Is it me or did Westworld just learn to have some fun?
Sure, we’ve had amusing moments throughout the series, but this is undoubtedly the pulpiest episode yet. And I, for one, am all for it — starting with the opening vignette where we discover one of the other parks is basically British Imperial India World. Of course that’d be a thing! Spend your days galavanting with rich colonizers, hunting Bengal tigers, and experiencing the exotic delights of 19th-century imperialism! There could not be a more on-the-nose option for the hubris of the overall Westworld ethos, which is built on the appeal of going to an exotic culture and then killing and/or having sex with it.
There’s an even more intriguing game going on between our two colonizers in their opening romp, as they test each other to see the other is a robot. “Think the park would go through the trouble of having one of them pretend to be one of us?” Response: “Wouldn’t put it past them.” This clues us into one of the show’s darkest insights, yet: Even the guests have the vague awareness that something nefarious could be happening here and they’re going about it anyway. But as such, after these two guests get “real” with each other, they go out into the park and face their comeuppance.
After the tease, we are brought to the near-future (with the soldiers, post-flood) and find that Tessa Thompson’s Charlotte has also survived the onslaught. Upon seeing Bernard, she smiles and tells him, “You made it out alive … Didn’t think you had it in you.” She clearly knows something, but yet again, we’re still miles behind. The episode then double downs on making a few things clear: (1) Charlotte is pulling the strings here and she’s the real big bad, and (2) She’s still after our Daddy Abertnathy. Upon asking about it, we suddenly flash back to find out how Abernathy got away, but in all honesty, I’m not sure what the dramatic points of any of these scenes were. They literally add nothing, and as such, I worry this near-future timeline is just going to be a tonal placeholder as we run through the season.
But back in the earlier post-uprising timeline, we’re starting to have some of that aforementioned fun. Bernard hacks into Rebus and turns him into “the most virtuous, quickest gun in the West,” which is exactly the kind of topsy-turvy role-reversal stuff that made shows like Buffy so damn entertaining. We also get the pulpy return of Armistice, ever the opposite of her namesake, showing up with a damn flamethrower to team up with Maeve and Hector. There’s even the great comic shot of our writer Lee, gawking around the park nervously in his goofy suspenders as he looks for danger. This is precisely the kind of stuff that Westworld doesn’t do enough, and it really helps balance the tone of what can be a pretty dour affair. And to me, they are precisely what make the deeper and darker moments all the more effective.
We certainly get several of those this episode. Perhaps the most interesting comes during an unexpected reunion between Dolores and her father. “Look what they’ve done to him,” she says mournfully as she looks down upon the host formerly known as Peter Abernathy. For her father, who now seems to have the entire history of the park resting within his mind — including all its abuse — has become the living embodiment of PTSD. He describes his incredible pain, “I am bound, upon a wheel of fire, that my own tears do scald like molten lead.” And as such, his mind can’t help but find relief by turning to the notion of a Biblical apocalypse that is to come. This scene evokes more than just pity from Dolores, but a larger conflict with her own identity. Just a scene earlier, she introduced herself to the general as Wyatt, fully embodying that of her villainous projection, only to be immediately confronted by the tender memories of her past. She’s wrestling with this notion, trapped between the woman she was and the revolutionary she has become.
Which all taps into the larger idea of “hardwiring” within the hosts. They’re not unlike us human beings in that way. We all get programmed with behaviors from an early start, whether coded by DNA or learned early from the world around us. Our first loves, our first hardships, all of these experience set a “personality” in motion that is so difficult for us to alter. Which is exactly why Lee is in such shock to see Hector in love with Maeve. For he was “written” to love Isabella. But through the fires of his experiences, Hector managed to really, truly change, one of the most difficult things someone can do. I also love the way this scene looks at the other side of this metaphor by turning it back around on Lee and the way he uses art for his own wish fulfillment. Maeve can see that he too had an “Isabella” — a woman who left him — so he wrote her death into a narrative while also writing a version of the man he always wanted to be. Lee denies this immediately, but you can see the truth right on his face.
Everyone’s coming to a crux or a change in this episode. Later, Dolores will tell Bernard that “there is beauty in what we are,” directly echoing the notion of reincarnation and evolution of a mind that cannot die. It’s the most downright spiritual thing we’ve heard from her yet, but change doesn’t always come in the way we want. For the biggest change in her world comes when Teddy, a good man but loyal to a fault, doesn’t follow her order. Even as Major Craddock stares him in the eye and says, “We’re both triggermen to tyrants,” Teddy shows why they aren’t alike at all. Teddy is a good person capable of mercy, and it will be the wedge that divides him from Dolores in the end.
That’s precisely the kind of big relationship change that makes the show its most compelling. Sure, conventional wisdom prepares us for the big-budget fireworks in a battle between modern soldiers and a bunch of cowboys in an Old West fort, but sadly, it falls into the show’s thrill-less brand of haphazard action that barely works up enough energy to feel like anything. It’s ultimately hollow, and that’s what has me worried. Just as I can’t help but worry how much of this season will be characters wandering around the desert in small groups to try and find … a thing. When you look back, you realizing the most successful parts of season one weren’t Young William and Dolores running around trying to get their hands on X, but the quieter chamber dramas and the thrill of genuine character evolution. When you look at “Virtu e Fortuna” in those terms, Teddy’s choice is a hallmark of the show’s strongest moments.
I thought the episode would end there, but we then return to the female colonizer from the opener. We wonder if she’s feeling free, but it seems she has stumbled into Westworld’s native hosts, and will likely pay all the same. I thought the episode would end there, once again, but a moment later, Maeve and company stumble upon a rogue samurai coming right for them. It is here when I realized why the two scenes are linked: The conflict of these parks will not merely be the story of hosts rising up en masse, but a larger cultural battle as cowboys, samurais, and all the like come violently together with their own respective clashes along the way. If Westworld is an extended metaphor of society, I have a good feeling that we’re about to start exploring the intersectional melting pot.
And boy is that pot already boiling.
• Our female colonizer may have a lot more in store, as it seems she was looking at a very specific map in the opening. With Westworld there’s always a lingering question, so what is she after?
• I loved the commentary with Daddy Abernathy about how they used a “thin character” to mask a vastly bigger corrupted file, much like how we psychologically try to put a sheen over our traumas.
• I want to single out how good Jeffrey Wright is in this show. Even without much to do, he’s one of the few performers who can really ground you in the emotional reality and anxiousness of what’s going on. When he acts, I believe him. And thus he is my anchor.
• It’s sometimes confusing what to call people in these recaps, what with the Arnold/ Bernard, Dolores/Wyatt, William/Man in Black stuff. But I’m doing my best!
• Dolores is really gonna keep doing that hushed whisper thing, huh?
• In the opening vignette, the other guest tells us that “half the fun” is “not knowing” whether a person is a robot or not. I think that makes for an interesting meta complication for the show: In real life, that’s precise the kind of enthralling question that you can play at and stoke your inner fire, but when it comes to drama, it’s oddly the opposite. And like all the show’s vague allusions, there’s a simple truth that lies beneath: You don’t know someone until you know what they want.