After last week’s season premiere, the second episode of Westworld not only finds its dramatic footing, but takes us headlong into a thematic crux of the show: the incredible power of memory. After all, the park is only considered a paradise because it is a place designed to forget and ignore the injustices of a guest’s actions, and all the while, put on a smile. It is designed to accept your horrors as they are. But what happens when the hosts remember? When the effect of constant abuse piles up time and time again? Well, then those memories can become weapons of war. All the times no one thought Dolores was listening, all the times they thought she would take this abuse and never fight back, have now come in mighty handy as they crescendo into her growing revolution.
Given all this, it makes sense that after the premiere’s flash-forward, we now get a flashback-laden episode that reveals the history of we got here. Granted, you might have to sharpen your own memory because “Reunion” hops around three timelines without giving the audience much help along the way. Within this episode, we get: (1) an early look at Arnold’s budding and protective relationship with Dolores, (2) the fallout of Young William’s experience with Dolores and his corporate takeover of the park alongside James Delos, and (3) the immediate fallout of the rebellion within the park as Dolores amasses her new army. Slightly confused? Yeah, well, that’s Westworld. While it’s easy to get lost in the puzzle, the dramatic and character work are what anchors us to the emotional experience.
Thankfully, we’re anchored this week by a really great treatment of Dolores’s arc. In her initial scene, as she stares out at the cities of man, full of hope and wonder, telling us, “It looks like the stars have been scattered across the ground!” Arnold, who has taken Dolores to the outside world at the behest of Dr. Ford’s pitch to lure Delos investment, compares her to his own child: “You and Charlie see it so clearly, the beauty of it, the possibility of it.” But as we jump into the future, we see the things that changed her. We could already point to the litany of abuse she suffered within the park, but this episode examines a darker cornerstone: the callousness and abuse of Young William, fresh off his first visit to the park and no longer caring about Dolores. We first see him trying to sell Logan’s father on buying the park because of its “deeper possibilities.” But the far more telling scene comes near the end, when Young William, now her literal owner, tells Dolores right to her face, “You really are just a thing. I can’t believe I fell in love with you … You didn’t make me interested in you. You made me interested in me. Turns out you’re not even a thing, you’re a reflection.”
Oof. It’s no surprise why this would be such a powerful memory for Dolores — not just because it flies in the face of her “damsel” programming and the way she believes that “heroic” men like William will save her, but because it runs to counter to her own personhood and agency. It is the ultimate denial of the humanity that William once saw in her, and the humanity she feels in herself. But in remembering, it becomes her fuel, and she can now chase after the same answer William sought “to a question no one’s ever dreamed of asking.” To which we finally get two hints: (1) It involves massive machines tearing apart the earth in the early days of the park, and (2) According to Dolores, it’s a “weapon” that she will use to “destroy” them all. Those are pretty strong words, and they bring us right back to Westworld’s ongoing meditation on revolution.
Those ideas are also explored when Dolores and Maeve have their earlier stand-off in the desert. On one side: Dolores, the warrior who has bought all the way in and knows the only way out is to shoot ’em down. On the other: Maeve, who just wants to find her daughter and escape to some Candide-like garden free from all this violence. Of course, poor Teddy is just caught in the middle. Maeve even throws a barb his way, asking if he feels “free” in this new revolution. He seems conflicted, and as we know from the end of last week’s episode, his days are numbered.
But as good as all of this is, the scene between Dolores and Maeve exemplifies my dramatic problems with the show. These are beautifully articulated themes, but very much unearned. These two characters have hardly interacted, yet here they are posturing as if adversaries who know everything about each other. Rather than have this growing conflict dramatized through the actual story, they speechify at one another and then pass on their way. Once again, the show seems disinterested in basic dramatic tension, while favoring its ever-convoluted puzzle.
On the bright side, we’re finally getting a sense of the “real purpose” behind the park. When Young William sells James Delos on buying Westworld, his key point is how it’ll allow them to see and record people’s true selves, thus creating a direct parallel to Facebook’s data abuse. Of course, much like Facebook, the Delos plan goes beyond mere advertising and emotional manipulation: I forgot to mention last week the very creepy scene where the robots were swabbing genitals, which ties right into the fact that Delos owns any DNA that guests leave in the park. Yikes.
The fear of what this behavior implies is best expressed in the arc of Logan’s two flashbacks. We first see him positively giddy about the sexual appeal of these new AI robots, and then seeing him later, strung out on drugs and terrified of the direction that Delos is headed. He calls them “fools, fiddling while the whole fucking species starts to burn … and they lit the match.” Oh, Logan. He just wanted to screw about and helped empower a bunch of people who may very well threaten the entire work.
The conscience of such actions cast a long shadow, for it seems that Old William may have finally found some kind of purpose to this “game” after all. He spent so long convinced the “maze” was a power trip designed for himself, but really, it’s about the facing the consequences of his actions. The maze was always designed to lead into his own head. As he keeps saying, “The consequences are real now,” but really, that speech about his “reflection” is coming back to take on a whole new meaning. It takes on a Biblical quality for him now. Westworld is the all-seeing eye and a place where “judgment is rendered.” Its guests wanted “a place hidden from God,” but William helped create a place where God watches most. And for once, he seems to feel a deep misgiving about that. His maze has become a mission to change the verdict of his own judgement. As he says, “I built it, and this place we’re going is my greatest mistake.”
This Road to Damascus story makes sense in an episode filled to the brim with Biblical allusion. When Dolores goes in to meet Major Craddock, we are immediately hit with an Last Supper–esque shot of him and his Confederados. When Craddock refuses to help, Dolores makes good on that “last” designation, but in true Christ-like fashion, she then raises Craddock from the dead. The message is clear: She is their God now. And it’s his turn to fall in line.
As far as Biblical allusions go, they’re also heading to their own Noah-esque flood. But I still wonder about the choice to let us know the results of this flood so early in the season, and that Bernard will be the one to do it. Dramatically speaking, I get so little out of knowing that information now. After all, hanging the Sword of Damocles only makes sense within the shortened time frame of a scene itself. Letting it swing above them over the course of a whole season? That’s just too long to wait. If we didn’t know just yet, I can’t help but believe we would be more swept up in the grandeur and gusto of their growing rebellion. Hopeful, even. And we’d still have all the cynicism we’d need from the power of allusion, for as Old William says when they approach the burning fires below, “This is what happens when you let a story play all the way out.”
• Understanding the physical geography of a show isn’t always important, but there is something about the park’s layout that feels like a confusing nightmare. Perhaps it is its own maze.
• Holy Giancarlo Esposito! I can’t help but feel like one of the greatest working character actors was wasted as nothing more than one of Ford’s lingering taunting rebuffs. Let’s hope this isn’t the last of him.
• I’ll leave you with this question until next time: Who had Kanye’s “Runaways” as the next old-timey piano cover? (Not counting those of us who heard it in the Super Bowl trailer.)