Last week, we entered Westworld for the first time through the eyes of the theme park’s android hosts, and this week we get to enter it alongside its human guests. They are its audience much like we are its audience, although the comparison is often less than flattering.
Logan (Ben Barnes) is a Westworld veteran, and he has returned not only to fuck and kill robots, but to try and free his co-worker William (Jimmi Simpson) from the straitjacket of conventional morality. “By the end you’re going to be begging me to stay,” he tells William on the train ride into Sweetwater, “because this place is the answer to that question you’ve been asking yourself: Who you really are. And I can’t fucking wait to meet that guy.”
When Logan looks around Westworld, he sees the potential to be worse than he is allowed to be in normal society; “freedom” means getting to be more violent, more selfish, more indifferent to the humanity of other people than is normally permitted. Naturally, he presumes that William’s “real self” is also a person who also enjoys fucking and killing robots, and this presumption — that your most authentic self is your darkest one — tells us a great deal about him.
This exercise is partly a power trip: Logan wants to be the key that unlocks the inner wild man of his ostensibly uptight friend. It’s also a fairly transparent act of projection, borne of the need to believe that when you peer into the deepest recesses of someone else’s soul, their taboo desires will look the same as yours, and then perhaps you will feel a little less alone. Assuming that your kink is someone else’s kink and pushing them to do uncomfortable things in the name of “liberation” might sound magnanimous in your head, but comes off as coercive and creepy. And as we quickly learn, that’s exactly who Logan is.
To prepare for his journey into the ultimate LARP, William is guided to what video games would call the character-creation stage, wherein he selects his Wild West clothes and weapons from any number of bespoke cowboy outfits, guns and knives. We’re told that the weapons won’t let you “kill anyone you’re not supposed to,” and while I’m not sure what kind of knife can only cut robots, we’re in the nebulous near-future where Anything Is Possible, so let’s go with it.
At one point, William asks a host named Angela (Talulah Riley) if she’s real, and she responds, “If you can’t tell, does it matter?” It’s a good question, and one I suspect the show will ask more than once. Over and over, we see William react with courtesy and kindness to the hosts of Westworld, which annoys Logan, who reacts like he is missing the point. Which raises the question: Is the way we treat other people about them or about us? When we behave with respect or courtesy are we conforming our behavior to the demands of society, or are we expressing something intrinsic about who we are and who we want to be?
The complexity of this question gets boiled down to something very binary in William’s final choice before he proceeds into the game proper: Does he want to wear a black hat like Logan … or a white one? Of course, he chooses white. As morality systems go, this is literally the simplest, and in case you weren’t clear on what William and Logan represent, their ethical alignments are now visible from orbit.
Back at the android farm, the programmers are still puzzling over Peter Abernathy’s existential breakdown and exactly what made his programming allow him to question the nature of his world. It’s not really that much of a puzzle, though: It happened because of the code that Dr. Ford dropped in. The end.
It’s all part of some larger game, one that Ford has been seeding into Westworld for decades and which will doubtless form the basis of the Lost-esque mystery meant to tantalize us all for many seasons. It’s implied that Westworld is quite a bit larger than most people imagine, and that all manner of secrets lie at its outer reaches for more advanced players who take the time to explore. In Westworld, distance is a difficulty setting: It is simplest and most benign at its center, and more complex and intense the farther out you go.
It’s pretty smart, if you think about it. In terms of replayability, there’s a limit to how many times people are going to want to watch the same old saloon shoot-out, no matter how many different stories you wrap around it. But for the hardcore players like the Man in Black, this deeper mystery offers a reason to keep coming back year after year. “That’s what I love about this place, the secrets,” he says, after discovering that a host he’s been interacting with for decades had a secret family in a tiny little town. “It’s the little things you never notice, even after all these years.”
Of course, he also says that he keeps coming back because he loves the ultra-violent gunfights he gets to play-act with robots, and that’s where I stop believing him.
Here’s my question about the gunfighting in Westworld: Why is it so boring? While the guests obviously can’t really get shot, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of system where they can even take theoretical “damage,” and thus no meaningful stakes in any of the shoot-outs. The reason why video games about shooting things allow you to get hurt is because that potential for failure is what makes it interesting. It is what pushes you to get better and experience a sense of achievement. If you can’t get hurt or die, the outcome of every battle is predetermined and it’s not really a battle at all. Once the initial thrill of invincibility wears off, there’s no reason to duck out of the way of bullets or experience fear or challenge or elation. There’s no reason to feel anything at all.
We have only seen two episodes so far, and I’m already kind of bored with the gunfights. I hope this is some sort of intentional commentary on the limitations of empty violence as entertainment, but I guess we’ll see. Regardless, the Man in Black has apparently been doing this for 30 years, like the Wild West equivalent of a kid frying ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass. There’s a reason that Superman is one of the most famously difficult superheroes to write, because how do you keep things interesting when your character is stronger than everyone else and can never get hurt? If you’re thinking “kryptonite,” you are correct, and hold on to that thought because we’re getting there.
The “reveries” that wreaked havoc on Abernathy are affecting other androids as well, including Madam Maeve, which becomes relevant when it interferes with her ability to seduce guests. She keeps flashing back to a traumatic scenario from a previous story line, where she was attacked and scalped. These sorts of scenarios are the ultimate fridging: Her trauma was scripted and enacted to give Westworld’s audience something to feel, something to do, something to save. Maeve’s memory — or is it a nightmare? — manages to jolt her awake when she’s supposed to be in sleep mode, a skill that I imagine will come in handy in the robot wars to come.
Dolores, who played such a starring role in the pilot, doesn’t get a lot of screentime this time around, though we learn that she too continues to have “dissonant” experiences. We see her in two bookend moments toward the beginning and end of the episode, waking yet again in the same bed, this time in the middle of the night, and walking outside. At the very end of the episode, we see her digging in the dirt at the behest of a disembodied voice, and unearthing a gun — an object that would be entirely unremarkable in this world, unless perhaps it can do something that other guns can’t. What’s the most dangerous thing that can exist in a fantasy world? Something real.