Westworld Season 2 Episode 3 Review: Virtù e Fortuna
Westworld has an episode that begins and ends on high surprises, with some of its weaker elements in between.
This Westworld review contains spoilers.
Westworld Season 2 Episode 3
So do you dream of India? You should now.
Westworld’s third effort this year is also be one of its most eccentric and unique. Beginning with Bengal Tigers and ending with Samurai decapitations, it had a little something for everyone it was willing to take from right off the top. And yet, personally, I think the most interesting coding is found in the 10-minute cold open, during which we visit what might be best described as Rudyard Kipling Park.
Starting on a small bit of misdirection, one model-ready privileged guest spots another across a garden while enjoying some afternoon tea. And despite spending $40,000 a day to be here, both are instantly attracted to something even more tactile and real than Arnold and Ford’s beautiful abominations; they want something real. I can even imagine the whole first scene playing out as a conversation between creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy about what happens if one grows bored with the artificial delights of cybernetics. It’d be like going outside for an exhausted longtime gamer, such as William if he had enough perspective to realize that it is good to not get lost in the maze.
So after inviting a man that I am going to refer to as Peachy up to her bedroom, the the woman I’ll call Kaa takes out a pistol and tests whether he is “real.” Because if he is a human, he wants her; if he’s a robot, he has been ordered to desire her. It is the subtle distinction that Dolores would suggest later to Bernard. Before a voice in her head would whisper “You will,” as opposed to her own manifest destiny now affirming in her mind, “I may.”
Knowing that it is a human who desires her is the ultimate aphrodisiac for Kaa, and this little one-off scene is just one more of the amusing character studies offered up by the Westworld fantasy. Whereas season 1 was filled to the brim with such insightful moments about the human species, season 2 has made me realize how much I’ve missed these subtler nuances that have vanished behind the bloodbath of Dolores’ war.
But before we get to that, it is worth considering why Westworld is exploring the characters and in this setting. In the entire build-up to season 2, many have anticipated the coming of what HBO eventually revealed was named “Shogunworld,” a theme park cousin to Westworld that looks made for those who grew up watching a lot more Akira Kurosawa than they did John Ford or Sergio Leone. So it is perfectly in keeping with Nolan and Joy’s playful need to subvert expectation that the first non-Westworld park we see in the Delos oeuvre is something else altogether. But out of curiosity… why India? More precisely why a colonial India?
It is very telling that all of the guests to Rudyard Kipling Park are white, as the whole fantasy of being white explorers in a dangerous “Other” continent has gone the way of non-Indiana Jones adventurer fantasies. Arguably, mainstream culture has become too politically enlightened—or conversely illiterate when it comes to 19th century literature or actual history—to find much of a passion for these antiquated white male power trips. Another way to put this is that unless you are having Bill Murray sing showtunes in a computer-generated Disney bear, there is rare demand from a multicultural society for Kipling adaptations. Whereas there is still an affinity, in Western culture at least, for the decadence of Ancient Rome before everyone became so puritanically demure, or the imagined chivalry (and barbarism) of the very devout Middle Ages that came afterward, few still pine for Bengal hunts, at least in the class of viewers who could never afford to hunt tigers in the first place. Hence Roman World and Medieval World in Michael Crichton’s original Westworld movie.
So again, I find it a curious but slyly brilliant choice by the showrunners to create colonial India as a fantasy. After all, Delos is not catering to everyone in the way mass-marketed television or superhero cinema does; their clientele is elite, rich, and lily white. If Westworld is informed by American iconography about the myth we tell ourselves about our own greatness and rugged individualism, then a colonial fantasy gets even deeper into what the most privileged and insulated class not only wants to make “great again,” but still intuitively tries to build in a new 21st century economy that benefits a very small portion.
Rudyard Kipling Park cuts out all the subtext and inference, allowing the richest guests to be treated how they want: as almost godlike beings of unquestionable power who are serviced, happily, by brown porters and hosts—literal robotic indentured servants. Hell, maybe William’s data-mining discovered that this is the real fantasy that most appeals to rich tourists?
I’m just spit-balling, because this sequence is deliciously good. So much so that it makes the rest of the episode a bit of a comedown, especially as more than the last two episodes, “Virtù e Fortuna” relies too heavily on television clichés and shorthanded plotting. Meanwhile we have a perfect little short film at the beginning the concludes with Peachy smugly not believing that his brown porter could ever pull a trigger on him—it’s not in his nature, such is “the white man’s burden”—and Kaa running into the wilderness from a Bengal Tiger who was already “dangerous” by normal Delos standards before the robots became actually lethal.
There is something too bitterly true about the satire of people using android tigers to hunt endangered species since, in reality, we’ve already hunted them to near extinction. So it is nice to see the faux-tiger get some back for its flesh-and-blood ancestors by jumping Kaa into the river that apparently separates Westworld from Rudyard Kipling Park. Albeit, I do not think we’ve seen the last of her.
But until she returns, we are treated to an episode that I fear errs close to filler, save for a few exceptional moments. The main gist of the episode is about Dolores going through an awful lot of trouble to kill more humans and fellow robots for… reasons. We again know her ultimate plan is to use William’s “weapon” to destroy mankind and inherit humanity’s broader world for her robotic ilk. However, she is starting to get very, very arbitrary about who that ilk should pertain.
After recruiting Confederados via re-programming to her cause last week, she enters their fort to help prepare for a major battle against Delos security forces who are inexplicably only now mounting an offense against the killer robots after letting days of massacre pass. This also follows Delos higher-ups informing Charlotte Hale in the first episode that she is on her own until she retrieves Peter Abernathy. Unlike any other episode in the past 12.5 hours of Westworld, the plotting here feels very loose and fairly perfunctory.
The real importance of this episode for Dolores is she finally reunites with Peter Abernathy, or at least the version of this Robert Ford construct that she and we most prefer, as well as Bernard.
The first reunion is curious, because by her own admission, Dolores is the most woke and self-aware host in the park. One could also make the case for Maeve and Bernard, but Dolores doesn’t really know the former, and she rightly in so many words considers the latter a traitor—an Uncle Tom who still serves his fleshy oppressors. Yet when she sees Peter Abernathy suffering from what appears to be convulsions, she is driven to both fear and hope. She’s fearful of losing him, but hopeful that, as he was the first to speak of “violent delights,” that he’d also be as cognizant and sentient as herself.
… She is still hoping her father can guide and protect her. It’s a fascinating mental trap that Dolores cannot help but fall into as she is aware that this robot is not her father. Their entire relationship is a lie, a literal fiction created by Robert Ford to make any perverse male guest all the happier to indulge in a rape fantasy. Dolores is obivously conscious of all this, but she cannot resist the pull of her programming, as well as literal years of shared experiences with this man who would be Papa Abernathy. He’s her father and she wants to run home to him.
And yet, while he is also his father, he nevertheless has other inexplicable tics, including rather amusingly singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to a bunch of hosts who likely still drink to the memory of Robert E. Lee and “Dixie.” This is where Bernard comes in. When Bernard is rounded up alongside Peter Abernathy by other Confederados, Dolores wants nothing to do with him. It is only when she realizes that her father is “broken” that she turns to one of the park’s savviest minds to fix it.
Tonight has the first sequence of Dolores confronting Bernard in a moment where they’re both aware he is a model, a forgery even, of a real genius mind named Arnold. Rather than showing sympathy for Bernard being a robot, as manipulated as she by Robert Ford, and an artificial intelligence forced to chase a ghost, she tries to get under his synthetic skin. Dolores openly posits whether Bernard has any of the greatness of Arnold in him. It’s almost a dare. She wants him to fix her father, and believes Arnold could. So maybe Bernard, if he’s worth his bucket of bolts, might as well?
It’s an interesting scenario, if in no small part because Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright have had so many wonderful scenes together over the course of the series. Thus finally playing off each other when both characters’ cards are on the table is even more of a delight. She might be trying to manipulate him, now her prisoner as opposed to she being his plaything to fix and refine, but she speaks truth to him as well. “There is beauty in what we are,” she tells Bernard. Honestly, why should he continue to help the human species? They built him to serve, and he is still serving, but Dolores at least offers the illusion of freedom—you can ask the Confederados at the end of the hour whether the real thing ever existed. And she’s right, if they can never really die, why can they not find a way to outlast those that would come into the park to strip them of identity?
Further it’s an open question whether Bernard actually has any comprehension of the outside world. No doubt he understands in an academic sense what it must look like, otherwise he would breakdown like the other hosts when shown a photograph of Times Square. However, Dolores has actually been outside the park, while Bernard hasn’t. There is a beauty in accepting who you are, as opposed to being what someone who is exploiting your talents wants you to be.
Then again, Dolores proves quite exploitative for rather nebulous reasons. Much of the rest of the Confederado storyline again boils down to Delos security forces appearing primarily as a vehicle in which Charlotte Hale acquires Peter Abernathy’s body. Sure, there is a pseudo-Alamo last stand where Dolores and Angela’s free-thinking hosts and the dimly obedient Confederados fight off security forces, but it is a slap and dash effort, both narratively and as a piece of television.
Supposedly this is all about killing the robots in the fort, and yet, even though there is a backdoor inexplicably undefended by the hosts, the humans don’t use it as a weak access point to slaughter the robots. They instead go in MacGyver style to retrieve Peter Abernathy, whom they shouldn’t even know is there as only Bernard knew how to find Abernathy’s signature, and Charlotte abandoned him earlier in the episode. It’s just all very pat when they are able to easily grab Abernathy, knowing down to the room where he was stored, but only after Bernard grabbed whatever it is within Abernathy’s programming that Charlotte and Delos are so desperate about.
Meanwhile, Dolores now is showing her real humanity, as whatever her endgame is just became weakened because she will send off some of her most loyal soldiers to retrieve Abernathy from Charlotte. Meanwhile she and Angela trap the Confederados at the door so that the humans can massacre them before she sets off the explosvies to kill the red-meat-of-the-week.
If her goal is a robo revolution, why is she letting dozens of loyal (if shit-kicking) hosts get killed off? There is some wishy-washy answer where she tells one of the most loyal Confederados that “not all of us deserve to make it,” and then asks Teddy to execute this “dog” out back. But it doesn’t wash. Rather the episode reads to me as largely filler. They wanted the Bernard and Abernathy scenes, as well as Bernard taking Abernathy’s secrets before Charlotte got to them, and Teddy again failing in a test to be as bloodthirsty as Dolores… which is surely going to come back to haunt him. But the rest of it is just action and slaughter to fill a certain quota, making it perhaps the weakest episode in the Westworld canon.
Luckily, that means it is still pretty good with plenty of other buried little twists within. A personal favorite on my part is that it’s threaded again that humans like Karl Strand are aware Bernard is a robot in the future-most timeline. We only get a brief glimpse of that timeline here, but in it Bernard is taken to what looks like the charred remains of a slaughter within the power nexus of Delos. It is also there he meets Charlotte Hale, who is neither apologetic or smug about having left him to die in a sequence we soon saw afterward. Instead she mentions Peter Abernathy with a knowing smile, implicitly trying to jog the memory of a “man” she had not yet been told has developed a rather ill-timed case of seeming amnesia.
And then in the events we saw afterward, it’s spelled out that Bernard downloaded whatever it is Charlotte stored on Abernathy, who she then recovered. Perhaps next week we’ll even see her discover that he doesn’t have the secret she covets? But Bernard does. Which again makes the puzzle box of the future-most timeline intriguing. Also on a side note, I must concede the sequence in which she and Bernard reprogram an outlaw human trafficker into “the most virtuous quick draw in the West” is fairly hilarious. “I’ll escort you,” indeed.
The other primary storyline of the night is a bit of a tease for what is surely meant to be Samurai delights next week, as the Maeve crew inadvertently has traveled much further west than Monument Valley. In the lead-up, we get a chase sequence by the Ghost Nation, who seems instinctively drawn to killing Simon Quartermane and his oh, so human trait of limited wit; they are also reunited with Armistice, Felix, and Sylvester. It is nice to see the series hadn’t completely abandoned the three characters, but again they being exactly where Maeve and company wound up halfway across the park—and only when the plot needed them—feels like yet another awkward concession to television plotting, as opposed to an organic development.
Even so, it’s nice to see the trio back in Maeve’s presence. Well, at least Felix and Armistice. I could’ve gone either way in regards to that grenade in Sylvester’s lap.
Nevertheless, the best element of the sequence is actually when Maeve confronts Simon about his use of inspiration. In fact, how Simon’s been integrated this season has been wryly brilliant altogether. So often, creative writers speak of how characters take off a life of their own, and even argue with their creator about what they should do or be like. But that takes on a surreal and nearly fourth-wall breaking dimension tonight, with Hector and Maeve calmly and matter of factly explaining that he, in point of fact, can love again after his previous lover died. And Maeve can care about someone other than herself.
That inability to understand the characters he created taking on their own identity plays like a Kafkaesque nightmare for writers. This also applies to Maeve being able to judge Simon’s inspiration, as the woman he loved left him, so he killed her off in a narrative for a character he wished he could be: Hector. When even his creation can say that’s “very sad,” you know you’ve hit rock bottom.
All of this is clever characterization and a nice build-up to what is undoubtedly going to be their moment in the sun: Shogunworld. It was only a tease this week, but like the prologue, the epilogue is the most exciting thing in tonight’s episode.
As a whole, tonight’s Westworld featured surprises that traveled all the way from the jungles of the Mahārāja to the mountainous gardens of a watchful emperor. It also gave us a closer examination of the inner-workings of the ones and zeroes floating inside Dolores’ head. Thus, even as a weaker hour of Westworld, it still stands as a thoughtful and occasionally groundbreaking hour of television. Still, it is only the high-standard of the rest of the series that causes to hold this one in lesser regard—one which is still pretty high.