This Westworld review contains spoilers.
Westworld Season 2 Episode 7
You never really know how much you can miss someone until they’re gone. Nor do you realize how crucial Anthony Hopkins’ pseudo-philosophical and congenial malevolence is to the Westworld algorithm until he comes back. And it really did feel like the HBO sci-fi saga regained something this week that we all intuitively felt was lost, right?
Such is the case when we spend much of tonight inside of the Cradle with Robert Ford, or at least some facsimile of the man’s genius, waxing poetic to Bernard. Hearing him quote William Blake’s “To See a World…” while surveying his own universe, his “Heaven in a wild flower,” is like being welcomed home by a particularly cruel father figure. He might be a bastard, but hey, it’s home.
This was one of the best aspects of the seventh episode in season 2. The other was that the scales were lifted from our eyes and the series’ multiple timelines have begun moving with a uniformity of precision, as opposed to biding their time wading in place. In fact, this hour was confirmation that other than turning Teddy into the Terminator, Dolores’ storyline has been pretty well padded ever since the second episode of the season. The same may go for the furthest-most timeline where they finally realized Bernard is a robot. All of which is to say that whereas season 1 was an intricately designed puzzle box, with more moving pieces than a pocket watch, season 2 probably could have benefitted from being only eight episodes instead of 10.
Be that as it may, the narratives showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have now clearly been stalling are finally moving, and seemingly with as much speed as an explosive locomotive. At last we have an episode that blends all the timelines well by converging plotlines with a sense of excitement. In the present-most timeline (which we will dig into more later), Bernard is forced to recall Dolores Abernathy’s attack on the Mesa, and it is in those “flashbacks” that the pieces at last fall into place.
Dolores’ rampage through the Delos control center is by and large what I think we all felt season 2 was supposed to be: the war between human and host, man and machine. It is how season 1 ended, but season 2 forced Dolores, the militant warrior of her species, waste time with Confederados and play the piano. Now she is doing what we’ve been anticipating, taking the fight to Delos.
For Dolores, this assault initially appeared to be a Peter Abernathy rescue mission. She seems compelled to save the man she calls a father, even though she is very aware that this is a script someone implanted in her head 30 years back. But it takes on a more menacing context when we realize that she is also aware that Peter Abernathy holds the “key” to the weapon she covets. Apparently Abernathy is more than just a receptacle for all the most desirous IP that’s been data mined (I even had begun wondering if Charlotte Hale and the Delos company’s priority of it was a red herring to the real weapon). Yet this weapon is intrinsically linked to what Dolores believes is her path to victory over the human species.
So as man and machine do epic mortal combat in the halls of the main control center, complete with a clever use of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Dolores is literally put in a position to choose between her actual humanity (a narrative though it may be) and her aspirations for being a creature beyond humanity’s follies. She can try to save her suffering father from his pain, or she can eventually cut out his control unit, killing him by removing his brain. So it is either her father or her revolution. Considering that Teddy was not severely damaged like Peter Abernathy when she fried his soul, we obviously know how this is going to go.
Even so, it was Evan Rachel Wood’s first really interesting scene in weeks when she came face to face with Charlotte Hale. Tessa Thompson’s exec has always been an interesting inclusion in the series: a woman who despite her youth comes from a place of exceeding privilege and entitlement. Unlike the older and neurotic Bernard and Theresa, Charlotte always dominates with a sense of confidence that seemed almost preternatural. Thompson has added some needed contours to her character in season 2 in the way she tries to commandeer every situation from a position of authority despite being in a chaotic situation. So seeing that ego come face-to-face with Evan Rachel Wood at her most Wyatt-y is a chilling proposition that puts both characters in a new light.
For so long, Dolores has been forced to murder extras in one boring execution scene after another, but playing off Thompson, Wood comes to life being able to torment an important player, and conversely seeing Hale’s thick, often overcompensating confidence crumble made the scene genuinely scary as Dolores approached William’s niece with an electric saw. For half a moment, I even began to wonder if the Charlotte in the future-most timeline was a robot replica, because the past version seemed doom. Yet Stubs finally earns his paygrade by doing something remotely competent and gets them out of there. I’d almost be happy for Charlotte, if not for the fact that we also know she’s enjoying torturing lovable Bernard days later in scenes before that moment.
Nevertheless, Dolores is back to her original choice: her father or her revolution. She of course selects the latter, which reconfirms how far Dolores has gone down her own rabbit hole. She despises how the humans use her and her kind as guinea pigs and tools for their pleasurable dreams, but her dream has now caused her to figuratively butcher the mind of her lover and to literally rip the equivalent of a brain from her father. To defeat humanity, she’s become what she has always hated.
There also appears to be no going back because by destroying the Cradle, she’s seemingly guaranteed that if a host dies, they’re dead forever… I think. I imagine if their control units are destroyed that’s definitely true, but it seems nebulous if blowing up the “backups” also means their bodies cannot be repaired and the hosts’ bodies turned back on. The takeaway, I suspect though, is that death is now no longer a foreign concept for the hosts. This is a striking choice by Dolores then. She believes the Cradle and its backups are their “chains” that need to be shattered. But in essence she is making death more likely… unless the weapon is a way of preventing that death from being permanent (more on that later).
In the meantime, however, it would seem “Les Écorchés” is certainly laying the groundwork for certain hosts to be taken offline for good. If this is the case, the spring cleaning has so far made storytelling sense. Peter Abernathy’s “death” is probably final and thus gives weight to Dolores’ decision. Clementine, meanwhile, hasn’t had a whole hell of a lot to do since Charlotte Hale broke her in season 1, so while I’d be sad to see Angela Sarafyan permanently exiting the series, it helps clear the board. Also Talulah Riley is most definitely not coming back, at least save for flashbacks, after she is the one who blows up the Cradle kamikaze-style.
While it is a shame to lose Angela, as we barely got to know her, I mostly am frustrated with how hackney her death scene is. Angela going through all the “roles” she has had to play in order to be the enticing fantasy men desire is a fine showcase of why she’d want to destroy the Cradle and the men who built it. But during her Gone Girl speech, the Delos security officer behaves like the biggest nincompoop this side of an Abbott and Costello routine. Here is a bleeding, dying robot who has killed potentially dozens of men and women, and who was killing men on his squad just moments earlier.
She is bleeding and presumably has a death wish, and he is letting her disarm him instead of shooting her? It is the epitome of lazy writing. Much like the introduction of the Cradle in the episode it became important—and its destruction a week later—there is something off-putting about how stilted this inclusion and sendoff is.
However, at least what is occurring inside of the Cradle is the stuff dreams are made of. British thespian shaped dreams.
While Jeffrey Wright has always been the somewhat underrated MVP of Westworld, his best scenes were always playing off Ford. Theirs is a real theater-like give and take, with performances that get down to a granular level, even when they’re sometimes forced to posit on-the-nose exposition. Yet much of tonight is just taking a moment to enjoy seeing Bernard and Ford reminisce like old chums—the master and student reunited.
“I don’t think God rested on the seventh day, Bernard. He reveled in his creation.” These are the type of lines that in lesser hands could be glib, but in Tony Hopkins’ playful eyes are luminous. Just hearing the actors coast on this stuff makes for a very special episode of Westworld. It also gives way to some really fascinating ideas about the park. As I theorized last week, Ford had his personality, or at least an approximation of it, copied onto a control unit and compelled Bernard to put it into the Cradle. He is controlling the park like a God who is omnipresent. One reveling in his creation.
However, this is not the endgame for Ford or the park. Intriguingly, Ford spells out for Bernard (and the audience) the cold corporate logic of Westworld—one that is even more bleak than what we previously assumed in the first few episodes of season 2. The park more than just data mines guests as a secondary revenue stream; it is the whole point of the park. As according to Ford, the reason the hosts have such tightly wound loops is not so as to help them find balance, as we were led to believe in season 1, but to create a perfect experiment. The hosts are the control of the test, and the guests are the variables. How they react to ever unchanging hosts is how the Delos company learns to manipulate them. “Decode the guests.”
It is a creepy admission that obviously casts a stark lens on Facebook, Google, and every other Silicon Valley company we allow the ability to monitor us. It would seem Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are taking that assumption that the most bottom line approach is the goal, and 1984 is right around the corner.
It’s an impressive re-contextualization, and one that causes me to second guess my other theories. Previously, I suspected Ford being a sentient host control unit floating in the ether is the end point of any “weapon.” Why be trapped inside a host’s body, especially if that body can be destroyed or if it will drive you mad like poor James Delos? And I still think I am on the right track; whatever is built in the “Valley Beyond” is Ford’s goal. It’s where he must go to find his true immortality (even if he is a copy). But in the here and now, he wants out, which is the only reason I can really understand what comes next.
After taking Bernard to a replica of the house Arnold built, we’re allowed to discover that the other dangling timeline where Dolores was giving an Arnold robot a fidelity test is actually the Bernard we know and love, and that Dolores did this due to Ford’s specifications. As she has an exacting memory, Ford knew she would be a better test for fidelity than anything he could come up with. I previously assumed this took place in the future, but it is apparently the past, and it allowed Ford to know he got Arnold’s likeness fairly well with Dolores being the judge.
However, I am confused on if Bernard is then a true replica or not. As his consciousness was not directly copied onto a control unit like Delos, I don’t think he is an exact replica—which also explains why Bernard doesn’t go mad like Big Jim. Robert even says he is purer (host) than he is a copy of a violent and decadent species (mankind) And yet, it doesn’t really fully jive with what comes next. According to Ford, it is Bernard’s synthetic qualities that dooms him. While this line is an echo of what Dolores said to Teddy—and thus further highlights that Dolores is not the revolutionary she believes she is, but just a puppet being pulled by Ford from the Cradle—I do not understand how Ford is able to exist on Bernard’s control unit. I thought the whole point of James Delos’ episode is that humanity cannot accept the “perfection” of an immortal body.
So shouldn’t Ford also go mad while existing inside of Bernard’s head? It is all a bit vague and feels like flimsy writing. My only way of being able to partially overlook this seeming plot hole is that Ford is only using Bernard as a temporary vessel. He wants to also get to “the weapon” in the Valley Beyond and needs a ride out of here. Plus, as he knows Dolores and Angela plan to destroy his Cradle, he needs a way to move out of that closed system. I still think his ultimate goal is to be uploaded into an open system that allows him to be everywhere, and thus really like a god.
This is the only way I can comprehend Ford abandoning his godlike ability to control the hosts from the Cradle, as well as taking the “risk” of hitching a ride on Bernard’s CPU. But really, I just think Jonah Nolan—who is a gamer and an avid Batman fan—really loved what Batman: Arkham Knight did with the Joker. In that game the Clown Prince had a facsimile of his personality implanted in Batman’s head, haunting him like a ghost and slowly taking over—getting to play with that awesome bit of sci-fi magic nonsense. Plus, I smile at the thought of the writer of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises taking a page from a Batman video game that was ripping him off.
No matter what, seeing Ford become the devil on Bernard’s shoulder is delicious. It also might explain why Bernard is acting so “off” in the future-most storyline. Perhaps he still has Ford whispering sweet evils into his ear, and we just haven’t been allowed to see them? Bernard is visibly shaken when Ford is telling him how to manipulate Elsie in one scene and then how Ford takes control of his body to kill humans in the next. Ford continuing to manipulate poor Bernard, perhaps one of the only handful of hosts with true consciousness, to still be nothing more than a tool that does his bidding is a sweet kind of evil. This isn’t about “a new species,” but Ford’s own survival. When Bernard and Ford become one, gunning down Delos employees, Westworld has reached a crescendo so warped that it’s worthy of Beethoven.
How this impacts the future-most storyline though is of course up for debate. Personally, I’m a little flabbergasted that everything we’ve seen in this storyline (which also in retrospect was treading water) has been on the level. I thought for sure everyone knew Bernard was a host and they were just humoring him. As it turns out though, Karl Strand is an odd dude, showing endless patience for the guy who is acting weird with his far too convenient amnesia.
In fact, the way they discover Bernard is a host is fairly clunky. They just go to the off-site facility where Theresa died when the plot finally requires it. But once there, at least having Charlotte Hale discover the closet full of Bernards is a perfect moment. Jeffrey Wright helps bring out the best of Evan Rachel Wood and Anthony Hopkins, and he does so too with Tessa Thompson this week. Her sick pleasure in being able to now truly lord over Bernard in his diagnostics test is so entertaining that it is easy to overlook that she no longer considers Dolores a threat. She even speaks of Dolores Abernathy in the past tense.
So what happened between then and now?
Well the answer may lay outside of all the drama in the Mesa this week. Indeed, while all the storylines in the Mesa got a shot of much needed adrenaline, Maeve and William’s narratives also came to a head. It appears that Maeve can only psychically commandeer hosts who are still performing some semblance of their loop. If they are “Woke,” she has no control over them. This would thus seem to explain why she doesn’t just force the Ghost Nation tribe to run away: they’re already self-aware to a large degree (hence why they hunt for only humans and hosts still on loops).
Still, her powers come in handy when William kicks down the door of Maeve and her child’s hiding place, forcing a nasty taste of déjà vu to befall Maeve. This time, however, Maeve can stand up and fight for her child, which only highlights how fairly pathetic William seems these days. He remains obsessed with beating Robert’s game, unaware that Robert is about to remove himself from this little fantasy for good at the Mesa. So even though his daughter is out there, probably needing his help, Old Man William is acting like a miserable gamergate troll. Maeve is a million times the parent he is, and she’s not even technically a parent.
Maeve’s use of psychic powers to fight William and then her gift of persuasion to turn Lawrence’s gun on the old-timer is honestly a fitting end to William’s story. While part of me would like to see his daughter there when he falls, or for Dolores to be the one to pull the trigger, the truth is he had closure with Dolores when she kicked his ass at the end of season 1. And unlike Dolores, Maeve isn’t dancing to Ford’s drum. She is her own woman, and she is going Professor X on his black-wearing ass.
So again it should have been a fitting ending for William that his favorite sidekick pulled the final trigger—not because Maeve manipulated him, but because he saw through William’s machinations. So it is Lawrence, of all people, who gets the therapeutic final shot… and yet William lives?
It makes no sense that William should survive considering he was shot about four times in this episode, including in the stomach, but he crawls away in his final shot of the episode. Sure, it’s pretty self-evident that Ed Harris won’t be returning as a regular in season 3 after that last gunshot wound. But it’s probably just the Game of Thrones fan in me that is a bit disappointed that Westworld pursued the tired trope of “he’s not all dead.” They want him in the finale, but he was put in a situation that he could not survive tonight. It should have been the end of his game, especially as he just seems so small after abandoning his daughter.
As for Maeve, she is brutally ripped away from her daughter again with gunshot wounds thanks to the actions of Lee Sizemore. He betrayed her and immediately felt regret, pleading “she’s not like the others” and desperate to save her. I also suspect his concern will be what saves her next week. After Dolores leaves her to be tortured, Lee will find a way to fix her body—not that she might spare him again after that.
Indeed, once Dolores and Maeve meet again, we’re forced to reevaluate each’s decisions. Maeve has shown mercy and compassion for humans. She even likes a few of them like Felix and (at least before his treachery) Lee. Dolores is a brutal tyrant, the Magneto to Maeve’s Xavier, but she is not the one with a gunshot in her stomach. Maeve is “dying” because of trusting Lee enough to not keep him tied up, or executing him when she got what she wanted from the man, which was a clear path to her daughter. If she had killed Lee like Dolores and Teddy killed that chopper last week once they reached the Mesa, she would’ve also then been able to kill William dead and could have pursued her daughter, who was taken by the Ghost Nation.
Dolores is cruel, taking even a sadistic joy in seeing Charlotte Hale’s pleading tears, much like William enjoyed Dolores’ screams in “the lives I lived,” but she isn’t the one bleeding out in the back of a truck. Dolores seems vindicated in the choices she made… still, Maeve is truly her own woman. Maybe Dolores has a point that they can never trust the human species, even semi-well-meaning ones like a now highly regretful Lee Sizemore. But it was her own choice.
Dolores is meanwhile a victim of the illusion of free will. Perhaps they both are, as the ghost of Robert Ford demurs to Bernard that he didn’t force Dolores to shoot him in the back of the head, he just anticipated what she would do. That illusion of free choice abstractly plays for Maeve: She thinks she is saving a daughter who she never chose to have or love. These were “chains” implanted into her mind. Dolores, by contrast, believes she has freed herself from them by ruining Teddy and killing Daddy. Peter’s voice stopped her from mutilating Hale, but that voice has been silenced forever.
And yet, we know she is still playing Ford’s game. We see the mimicry of her playing the piano as he plays the piano, and we see it again with her unintentionally saying Robert Ford’s words to Teddy before taking away his freedom, just as Ford said them to Bernard this week. She isn’t free, she is still a pawn in a game she doesn’t understand. Maeve at least refuses to play.
That ambiguity and open-ended nuance is why Westworld, even in an admittedly weaker and sometimes glitchy sophomore effort, is still so much more thoughtful and intriguing than the rest of television. This episode had its flaws, which forced me to take away full star—including the looseness of the science regarding Ford’s consciousness, Angela’s cliché exit, and William’s lame pardon from the great gamergate in the sky—but as a whole, it is a remarkable achievement, especially when all the threads work together instead of as disparate strands of an obscured tapestry. That cloth came into view tonight, and it has taken a form that’s more than worth following into that uncanny valley.