everything’s Coming Full Circle

It looks like the distant past is about to repeat itself in the present timeline, which I believe includes the scenes with Bernard, Ford, Theresa, and Elsie (poor Elsie!), along with the scenes involving Charlotte and Sizemore, and those with Teddy and the Man in Black. In the present, however, it looks like Maeve may be taking on the role Delores played long ago. Speaking of Delores, one thing I remain curious about is why we’ve rarely seen Delores in the present timeline since episode 3? It’s making me question whether she even exists in the present, even though episodes 1 and 2 – especially the scene with Maeve and Delores in the street, where she whispers “these violent delights have violent ends” – strongly suggest she does.

Meave’s Dreams & the Fourth Timeline

Which brings us to the fourth timeline. This one takes place between the present and the William & Logan timeline. Before last episode, this timeline was only hinted to in Maeve’s dreams. But now we know that sometime before the present, the Man in Black decided to do something truly evil, just to see how it felt. So he killed Maeve and her daughter while the two were settlers in a prior narrative. Afterwards, when Maeve is brought back to the lab, she freaks out big time. We know from the preview to Sunday’s episode, Maeve tells Bernard that they have been through this before, and she’s clearly referring to this fourth timeline. 

But that’s just what we know for now. There could be a fifth timeline or even a sixth hidden in the show. I suspect all will be revealed in the finale, but it does beg the question of whether season two will follow the same, complex narrative structure that season one did. With these writers, however, I’m not worried. I think they’ve created a masterpiece, and I’m happy to be along for the ride.

* Images courtesy of HBO.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving 1621 Style!

As I do each year, I'm re-publishing my post on the very first Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

Growing up, I never paid much attention to the origin of Thanksgiving. Other than what I may have learned in elementary school, all I recall knowing was that it was a feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sometime after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Only in the past few years did I become interested in what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. Yet like many an adventure, it all started with a few bottles of wine ...

Thanksgiving, 1621, Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Not that the pilgrims drank wine at the first Thanksgiving (at least by any accounts I’ve read, although they did have beer), but the several bottles my friends and family drank a few years ago, after another gut-busting Thanksgiving dinner, inspired us to do some research into the origin of Thanksgiving. (That’s also how we rediscovered the role Squanto played in all of this, but more on him in a moment.)

Apparently there are only two written accounts of the first Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in 1621 as a harvest feast by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Turkey, it turns out, was not the centerpiece of the meal, although one of the two accounts referenced a “great store of wild turkeys.” The main course appeared to be venison, but there is also reference to waterfowl and “Indian corn.”

The interesting part about the meal is what was not eaten, at least according to an article in The Smithsonian Magazine. There were no potatoes or sweet potatoes. White potatoes originated in South America and sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean, and neither had apparently made it to Massachusetts by 1621. The Pilgrims also lacked butter and wheat flour, so there was no pumpkin pie. Among things they probably did eat were fish, eels, and shellfish (like lobster, clams, and mussels), which were staples for the Wampanoag and the colonists.

But this feast may never have occurred if it were not for a Patuxet Native American named Tisquantum, commonly known as Squanto. He served as an interpreter for the Pilgrims, taught them how to grow corn, and showed them the best places to catch fish and eel, all of which helped them survive their first winter at Plymouth. He also helped negotiate a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag in March of 1621. Without this, I suspect there would not have been a first Thanksgiving.

A drawing of Squanto – I imagine he dressed more warmly in the winter of 1621!
Squanto’s backstory was less than idyllic. He was captured twice by the English and forced to leave his wife and child. During his first captivity in 1605, he was taken to England along with several other native Americans. Their captor, Capt. George Weymouth, wanted to display them for his financial backers, who were interested in seeing natives from the New World. In England, Squanto learned English and apparently became the consort of an English woman. By 1613, he was hired as a guide for an expedition to New England and returned there with the famous explorer John Smith.

This is the same John Smith who was saved by Pocahontas in 1607 and 1608.
But Squanto’s time back in Plymouth did not last long. Once Smith went north on another expedition, one of his lieutenants, a Capt. Thomas Hunt, kidnapped Squanto and twenty-six other Native Americans to sell them into slavery. Hunt sailed to Spain, where he hoped to sell his captives for twenty pounds each. When local friars discovered Hunt’s plans, they rescued Squanto and his brethren, hoping to convert them to Christianity. Squanto ended up living with the friars until 1618, when he found his way back to London, and then to a ship headed to the New World.

Upon returning home, Squanto discovered that his entire Patuxet tribe had died from the plague (believed to be smallpox, a disease introduced to the New World by Europeans). Despite all this mistreatment and misfortune, he stayed and helped the Pilgrims until he died of fever in 1622. According to one account, the Massachusetts governor at the time called Squanto a “special instrument sent by God for their good beyond their expectations.”

So this Thanksgiving, my family and friends are going a bit more historical. There will be venison and some lobster, and turkey of course. (I suspect mashed potatoes will be in order too, only because my friends and family might never forgive me if I eliminate them for the sake of historical purity.) There will also be more wine and probably a few mixed drinks – including a special concoction that we intend to dedicate to Squanto.

2016 Menu Update: This year, we're going to our friends' house for Thanksgiving, so I'm not cooking my usual six course meal. But I'm still preparing a few dishes in honor of the first Thanksgiving, namely littleneck clams steamed in Boston lager and fried lobster tails with a horseradish crème fraiche sauce! I'm also making my signature pumpkin soup with fig quenelles and prosciutto! 

Yes, I love cooking almost as much as I love writing! HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

The Mayflower in 1620
Another interesting fact: Through my father’s side of the family, I am a direct descendant of Francis Cooke and his son John, and Richard Warren and his daughter Sarah, who married John Cooke. Francis, John, and Richard all journeyed to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620 and were likely present at the first Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Westworld’s Biggest Clues Remain in Its Dialogue

Time is scarce this week, but I wanted to offer a quick thought on last Sunday’s ginormous twist on Westworld. A lot of fans saw the twist coming, but I think the scene revealed a lot more, and once again it seems Westworld’s biggest clues remain in its dialogue.

As predicted, Bernard is a host. He confirmed as much seconds before the big reveal when he says, “It doesn’t look like anything to me” after Theresa show’s him a sketch of a Bernard-like android. That’s what all the host say when shown images that would cause them to question their reality.

What this also means is that the three time line theory may be true, especially if Bernard was made in Arnold’s image. (You can read more about that theory in last week’s post, here.) But the scene where Bernard kills Theresa reveals another chilling possibility on the show. And the clue to this theory is in the dialogue between Theresa and Ford moments before she dies.
Theresa tells Ford: “Your time running this place, your insane little kingdom, is over. You’ve been playing God for long enough.”
He shakes his head. “I simply wanted to tell my stories. It was you people who wanted to play God with your little undertaking.”
“Do you really think the board will stand for this?”
Ford laughs. “The board will do nothing. Our arrangement is too valuable to them. They test me every now and then. I think they enjoy the sport of it. This time they sent you.” Then he flashes a devious smile. “Sadly, in order to restore things, the situation demands a blood sacrifice.”
The key, of course, is the phrase “this time they sent you,” suggesting that the board has sent others to stop Ford – and I suspect each time the messenger ended up like Theresa. I further suspect the host that Ford is building down there is a replica of Theresa. It seems like the perfect way to cover up a murder in a remote place like Westworld. But it begs the question of how many other hosts Ford has running the company?

One of them may be Charlotte Hale, the executive the board supposedly sent to stop Ford. When she’s with Theresa (after having her way with Hector), she tells Theresa that they need a “blood sacrifice” to prove their point. In context, it appears she’s talking about poor Clementine, who (before she was lobotomized) was used by Charlotte and Theresa to show that Ford’s “reveries” can make the hosts violent. Yet it’s no coincidence that Ford uses this same term – “blood sacrifice” – with Theresa.

So, is this proof that Charlotte is an android too? Part of an elaborate plan by Ford to lure Theresa to her death? Or was Hector really awake in that scene, recording everything Charlotte said? The idea, however, that Ford has other hosts disguised as humans has me leaning toward the suspicion that Charlotte is a host too.

But that’s just another theory on a show where devising theories has become part of the fun. So, who else do you think might secretly be a host on Westworld? 

* Images courtesy of HBO.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Who is at the Center of the Maze on Westworld?

Episode 6 of HBO’s Westworld was just another outstanding chapter in what has become the most intelligent series on television. It also featured one of the show’s most fascinating scenes – with Maeve and Felix – set to a beautiful and haunting score. And it just might have given us the biggest clue to what, or who, might be at the center of the maze.

Every time we see the drawing of the maze it features a stick man in its core. Even more, the image of the maze was everywhere in last night’s episode: carved on a table in the Spanish village, as the face of the brand the Union soldiers were going to use on Teddy, and in what had to be Arnold’s notebook that Ford is flipping through, right next to a sketch of Delores. 

It was Teddy’s dialogue with the Man in Black, however, that gave us our biggest clue to what is at the maze’s center. Teddy called the maze “an old native myth,” then he tells the Man in Black this:
“The maze itself is the sum of a man’s life, the choices he makes, the dreams he hangs onto. And there, at the center, is a legendary man who has been killed over and over again, countless times and clawed his way back to life. And, in return for the last time he vanquished all his oppressors in a tireless fury, he built a house, and around that house he built a maze so complicated only he could navigate through it. I reckon he had seen enough fighting.”
So . . . who is the man Teddy is talking about? My newest theory is that he is speaking of Ford’s old colleague Arnold. In fact, like pictures of the maze, Arnold was lurking everywhere in last night’s episode.

Arnold is supposed to be dead, killed 34 years ago based on Delores’s dialogue with Ford last week (as well as Logan’s comments to William, and the Man in Black’s words to Ford in the saloon). Yet the scene with Bernard and the cottage with the five anomalies casts doubt on this.

In the cottage, Bernard finds a family, and the first thing he asks the father is: “Are you Arnold?” This is potentially huge. Bernard knows the anomalies are all first generation hosts, so might this mean that Bernard believes Arnold is actually an android? This would sure fit with Teddy’s myth about the maze, because only an android could be killed countless times and claw his way back to life.

What this would mean, however, is that Ford created Arnold. Yet we also know that Arnold supposedly built the five hosts based on Ford’s family (including Ford’s little boy doppelganger), and that Arnold created Delores. The only way this makes sense is if Ford was using Arnold to create other androids. Which may have merit, because Arnold seems to have always sided with the androids, especially when he asked Delores to help him destroy Westworld.

Then we have Elsie’s discovery in that creepy old storage place. She learned that someone has been using the system to re-task hosts and change their prime directives, to the point where they could lie to the humans and even hurt the guests. She believes the culprit is Arnold. Bernard tells her Arnold is dead. Then Elsie replies: “He’s a pretty prolific coder for a dead guy. Whatever argument he was having with Ford, it doesn’t seem like he was done making his point.”

Elsie’s suspicion is not inconsistent with the theory that Arnold is an android who created other androids at Ford’s urging. Yet it could also point to Arnold as some form of computer virus or sentience living inside Westworld’s computer systems. That wouldn’t jive as well with Teddy’s old native myth, though both theories could be true to an extent.

We know from Ford’s dialogue with Delores last episode that Arnold’s words live deep inside her memory. I suppose it’s possible that a human Arnold, or an android Arnold, implanted some of his sentience into the old hosts, and that one of them has taken up his cause. Someone who lives at the center of the maze.

But that’s just a theory. Who do you think lurks at the center of Westworld’s maze?

PS, did you notice the ginormous Easter egg in last night’s episode? When Bernard was on floor 82 in the subbasement, there is Yul Brenner’s gunslinger android in the background. This had to be a shout out to Michael Crichton’s original Westworld, and I wonder if the gunslinger has something to do with the park’s first critical failure?

PPS, if Ford created Arnold to help him build androids, this would be consistent with one of the wildest fan theories on Westworld: that Bernard is an android made in Arnold’s image. Might Bernard simply be Ford’s latest helper? It is consistent with Bernard having been at Westworld “forever,” like he told Elsie . . .

* Images courtesy of HBO.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

5 Thoughts at the Midpoint of HBO’s “Westworld”

Westworld just keeps getting better and better. The writers are killing it, and it seems like every line of dialogue on this show holds a clue to its many mysteries. So, as we’ve reached the midpoint of season 1 (and I really hope HBO renews it for season 2), here are five thoughts I have about the show’s biggest secrets. Please note, if any of these prove true, they could be huge *SPOILERS* of things to come. 

The dual timeline theory looks real

Last week I wrote about a theory that the scenes with William and Logan were taking place years earlier than the scenes with the Man in Black, as well as those of Maeve and the scenes in the control room with Ford, Bernard, Elsie, and Cullen. This past week, the William and Logan narrative took them to the outlaw haven of Pariah, where they encounter the bandit kingpin El Lazo. These scenes are juxtaposed with those involving Lawrence, Teddy, and the Man in Black, and together they make the dual timeline theory a virtual certainty. 

Right after the Man in Black kills Lawrence in the present, Lawrence shows up in an entirely new narrative with William and Logan as El Lazo. This suggests he was always El Lazo in this Pariah narrative, which seems like concrete proof that the two narratives are taking place in different time periods, with the William and Logan narrative in the past. (And if there was any doubt that El Lazo and Lawrence are one in the same, he later tells William and Delores on the train: “You can call me Lawrence.”) The only other explanation for this is that there are two Lawrences existing in two different narratives at the same time. But we’ve seen no evidence that’s how Westworld operates. All the hosts appear unique.

There may be another clue as well. In the Day of the Dead parade in Pariah, I swear Delores sees the card dealer that the Man in Black killed in episode one, and even Maeve, with her face painted like a skeleton’s. Perhaps they were both characters in the Pariah narrative, lending even more proof to the theory that the William and Logan scenes are taking place in the past.

Even more, the scenes in Pariah may be showing us how the Man in Black first met Lawrence (who he seems to know well in the present), which lends further credence to the theory that the Man in Black is really William 30 years later. (Or, perhaps, he’s Logan, as I pondered last week, though I’m beginning to doubt this more and more after William threw Logan up against the brothel wall and then abandoned him in Pariah). 

The scene where the Man in Black kills Lawrence may also point toward William. When Lawrence insults the Man in Black, he tells him: “There’s not a man in the world that would take the tone with me that you do. In a past life, perhaps.” Remember, earlier, the Man in Black told William that he “was born here.” We also know, particularly from episode 5, that Logan talks down to William. So maybe this is a subtle hint that William was in fact the Man in Black’s past life. Maybe we’re seeing him being “born” in Pariah.

What is Logan’s relation to Delos Corp.?

Last week’s episode suggested that Logan might actually be one of the principals behind Delos Corp., which eventually bought control of the park. Of course, this theory only works if the separate timeline theory holds true, but let’s just go with that now. 

Early in the episode, Logan tells William a rumor that the park is hemorrhaging cash, so “we’re considering buying them out.” He then reveals a number of interesting facts, all of which again point to the mysterious Arnold. “Supposedly this place was all started by a partnership,” Logan tells William. “Then right before the park opened, one of the partners killed himself. Sent the park into a freefall. I mean, I don’t know any of the details, don’t even know his name.”

“We must have a team of lawyers looking at this place,” William says.

“Yeah,” Logan replies, “but it came up empty. He’s a complete mystery. Not even a picture.”

Perhaps Logan and Delos do end up buying the park. And if the Man in Black is either Logan or William (both of whom worked for the same company), that might explain why the Man in Black has free run of Westworld – and why he searching for something related to the mysterious Arnold (see below).

Who is talking to Delores?

We know Delores is hearing voices. In episode 3, the voice tells her to “kill him” right before she shoots her would-be-rapist. The voice is clearly male, and in the opening scene with Delores in episode 5, she hears that same voice tell her: “Find me.” 

“Show me how,” Delores asks the person speaking in her head.

I believe we learned the identity of that voice later in the episode during Ford’s interrogation of Delores. Not coincidentally, he’s talking to her about Arnold.

“I’m sure you remember him, Arnold? The person who created you,” Ford says.

“I’m sorry,” Delores responds. “I don’t think I recall anyone by that name.”

“And yet you can,” Ford says. “Somewhere under all those updates, he is still there, perfectly preserved. Your mind is a walled garden. Even death cannot touch the flowers blooming there. Have you been hearing voices? Has Arnold been speaking to you again?”

While Delores denies talking to Arnold recently, Ford puts her into “analysis mode,” forcing her to admit that her last contact with him was 34 years, 42 days, and seven hours ago. “Yes, Delores,” Ford says, “the day Arnold died.” Then he asks her: “What was the last thing he said to you?”

“He told me I was going to help him.”

“Help him do what?”

“To destroy this place.”

After Ford leaves the room, Delores says, seemingly to no one: “He doesn’t know. I didn’t tell him anything.”

So . . . it seems that Arnold is the voice speaking to Delores, and it also seems that Ford and Arnold were at odds about Westworld. They seem like the ultimate rivals, and I think their conflict underlies everything we may be seeing on this show. 

Which leads me to one of the wildest theories spreading around the internet – that Bernard may actually be an android created in Arnold’s image. If true, this means that the scenes between Bernard and Delores might also be out of time, and actually depicting Arnold’s original conversations with Delores that set her on the path to destroy Westworld. Heavy stuff, I know (and who knew a copy of Alice in Wonderland could be so powerful). But that’s what I love about this show. At this point, almost every theory has a bit of evidence to support it. 

One last thing – during the scene in Pariah where Delores kisses William, she says, “There’s a voice inside my head, telling me what I need to do. And it’s telling me I need you.” Could Arnold (or whatever’s left of him in her memory) be trying to recruit a man to ultimately stand up to Ford and help destroy Westworld? If so, it gives the next scene some added significance . . .

God & the Devil have a chat

This may have been the most intriguing scene in the entire episode, where Ford – the literal god of Westworld – sits down with the Man in Black, who I again think is playing the role of the “devil” in this narrative. Though it may be more like John Milton’s devil, the antihero of Paradise Lost

The Man in Black recognizes Ford at once. He even tells Teddy, “everything that’s good that ever happened to you in your life, and everything rotten, this is the man you have to thank.” The Man in Black also calls Ford by his first name. “How am I doing, Robert?”

Next, the Man in Black tells Ford something that all but proves he’s the “devil” in this narrative: “I always felt this place was missing a real villain, hence my humble contribution.” Even more, the Man in Black hints to a competition of sorts between the two men, when he asks about “Wyatt” (the outlaw in Ford’s new narrative): “Is he just another stooge for the tourists to mount on their wall at home, or have you finally made a worthy adversary? Someone to stop me from finding the center of the maze?”

When Ford asks what the Man in Black is hoping to find there, the Man in Black brings up the mysterious Arnold, who had a “deeper meaning he was trying to express” in Westworld. “Something true.” The Man in Black also knows that Arnold died 35 years ago, and then he reveals something big – Arnold “tried to take this place with him. Almost, but not quite, thanks to me.” This may very well be another clue pointing to a connection with William or Logan and Delos Corp. (And why is ‘Delos” starting to look like a take on the name “Delores” the more I read it?)

Then the Man in Black reveals something even more significant. “But maybe [Arnold] left something behind. I wonder what I would find if I open you up –” That’s when he raises his knife to Ford, who displays more of his godlike powers with the hosts, causing Teddy to grab the knife barehanded with a grip the Man in Black can’t break. 

So what might this mean? Has the Man in Black taken up Arnold’s cause? Or does the Man in Black suspect Arnold left some androids disguised as humans? Maybe that’s the answer he’s seeking at the center of the maze.

Is Maeve making her own narrative?

Last episode’s final scene had Maeve waking up in the body shop where a tech named Felix is playing with an android bird he’s been trying to resurrect, against company rules no less. “Hello, Felix,” she says as the bird perches on her finger. “It’s time we had a chat.”

Maeve has clearly become self-aware after episode 4, and I think she’s found someone in Felix that she just might be able to relate to. After all, Felix seems truly compassionate, is fascinated with android life, and is willing to break the rules. The question going forward is whether she will use him to discover the whole truth behind Westworld. 

As for how this relates to Arnold and the other storylines, it’s hard to tell. But again, that’s what makes this show so damn fun.

* Images courtesy of HBO.