Westworld season two was always going to be a tricky prospect. Everything about the first season was engineered for its thrilling finale, from the dawn of robot consciousness to the slow, stewing buildup to revolution itself. And now, we face the fallout of such violence, the ebbing wave of a brutal crest.
But I’ll be honest: I’m a little worried after watching “Journey Into Night.”
Starting with the basic dramatic level, the episode doubles back on a lot of troubling plot mechanics that popped up in season one. For a lot of characters, it merely rearranges a series of more mysterious MacGuffins, codes, and half-cocked alliances; team-ups as Character X goes to Place Y to do something only vaguely motivated as they walk across the desert and watch things happen from a distance. Sure, the Man in Black sits back up on his horse and tells us, “Now the stakes are real!” but that doesn’t really drive us in the same emotional way that Dolores and Maeve’s slow evolution into haunted consciousness did last season. As odd as it may be, the lack of real stakes is precisely what made the first season so interesting in comparison to the simple toggle switch of mortality itself. But now the onslaught of mortality is on, the threat is very real, and for this episode at least, we know all we need when we hear one line: “This will get gross.”
Gross, indeed. I’m hard pressed to think of an hour of television filled with so many casual headshots and mangled, naked dead bodies. Which brings us to the Catch-22 of depicting uncaring violence: It emphasizes the fact that these characters don’t care about such carnage, but it doesn’t actually make us care for them. If anything, it makes us irrevocably divorced from their plights. And so, the challenge becomes clear: How can the storytelling feel like anything but the cycle of violence that it’s critiquing? That’s why no moment in “Journey Into Night” worried me as much as the moment when the Man in Black puts his hat on as if it were some grand triumph. We can call it irony, but for show so deeply concerned with criticizing the way villains view themselves, it sure is confusing to see a moment of direction that revels in it. Westworld lives and dies on the depth of its themes, and from what we’ve seen thus far, the success of this season will come down to how it examines the price of exercising retribution.
Of course, the episode still gives us flashes of the thoughtfulness and guile that made Westworld so fascinating last season: the pure actorly skill of Jeffrey Wright talking about Bernard’s dreams on a distant shore, the creepy-as-all-hell white “drone” robots darting about the secret lab, and even the poetic notion of reality being defined as “that which is irreplaceable” (and the not-complete honesty therein). I even loved the little detail of the piano using an actual era-appropriate music cue. But Westworld always finds it strongest power when it inverts big thematic tropes, like the grim notion of a “reverse scalping,” as a callous park techie casually saws off the head of a dead Native American host. The most interesting of these meta moments comes when Maeve forces the park’s writer, Lee Sizemore, to strip down in front of her. It works on three levels: from the pointed reversal of Maeve’s endless first-season nudity, to taking on the writer and creator and making them do the same, to how the scene thumbs its nose at the oh-so-dreaded prospect of showing a penis on television. It’s Westworld at its best, and an early sign of the most interesting part of the revolution.
To which, I can’t help but quote what I wrote at the end of last season: “And so the Westworld finale finally has our robots rising up to kill their oppressors. The result will be obvious: The violence will beget more violence. It’s an ouroboros and that shall be undeniable. But how do we break the cycle?” Now, a better question might be, “How much of the revolution will be an evolution?” It seems that the answer will lie with Dolores, who has now gone “full Wyatt” in violent retribution. (This is true even in Evan Rachel Wood’s performance.) But as Dolores/Wyatt streak across the plains like a plague of death, the question of evolution remains.
The biggest hint to Dolores’s driving philosophy comes when she asks one of her human captives, “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” Because what we’re really talking about here is the notion of gaslighting. Dolores was reprogrammed again and again to accept her abuse and never change, told again and again that these assaults on her mind and body did not happen. Now that she’s aware and in control, she asks, “Have you ever had to stop to think about your actions? The price you would have to pay if there was a reckoning?” It is, of course, the patriarchal question of the hour. But the problem remains: Dolores has still to shoot her way across the plains until she’s free in the physical sense, too. What is her plan? Where does it all go after that? And what will she learn? What is everyone going to learn?
We get a hint of an answer in the episode’s big closer, as Bernard walks out to a new lake within the park and we see legions of drowned hosts — including what appears to be Teddy? I honestly couldn’t tell from the shot — and Bernard says he is one who did it: “I … I killed them. All of them.” Dun dun dun! This means a couple things for season two: One, we’ll be playing with timelines again, and two, Westworld is doubling down on a story path that skews toward mysteries that encourage us to put the pieces together on the fly. I’m worried about that because there’s a fundamentally different level of investment between “Oh no, I hope so and so doesn’t die!” versus “Huh, I wonder how so and so died?” Curiosity is not drama.
But what other dramatic investment does Westworld have to offer right now? If all stories are about relationships, I’m shocked by how little I care about the existing relationships at this point. Sure, Dolores promises Teddy that “it ends with you and me,” but now our understanding of their story is written with fatalism. Until Maeve makes progress on her quest to find her daughter, or Bernard pieces together more of his memory, we’re left to hang on the thematic depth of Westworld to see us through. The driving mystery of season two isn’t what or even how. Bernard did what he did, but why?