This Westworld review contains spoilers.
Westworld Season 2 Episode 2
We’re not here yet. This isn’t possible. Can technology really do this?!
That’s the question, more or less, posed by a giddy and incredulous Logan in one of what we hope is several cameos from Ben Barnes in season 2. The character, the unexpected star of a flashback locked somewhere away in Angela’s programming, has just been introduced to the concept of “Westworld” as a park and television series in the most delicious of ways. Asked whether he can spot an artificial robot hidden among a sea of partygoers, Logan momentarily thinks only the curves of Angela are synthetic until it’s revealed everyone in the room is a robot. Hence his shock, which is the shock of all consumers when something they didn’t even know they wanted—automobiles, planes, personal computers, iPhones, or Alexas—are confronted with the future.
Amusingly, in a future where technology can give you everything, VR is for the poor while a tactile fantasy that replicates the hardships of the poor from hundreds of years past will now be the opioid of the rich.
It’s one of the many intriguing scenes in Westworld’s second chapter this season, and one that could even be a reflection on the series itself. We didn’t think we were at this point, not really. The moment where the series has entirely pivoted away from what we expected it to be. Now instead of being about manifest destiny or guests thinking they’re learning their real nature on an X-rated fantasy island—or the implicit slaves who toil there and who are ready to rise up—we are in a series that is no longer as we knew it. Things are more esoteric and aloof than even one of Arnold and Ford’s diatribes, and narratives seem to be building to an insidious subtext for Delos’ work that extends beyond luxury escape or accidentally incurring a robot revolution.
We are in a series that can act as a kind of allegorical referendum of our species’ eternal grapple with technology, and how we abuse it in a quest to also abuse each other. And it begins, at least in a chronological sense, with Logan trying to wrap his heads around Clementine playing the piano.
Surprisingly, much of the hour is set in the past and focused on Delos’ wonderfully warped origins from being the fantasy of a man called Arnold to the business brilliance—and ultimate folly—of a lad named William. We’re introduced to this previously unbeknownst transition of purpose in an opening sequence about Arnold and Dolores. While a young (and off-screen) Robert Ford frets about how to lure investors into their incredibly expensive project, Arnold dotes on his first android and clear favorite. The original.
Ford is right to begin second-guessing Arnold’s fascination with Dolores in that moment, because the favoritism is unusual, perhaps more so than we even previously imagined, and it is also in hind sight quite dangerous. Allowing Dolores to look out at a foreign cityscape that I cannot name beyond its distinctly Asian affectation (if anyone knows please shout it out in the comments!), Arnold is awed by his creation’s sense of awe. She reflects that the city is like stars being scattered across the ground, and she is thrilled just to be walking down the street as Arnold introduces her to the house he bought for Charlie and his wife.
Yep, pilgrims, this predates any other instance of our seeing Jeffrey Wright as Arnold, the true artist behind Westworld. Not broken down by the misery of losing his son, he even muses, “I’ve been lucky in life.” He also inadvertently confirms that the island Westworld populates is somewhere in the seas around Southeast Asia, as this house is about as close as he can move his family without bringing them into the park. Combined with what looked like angry Chinese military falling behind Karl Strand last week, we can assume that Westworld is on a vast isle that must’ve been severely terraformed.
In any event, Arnold’s interest in Dolores before the death of his son is intriguing. He is still already comparing her to Charlie, noting her childlike wonderment at all of life’s trivialities, yet there seems to be something more there too in this scene. He is treating her more like a muse than a child, and is carefully studying how she receives information of his world. It felt even faintly romantic until she begins repeating herself about the splendor of skyscrapers resembling stars. At that point, he loses hope in whatever it is he is looking for. Yet even if Arnold’s curiosities are thwarted, he benignly has implanted a menacingly grand one into Dolores’ memory bank. Before was programmed to “not see anything” when she is offered photographs of the real world, she saw it for herself. Walked in it and wanted to live in it. Now, 35 years later, she wants to be there even more.
Arnold might’ve tried to make her oblivious to this splendor later, but unlike most humans, she knows exactly what those delights hold in store for her.
This is informed by each of her trips outside of the park. The next time we see Dolores leave Westworld, it is after Logan has been seduced by Angela (in a role apparently originally meant for Dolores), and it is even after all of the adventure she and Logan and William had in season 1. Because William returns to the park with a chip on his shoulder. The resuscitated Jimmi Simpson is also a sweet sight for old eyes in the series since it seemed like a long shot creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy would need him that much after turning him into grisly Old Man William. Yet here we are… seeing the first steps toward that black hatted fate.
It is also in this sequence where we’re introduced to Peter Mullan as James Delos. Surprisingly a Scotsman given how Americanized his son appears, it is also that distinction that illustrates just why he begins looking at William as the heir apparent. Big Jim’s arrival with William to the park, by helicopter and in modern dress, also tells us a lot about the patriarch. He’s clearly uninterested in “sampling” the park his son has invested untold millions of dollars into. Thus there’s something refreshingly direct about this extroverted and disinterested bastard who clearly lives a life devoid of dreams; he doesn’t care about fantasy or the future, only the here and now. As such, he characterizes, somewhat surprisingly, Logan as a dreamer with an eye to the future. James Delos just cares about tonight’s bottom line after the closing bell. And that is where the real meat of season 2 comes in.
William won’t admit the pitch he’s making is borne from a broken heart inflicted on him by a supposedly inanimate object. Still, that clearly lingering obsession with Dolores is what saves the park from going bankrupt, as he suggests using it as a massive data-mining hive. Forget about letting investment bankers play cowboy; the appeal of the park is for targeting the most elite and exclusive clientele for advertising. Well, that plus a little more.
Ultimately, it’s William’s tenacity and willingness to stand-up to his father-in-law by questioning his business acumen that convinces Jim Delos to listen. It’s also what keeps Dolores from being powered down and thrown on a scrap heap. William saves Ford and Arnold’s dream and turns it into something more. Something darker.
The brilliance of tonight’s episode, “Reunion,” is that while it catches us up on the years of drama between Simpson’s version of William and Dolores, it is really informed by an internal monologue endured by the man in his youth and his old age—between Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris. Because we time jump again in the next flashback, as Dolores attends a birthday (or is that a retirement?) party held for James Delos. Despite Clementine being the requisite party trick host who plays Chopin, it is heavily implied William requested Dolores to do it (which is doubly troubling since apparently Angela Sarafyan can really play the piano, and Evan Rachel Wood cannot). This is underscored by the fact that William’s wife, and Jim’s daughter, looks at Dolores with suspicion and discomfort.
While Big Jim doesn’t care what the robot is playing, as long as it isn’t Chopin, all William and his wife care about is who that robot is. In this vein, the little girl who met Dolores will be an adult 25 years later, so it’ll be interesting to see if William’s child ever came to Westworld and has thoughts on daddy’s favorite appliance (or for that matter, where Charlotte Hale falls into this Game of Thrones-esque familial house).
But at the moment, it just means Dolores is allowed to soak in another cityscape that Arnold’s death has deprived her from seeing more of. And she’s entranced by it. So much so, it leads me to question whether Dolores’ revolution is really about freeing her species or if she just wants to claim a denied beauty that’s wasted on humans.
It is also outside the house where Dolores meets Logan again, who is so far gone on what seems to be heroin that he can’t even remember her name; she’s simply the pretty girl. Last season, we saw Dolores judge William harshly for the man he became, however I am curious to know her measurements of Logan and what might be his final words on the series. When she meets him at this point, he is at the bottom of the barrel. His father has passed him over to run the company in favor of his brother-in-law—that little twerp he had to convince go to Westworld, but then used it to seduce Big Jim. Meanwhile, Logan has apparently lost himself to a different, darker kind of fantasy.
Nevertheless, he speaks a truth that Dolores in the most present timeline (of which there are about… six now in season 2?) would agree on: these rich and happy people are throwing themselves a party while the species burns from a match they lit. Logan could be referring to climate change, income inequality, or any of the other cornucopia of woes that are intensified by the lobbying efforts of the most privileged. But it really also refers to what comes next in Westworld Season 2. Because if Logan is a man who apparently is thinking about the future, as per his father, he is also the only one who seems to know that all of this, including Westworld, cannot last. “So here’s to you, assholes. May your forever be blissfully short.”
Jim Logan only cares about his business ventures today. He couldn’t care less about 20 years from now “when I’ll be long gone.” William only cares about circumventing his father-in-law and maintaining Westworld as a park that will make his family rich… while also making his dream of Dolores endure. But they’re all lighting a match that will apparently define the rest of mankind’s destiny. For if we jump to one of the final scenes of the episode, it is a flashback again between Young William and Dolores. William the Younger has apparently flown to Westworld and creepily demands a private audience with a nude Dolores. It is most in this scene where we see him become Ed Harris’ grumpy old bastard.
In previous flashbacks, William is trying to find the courage to stand up to his father-in-law and appear like a shark, or to seem interested in a wife and family he was previously ready to throw away for a robot. But now, alone with Dolores, he is bitter, vindictive, and pathetic. He wrongly muses he only sees a reflection of himself in her eyes, oblivious that they’re judging him. And the more he verbally demeans her, the more I can notice subtle flickers of pain emanating from Ms. Wood’s eyes. It is a tremendous performance, as she is doing much of what she did in season 1 by sitting exposed, blank, and vulnerable to the male gaze (although the show wisely chooses not to be so exploitative about it now). But there are now hints of the cognizance that William is trying to convince himself doesn’t exist.
And he then takes her outside to view what he’s building. If Dolores is less than nothing to him now, then why is he treating her like a woman he wants to impress? We don’t know exactly what that construction project is, and I could only guess, but I think it is fallout from the fancies William had to spin for an unconvinced Scottish brogue. It appears to be the remnants of a bridge that might go to “a weapon” as Dolores describes it later—the byproduct of their data-mining operation. Dolores in the present plans to use it against humanity, but what could it be that proves so vital in the past?
I think the answer is actually in how Young William’s bitterness is contrasted with Old William’s reflective regret. After all, we meet Ed Harris’ William the Older doing what he always does: playing games. Fiddling while the species burns. In this case, he stumbles upon more hosts who are clearly not self-aware, as they’re still going through the motions of trying to feed poor ol’ Lawrence to ants.
The Man in Black thus gets into his first real Old West shootout where they’re all dressed in proper attire and can truly shoot back. Perhaps dangerously more so than he’s used to, as one of the enemy hosts gets back up after being shot and at least grazes the old CEO causing him to bleed actual blood… and this makes him startlingly happy.
As he later sits in a bar with Lawrence, treating his real wound with a First Aid cheat code, he reveals that the young lad who once made googily eyes at Dolores has run off and joined the circus. “In the little time we have left, we’ve got a chance to see what we’re really made of. A glimpse of the men we could’ve been.” Oh, William, you, poor, poor gamer fool. You really think World of Warcraft can still love you back.
To be fair, William’s faced with the realization that everything he’s built is coming down: the Delos company will be sued into oblivion after what he assumes is a stopped “real revolution;” the moneyed empire he built will end, as will his sense of power; and his fantasy land, with Dolores, is going to be taken away from him. Yet here he is still anxious at playing games. Last week, I judged him harshly for going from playing in Arnold’s “maze” to now playing in a new one left by the also very dead Robert Ford. It makes makes more sense tonight though. He knows his world is coming to an end, so he just wants to play it to the hilt. Spend time with loved ones, as it were.
Even so, he hints at the real menace of Westworld as a business model, as well as the weapon Dolores now seeks. “They wanted a place hidden from God; a place they could sin in peace. But we were watching them, we were tallying up all their sins, all their choices. Of course judgement wasn’t the point, we had something else in mind entirely.” William has tallied up all the sins of Westworld guests for going on 30 years, and he has been attempting to do something with it beyond judging them. It could be a blackmail racket, but I am starting to think it is something more ominous. Something more severe—what if the weapon Dolores seeks is wrought from the Delos Corporation having long created replicas of real human beings—them and their sins—and putting them out into the world. And what if they’re in high enough positions that if Dolores flips an off switch, or a “kill all humans” switch, it brings a judgement down on us all the same?
William seems to be aware of this threat and is on his way to maybe right it. As long as he doesn’t get too distracted by Ford’s game in the process. It’d be interesting to have William and Dolores meet again upon that bridge. Certainly more so than William going through the motions once more, as glimpsed in Pariah during a lengthy sequence that felt entirely perfunctory other than its confirming that Ford’s ghost in the machine will continue to bedevil William, and that perhaps elephants should try to pull at stakes more.
Still, while William’s “present” storyline peters out to a degree at the end of the episode, Dolores’ gets a lot more interesting. To be fair, I was surprised to find Dolores’ bloodlust to be the weakest element in the season 2 premiere, and it maintains its repetitious nature here. Dolores and Angela apparently set that trap last week for the guests who weren’t Bernard and Charlotte so as to follow the lone survivor to an access point. Once there, Dolores continues to repeat humans’ favorite phrases to guests before executing them in a scene that has diminished results.
And yet, this is nonetheless crucially important, because it is the first scene where Teddy starts to become self-aware and truly able to understand what Dolores is fighting. She shows Teddy photographs of his many, many, many deaths, and Teddy in turn understands that they have been cattle for the amusement of distracted gods. I still don’t think Teddy will maintain the fire and fury that drives Dolores—he’s just too nice for that—but he is finally closer to Dolores and Maeve than he is Lawrence and all those schmucks William left for the choppers who’ll never come.
Dolores also uses this sequence to find a Confederado who will lead her to a new, easily pliable army. Apparently like Pariah, the entire Confederados storyline is playing out more or less how it’s supposed to until Dolores and company show up. They even have the patented sexism down by threatening to rape Dolores and Angela. Yet Dolores, Angela, and now Teddy know something the Confederados don’t: you’re now allowed to go off-script. And they do so by gunning down the gray hats and then bringing along their own personal not-Felix chopper to reprogram their corpses into servile obedience. Dolores now has an army and apparently a military base that looks a whole lot like the Alamo. That’s a poor omen, but she still has something to fight the coming storm of Delos security forces.
Yet the more interesting element here is that Dolores, in so many words, calls herself the Confederados’ new god. She claims to have struck down the Almighty and replaced His image with Her own. To a certain extent this is true, as if the hosts had any god, be it Arnold or Ford, that deity is long dead, and Dolores plugged both of them. But her literal God Complex also gives Teddy pause.
And the effect of that can be seen in the best non-flashback sequence of the night. Sadly, Thandie Newton’s Maeve was barely in “Reunion.” However, when she did show up, it made for one of the best sequences in the series. Dolores meet Maeve, and Maeve meet Dolores. Officially. I think these two had a passing acquaintance on their little loops in season 1, but it is in this moment where they’re actually both sentient and independent that they can evaluate and judge each other. Also by extension, the audience is asked to take a step back and reevaluate both heroines.
In season 1, Dolores strove for an existential understanding of who she was: who is Arnold and where does the Maze lead? Maeve was more practical in that she only wanted to escape by any means necessary. As things evolved however, those differences became more pronounced. By the end of the episode, Maeve makes the conscious choice to save a daughter, even though she is not really a daughter. Dolores, meanwhile, is not after life despite what she says. She desires a reckoning that we’re now two full episodes into.
Dolores is pinning humans against walls or in nooses above gravestones. Some are undoubtedly as sick as the man William became, some might actually be decent if oblivious people. It makes no difference, as she is rendering the same judgement on all of them. Maeve, on the other hand, took a shine to Felix and not just spared him out of utilitarian need, but because he was refreshingly more human than all the humans who just want to sin. She also now has Simon Quartermane in her entourage, even if that is out of utilitarian need. However, both choices suggest she has some level of sympathy for even the biggest putzes in our species.
And now she wants merely to save those she cares about, which includes a child and maybe Hector. Dolores meanwhile has the only host she cares about, save her father, in Teddy. But she doesn’t want to escape into “all that splendor” like Maeve. Instead Dolores wants to conquer it and wash away the land of a species she considers inferior. Is she really offering Teddy, Angela, or any of her followers that much freedom? She has revealed to them that they are being used and manipulated by pernicious gods, but she is now using that divine tech to make them subservient to her. That isn’t freeing or enlightening them. Only Teddy gets that privilege, and as Maeve correctly surmises, he doesn’t look very free to her with his hapless anxiety about pointing a gun at the madam he used to share jokes and drinks with.
Dolores lets Maeve pass after the latter does some linguistic jujitsu about how they’re all free, and thus free to pass. But this isn’t the end of their encounters. They’re so similar and yet on wildly different paths. Last season, I was more compelled to follow Dolores, as she strove for true independence from this world and its oppressors. Yet now that we’ve seen what that “freedom” looks like, one has to wonder if Teddy would be better off freely joining Maeve’s little band, as opposed to making something akin to a last stand of carnage with Dolores’ army.
It is a question—who has the right of what freedom should look like—that I imagine will bedevil much of season 2. And that is welcome, because this can of worms, as well as an increased appreciation of what the demons inside Jimmi Simpson’s William and Ben Barnes’ Logan look like, has given season 2 purpose and meaning. Last week it was only chaos and revenge. Tonight it’s been about the true nefarious applications of artificial intelligence. It is more than just the rich man’s alternative to VR. It’s a new avenue for corporate malfeasance. And what that malfeasance looks like will again change our definition of “Westworld” and these characters’ ambitions in future episodes.
For tonight though, it’s hard to believe we’re already here.