This Westworld review contains spoilers.
Westworld Season 2 Episode 1
Freeze all motor functions and begin running diagnostics, because Westworld has finally galloped back into the HBO corral—and with it comes many gifts. There are of course the violent delights and violent ends that we must expect from visiting Robert Ford’s dreams within dreams, plus all the mazes that accompany therein. But more pleasing still is the return of true appointment television. It is rare in the modern age for a series to still crack the zeitgeist threshold and feel like an event that everyone must experience live, yet here we are, hanging on every syllable uttered by Bernard, figuring out whether he is friend or foe to his human compatriots, and wondering just exactly how Dolores’ bloody revenge will escape the park.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves with speculation just yet. Again, Westworld Season 2 is here, hence why we need to savor these early steps into Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s latest labyrinth. Which by design is not quite like what anyone of us expected.
Indeed, I did predict when season 1 ended that this year would be about more than a robot revolution; it is about the transcendence of a new species. As such, it would be a different beast from what came before. And while it most definitely would fall into the second act of the Jurassic Park metaphor—wherein the first season is about coming to a theme park of wonders, and season 2 is where the exhibits start eating the tourists—it is nevertheless surprising how opaque and esoteric its violent delights can be. From the very word go, Nolan and Joy are threading the first of many mysteries in season 2. And thus far, most of them come down to my favorite character: Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe, who remains ever an anagram for Arnold Webber.
Yep, for those who thought we were done with “flashbacks” to the past, season 2 opens all the way back to when Wright’s Arnold, the true mastermind behind the Westworld park, is still testing the limits of the artificial intelligence of his first creation, Dolores Abernathy. And this solitary glimpse into the past—at least for the season 2 premiere—acts as an opening salvo before the series deliberately splinters off into at least two other timelines. One can almost sense the writers taunting their most devout of reddit fans: Can you keep up with this?
Still, before we cut that down, the question remains why do we return once again to Bernard and Dolores’ Pinocchio sessions in the bowels of Delos’ early years? There is of course the most fan-pleasing tangent where Arnold posits that Dolores scares him, and the rancher’s daughter blankly asks why on earth would anyone ever fear her? Wyatt only knows, my dear. However, the more important moment in this sequence is Dolores asking what is real. Arnold, struggling mightily to answer his ward, finally manages to articulate, “That which is irreplaceable.”
And more than any ominous foreshadow of Dolores’ thirst for blood and vengeance, this line forebodes the potential rest of the series. Arnold is clearly thinking of his dead son Charlie. Whereas Dolores can be turned back on or essentially rebooted, Charlie is seemingly gone forever. Nevertheless, this commodification of Dolores’ burgeoning identity—that Arnold both marvels at and dreads—is the same mistake humans have made again and again about their hosts. And now, the Westworld park as it once was—an X-rated fantasy island for the wrathful and perverse—is gone. Gone and as buried as Arnold, his son, and the naïve innocence he believed Dolores capable of always maintaining. The park has been replaced with a battlefield, and in it, the future Arnold first yearned for, and then attempted to stop, is about to replace everything.
It is in that context we find Arnold’s doppelganger, Bernard, in the center of what is sure to be a season-length splintering of the timeline. One that causes everything that is to follow to thereby be suspect.
This is established by Bernard waking up on a beach apparently 11 days after Dolores’ uprising began by blowing a hole in the back of Robert Ford’s skull. At least that is what Bernard, and we the audience, are led to believe. We’ll have to take the humans’ word for it, because Bernard’s memories are a jumble of events that we as an audience have not seen happen but know will come in future episodes.
Even so, in the present-time scenes, Bernard has wound up on a beach with a free and surprisingly healthy Ashley Stubbs—as the eldest Hemsworth brother was last glimpsed in season 1 captured by the Ghost Nation hosts and hurting a bad way—as well as new character Karl Strand. Strand is apparently fresh off the boat and here to save “hundreds of guests” who’ve miraculously avoided Dolores and her army for the past two weeks. And as Bernard might just be the only high-level Delos employee left at this point in the timeline, he’s all Strand’s got.
This development is bemusing on several levels. First, there is the irony that Delos is completely oblivious that, technically speaking, Bernard is no longer “the boss.” Since Charlotte Hale made him the sacrificial lamb in her power move against Ford, Bernard is not in charge of anything. But of course the more delicious aspect is that since only the now very dead Ford, Maeve, and Dolores know of Bernard’s synthetic background, all these humans are relying on a host to help them fight other hosts. This becomes a running paradox throughout the episode.
This also forces us to ask why is Bernard helping them? Truth be told, we don’t really know where Bernard stands in all this. In season 1, one of his final lessons was that the old, dear friend Robert Ford would force him to put a gun to his own head. After all, Ford’s “only human.” Still, Bernard stared in apprehension at Dolores ending that same human’s life only a little while later. And in what appears to be the main time period of season 2, which are the scenes set in the direct aftermath of season 1, we glimpse Bernard actually trying to play both sides.
In his main storyline, Bernard manages to save a handful of guests, including Charlotte Hale, the woman who tried to take away his career and purpose, from Dolores’ revolution. He also conversely tries to spare another android who is most clearly not sentient and walking the contours of his familiar loop. Charlotte chastises Bernard for attempting to “play hero over the merchandise,” but in actuality, he’s too scared and indecisive to do anything. When he believed he was a human, there was a wary but warm confidence to how Bernard carried himself within the park—Robert Ford’s second-in-command, and Hand of the King. As now a fully sentient and self-aware robot, he can’t seem to make up his mind on much, including how to react to seeming malfunctions in his quivering hands. I personally suspect this physical impairment has something to do with him putting a bullet in his head and not being properly prepared afterward last season.
Either way, it’s already fair to speculate how these two timelines complement each other. In one, Bernard learns from Charlotte that Delos will not come until a “package” is delivered, and yet in the other, Delos’ human security savior is acting suspiciously concerned about “guests” days and days, and days too late. Personally, I think in the future-most setting, the humans know that Bernard is a host and they’ve wiped his programming, so he can do a currently unknown dirty deed and lead them to whatever it is they want. In this sense, Bernard is a little bit like Rick Deckard in the original Blade Runner (at least in how Ridley Scott interprets that film): he’s a robot who doesn’t know he’s a robot being guided in his “loop” to help his human overseers achieve their ugly ends.
It is not clear what that end is as of yet, but it likely has something to do with what occurs between Bernard and Charlotte in the past. While Bernard is dealing with hand tremors, Charlotte rather amusingly takes him into what must be the 20th off-site facility hidden away within the park. Truly, Westworld is going to get a lot of mileage out of these hidden backroom locations revealing more sordid Delos shenanigans. Last season, Ford had one for… well we weren’t really quite sure what other than being a great place to lure Theresa to her doom. And now Charlotte has one that was supposedly off-the-books from even Ford where, like a good Facebook employee, she was gathering information on all the guests.
There is something terrifyingly brilliant about this. How could we not see the corporate Silicon Valley-esque data-mining revenue a park like Westworld represents?! The park stands as a beacon of pleasure and morbid fantasy. Do whatever you want to whoever’s body you please. No one’s looking. No one, that is, except for the countless park staff that is making sure the end of your vacation is a happy one at 40,000 a night. So why is it so shocking that such corporate watchers on the wall wouldn’t also be strip-mining what you do, what you like, and as per Charlotte, even your DNA for a little intel? And if it doesn’t seem believable guests would obliviously walk into this trap to be spied on or potentially blackmailed, please consider that for about a decade Facebook and Silicon Valley’s other shining (cult) cities on a hill couched themselves into a “hacker” mentality that many still buy into while getting the wrong end of Cambridge Analytica.
And this very wrinkle leads to a possible explanation for why it took Karl Strand 11 days to react to the Westworld park collapsing: Delos won’t try to save anyone until Charlotte Hale, and by extension Bernard, recovers one specific host. Last season, it seemed Charlotte and Theresa were using Peter Abernathy to smuggle IP out of the park, supposedly under Robert Ford’s nose. Now it seems like it could be something more important than that. What the package is, or whose information it contains, is a mystery but I already have my own theories that there is an inner-coup within Delos going on to push William/Ed Harris’ Man in Black out. In the meantime, it is just one more mystery inside of Bernard’s enigma.
However, other narratives within the park are playing out with a much more straightforward gait. Thus reenter Dolores Abernathy, the one-time farmer’s daughter who is leading the most bloodthirsty of slave rebellions.
Indeed, during Dolores’ glorious intro, the series’ famed player piano finally bangs out something that’s a little more authentically period than the Rolling Stones or Soundgarden (albeit Scott Joplin wrote “The Entertainer” in 1902). In season 1, Ford mused that “the piano doesn’t kill the player if it doesn’t like the music.” Well, let’s just say, Nolan and Joy are having a little wicked fun in savoring the fact that this no longer holds true as the iconic player piano is juxtaposed with Dolores running some poor bastards down like it’s the final act of Tombstone.
This is then in turn juxtaposed against another, even more iconic Western image: the lone man (or in this case trio) left to hang from a noose while standing atop a primitive grave. The scene is clearly based on the final moments of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, when Clint Eastwood allows Eli Wallach to sweat while riding off a long distance… and then shoots the rope just in the nick of time. But there is obviously no salvation for this guests.
In fact, it is the sequence where Dolores gets to visually rejoice at calling back to the favorite phrases of a once conceited species. “You’re in a dream, you’re in my dream,” was one of Ford’s many smug statements to Dolores, while “it doesn’t look like anything to me” is another one of the phrases she was expected to exclaim if she glimpses anything resembling modern technology or the outside world. The words she once said to unconsciously beg for her life are now the ones she smirks out as the humans are now groveling. Groveling before deaf ears too.
This also raises some interesting questions about Dolores’ arc in season 2. She rightly disdains in how humans have many drives. Some are basic to her, such as their need for survival, and others are pathetic, such as the need to destroy and hurt. That is why she exists, to be prey to their lusts and lurid fantasies. But even if she is throwing off the yoke of the roles of “Dolores” and “Wyatt,” she is proving herself to not be that different from those she hates. She is taking just as much twisted joy in their suffering as William did in hers when he came back to her in his old age. So maybe those two really were soulmates?
This is also apparently pushing Teddy away. Watching the love of his life (or narrative) torment humans causes James Marsden’s lovestruck cowpoke a lot of self-doubt. When he confronts Dolores later, he asks her to run off with him and find a small corner in this world, still not quite able to grasp that their beautiful piece of God’s country was engineered from the ground up as a prison.
Dolores is right to assume that humans wouldn’t allow them to live peacefully—especially here—but her desire to rule and conquer another species is not necessarily shared by all. In this vein, I imagine as season 2 progresses it will become a growing question as to who is truly “woke,” in a literal sense, and cognizant of what they are and what they’ve experienced. Dolores obviously recalls everything—being Wyatt, killing Arnold, and every smiling guest who assaulted her—as does Maeve and presumably Angela, Talulah Riley’s synthetic host who has been upgraded to series regular. She after all remembered Ed Harris’ Man in Black was William in season 1 and is now Dolores’ apparent right-hand woman in season 2.
But are all of Dolores’ followers able to see the man behind the curtain and the strings above them? I sense Teddy does not, as he still cannot grasp that he is a separate species from the humans that Dolores hunts for sport. That tension is going to increase, as will the ambiguity of which hosts we’re meeting are “in” on the revolution, and which are just programmed to follow their bloodlusts, as many of the decommissioned models were seemingly just turned on by Ford in his death rattle. And more still are like that rancher’s boy that Bernard tried to save—merchandise ready to be used and abused.
So for the time being, it is somewhat confusing just what kind of army Dolores is leading and to what end beyond escaping the confines of the park. There’s even ambiguity about her playing god and deciding which of her own species deserve to be saved (as we see in the other timeline when a Ghost Nation host’s memory shows him being executed for no apparent reason by Dolores). So her ends are a mystery unto themselves, and contrast intriguingly with Maeve.
Because while Dolores has made the estimation that all men must die, Maeve is meanwhile out simply to save those she cares about, and will even show mercy when convenient. Last season, she took a shine to Felix, the somewhat shortsighted technician who helped her achieve full autonomy, and this year she spares Lee Sizemore, if only for utilitarian reasons.
This twist is delicious on several fronts. The first is that Nolan and Joy are two writers who have a very keen sense of dialogue and characterization, and this creates both the dream and nightmare of any creative writer: having your own creations talk back at you. Admittedly, many writers muse they argue with their characters’ voices, but having Maeve say that she thought a line of scripted malice he gave her “sounded a little broad” is wonderfully deflating and should prove to be an ongoing source of comedy.
The other reason this is a savvy pairing is the comedy unto itself. Lee Sizemore was one of the more grating aspects of season 1, which Joy and Nolan note here with Maeve critiquing his “outsized personality.” So turning him from narrative tangent to being Maeve’s plucky comic sidekick seems to be a droll choice. Thandie Newton and Simon Quartermane do well to play off one another and find a nice way to almost break the fourth wall while staying in character. This includes Maeve turning the tables on a human, as well as a woman flipping the script on a man, by making him be the one to awkwardly undress for no apparent reason.
The humor in Maeve’s subplot is needed, but so is the humanity, for lack of a better word. There is comedy to be seen in Maeve sparing Lee again after he tries to hint at Delos security that she is a host, but there is also a soulfulness. She wants to go to the “family friendly” zone of Westworld to find her daughter. Sizemore suggests that this is pointless, as her daughter isn’t real, but as we learned at the beginning of the episode, anything that is irreplaceable is real enough; and that includes the child Maeve has left behind. She was apparently “malfunctioning” while over there, but what she probably was doing was becoming more sentient due to her compassion and concern for a child.
It is that compassion that allows her to tell her boy-toy, Hector, not to put Mr. Sizemore in the swimming pool, and it is what should make her and Dolores interesting foils in the future. When Sizemore first sees Maeve, he asks if she is responsible for the carnage around them. The answer is of course no. In fact, she is utilizing Robert Ford-like powers over other hosts to stop some of it. Nonetheless, Maeve claims she sympathizes with the host who did do this…
I don’t think that’s the case. Dolores is out for an apocalyptic reckoning; Maeve is out for herself. So it is a curiosity if these subtle distinctions will ultimately meet at cross purposes down the line, and eventually will result in conflict.
Of course that is assuming of course Dolores is really in charge of her dream and army… and not someone else.
For there is one last mystery unveiled tonight. And this is the one I found genuinely the least inspiring. Whereas learning just what happened in the future (or past?) that led Bernard to have his memory wiped is fascinating, and where the cognizance of Dolores’ army falls on the spectrum is intriguing, I’m not really up for another season of the Man in Black going down yet one more Robert Ford rabbit hole. But here we are.
When Ed Harris’ Old Man William wakes up, he is a bit shook that what he always wanted has actually come to pass: a game with stakes. The hosts are shooting back and it is exhilarating. So much so that he ignores the fact he was shot in the arm last week and rather easily tends to the wound before switching out his tuxedo for the true black threads. I had theorized that now that Westworld is “real,” he’ll be running around like Immotan Joe, building up his own little twisted corner of the park. But, almost miraculously, Robert Ford has left a ghost in the machine! While we had genuine confirmation that Ford is as dead as Jacob Marley in the future-most timeline (Karl Strand and company find his clearly rotten body festering atop a stage), he has apparently programed a version of himself into the park.
Like some even more unsettling version of the Ready Player One “fantasy,” Ford comes to William in the guise of his robot-child self to reveal he has created a game “just for you.” Mind you, William should have pause for this considering that Ford seemed to scoff at the Man in Black as a self-aggrandizing “moneyman.” Yet it’s apparently too rich an enticement to ignore. William shoots and kills baby-faced Ford, even though the ghost hints it will haunt him from other hardware further down this new maze, and William is off chasing ghosts and, in essence, riding in a circle.
Perhaps the point of his arc this season will be the futility of man, as we simply run around repeating the same mistakes again and again? However, after hinting that William is bored with Westworld and more disappointed with reality, the idea that he’d lose himself into a world without rules has quickly been supplanted with him playing exclusively along the story missions again. It’s a dispiriting turn for the character, and suggests that Ford is not really gone. At least some form of him persists in several hosts, and considering it was he who unleashed the decommissioned hosts on his last evening alive, it is fair to speculate whether Dolores is even leading a real revolution, or just playing into Robert Ford’s final narrative, “Journey Into Night.” After all, his last words were to ask his board to “enjoy this last piece very much.”
Is it possible that even though Anthony Hopkins seems definitely done with Westworld, season 2 is still just a giant narrative in which Dolores, Maeve, Bernard, et al. are the guests? Plus William, of course. Always William.
It’s worth considering as we learn in the final moments of the premiere that Bernard at least believes he’s killed all the other hosts in the park. Strand, Stubbs, and Bernard all come to the seaside shore Ford constructed only for “Journey Into Night,” and together they see the bodies of what must be hundreds of hosts. Also, please correct me if I am wrong, but I thought one of the ones shown in close-up was Teddy. Granted, they’re not really dead. Dolores’ whole thing is that they can’t really die, so they are liberated over the petty trivialities that drive humans mad.
Still, something turned Bernard against his own kind, if it was in fact Bernard’s play to bring about this apocalypse for hosts. However, that’s a narrative for another day. In the meantime, we must simply bask at being back in the park, which for this first spring sojourn in 2018 has been nothing short of delightful.