In the penultimate episode of Westworld season two, we have four main characters diving into the depths of their lonesome journeys, at once outward and ever inward. And it is a journey best characterized by a famous quote that William hears in the opening, “Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” But William informs the man that this quote is actually a corruption of the original (damn telling word choice) and that the Plutarch quote is, in fact, “When Alexander was told there were infinite worlds, he wept. For he had yet to become the lord of even one.”
So let us speak of the lords of one.
William, for all his mystery and internal battles, is a character we at once understand, but don’t understand how much he understands about himself (if that makes sense). All season we have watched him as he pushed us away, became driven, and got caught between playing Ford’s game, being riddled with guilt, wanting to win, and wanting to blow it all to hell. And if I’m being honest, I don’t know how much his psychological journey has “tracked” to the audience as a progression, but in true Westworld fashion it’s been more teasing bits and pieces of what he’s really dealing with. But here we finally dig into what’s really changed him, and more importantly, how he ultimately deals with the responsibility of the things that haunt him.
Of course, it begins with the real story of his wife Juliette (Sela Ward!). William and Emily have each been blaming themselves for her suicide in their own way. Emily tells a story about how her mom once got her a jewelry box for her birthday, “for her little ballerina.” But when Emily threw it back in her face and told her she hadn’t danced in years, she was too drunk to notice. It’s the kind of teenage retort that haunts someone (particularly once we learn that her mother did not throw the box out, but kept it as a painful reminder). And Emily blames herself further for her devotion to trying to get her mom in rehab, which her mom always described as prison. So we learn this is what has brought Emily to the park, to her father: She wants to understand what is at the heart of why her mother did this.
But there is no stunning surprise at the heart of this matter. Her mother’s alcoholism has a root cause, a prison of its own, and his name is William. It’s not just the loveless marriage, it’s that she suspects all the things that are true, but never said. She confronts him: “I used to think you were the only one not faking it. It turns out you’re the only one any good at faking it.” She even uses the term gaslighting. And she paints a portrait not only of William, but of masculinity broadly: the fundamental approach to life that makes it all about the mountains men climb, instead of the damage we cause. I always hope that whenever these ideas get brought up in movies or on TV it’s something all men, myself included, use to look within ourselves. To look at our own capacity for denial and defensiveness, and to own it, for that is the only path out of the brutal nexus of ugliness at the heart of ourselves.
Emily even tells him this, proclaiming, “It’s not too late for us.” But when faced with the endless guilt, William does not even know how to touch it. So he turns it back to his game, one it seems he was more deliberately provoked into playing by Ford than we previously thought. But his game is always what it has been: a distraction. A denial. A way to not face the darkness of his own “stain” and instead revel in it. So he lashes out and blames Emily, even though he knows it’s his fault. And he escapes into the unreality of his game once again. He shoots Emily dead, realizes his error, and cannot even face the consequences. He cannot kill himself. He takes a knife, literally digs into himself, his skin, wondering if he is even real. Which may prompt the guess, “Wait, is he a host?” We’ll get the answer next week (or whenever we get it), but the truth is it doesn’t matter. There is only what we know now. And for William, for men, it’s about the way we run away from the damage we cause. The way we want the game because there is no cost. But it’s the same thing. It was always real. And there is always a cost.
No one has suffered more cost than Maeve, another of our lords traveling inward. We find her at her lowest point, cut up on a table, nearing death, trying to communicate with others with a last gasp. But her mind powers are now being corrupted by the Westworld crew to turn the hosts into rage zombies (this will surely be grisly). But that’s when she gets a surprise visitor, none other than Ford himself (from a nearby Bernard). Ford tells her with great sorrow that he had a different story planned for her, a tale of escape because he didn’t want Maeve to suffer. It is here we realize just how much Ford loved her, just how much he saw her as his child. And so he tells her, “You stayed here in this world to save your child … so have I,” and thus inspires her to fight on, creating a genuinely emotional, loving moment in a show that has so few.
Meanwhile, Bernard’s lonesome journey puts him in battle with a different element of Ford, one that strikes at the heart of their differences. Arnold wants the violence of it all to end, but Ford wants his children (like Maeve) to have a future — as if this is all some big transition from Neanderthal to Homo sapien (Homo Sapien to Homo roboto?) Thus Ford wants Bernard to kill Elsie in case she gets in the way. But this is something Arnold cannot do. He always existed at the nexus point of these conflicts, a man who wants to find peace beyond peace, and humanity within war. So Arnold must literally get Ford’s voice out of his head. And rather than risk her life in his journey to the Valley, he bids Elsie good-bye. Like everyone in this episode, he must go it alone.
Which brings us to the Dolores of it all. I must admit, when they first popped in this episode I wrote the note, “Is it a bad sign when the story cuts back to Dolores and I’m immediately bored?” It’s a symptom of the broader problem of just how little her character has changed in the nine episodes prior. Sure, she’s wrestled with some decisions, but since she’s gone Full Wyatt it’s been an odd process to watch her dramatically as a viewer, especially when compared to the magnificent arc that drove the action in the first season. During her scenes with the Native American encounter, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What if this season absolutely treated her as a villain at a distance? One who could confusingly pop in and continually wreak havoc?” Why are we going with her? Given the way the show has told the story thus far, it certainly would be the more dramatic option. But of course, there was always a plan.
I’m learning that the thing about Westworld is you have to learn to trust it, even in the midst of frustration. Often they’ll wait too long before they play a proverbial card, but when they do, it tends to land with spectacular grace and impact. Here, the Teddy and Dolores story does just that. We get our first glimpse that Teddy has misgivings about his new violent instincts and we realize that he has truly “woken up” on his own. He remembers all of it, even the first time they met in a cold room. He remembers her kindness, but also his own. Thus he simply cannot abide the man he has become, the man that Dolores has made him. So while she thinks she can still endlessly contort him to her dark purpose, while she even fears that he will try to stop her, she never once dreamed that he could live without her. Which is exactly how Teddy’s suicide becomes the first true cost of her revolution … because it is the first cost that is truly her own. I cannot help but salute the storytellers for this painful moment. Because like all good writing, it is not the place I thought it would go…
But the only place it could.
• I was slightly miffed that the logical explanation of the Valley (and it being called the Forge) was just given a rushed explanation between Elsie and Bernard as they got in a car. Seriously, this is some actual meaningful stuff and it’s going to come out like this? Without a dramatic reveal? Especially after you’ve been hanging onto the logic of this information like a vault all season?
• Wow, Ed Harris is good at voice-over.
• I want us to take a second and cherish the fact that Anthony Hopkins is still killing it at 80 years old. I keep marveling at how he can deliver poetic lines that in anyone else’s hands could feel like banal platitudes, but with him, they cut to the bone.
• I’m so mad I forgot a mention from last week’s episode, but there is important meaning with Akecheta and the Native American characters being the first “woke” characters of the show. Because the entire thing is a direct metaphor for being able to see one’s own oppression, and to thus fight for you and others’ humanity. Given an understanding of history, it’s powerful stuff.
• Now that we know more about what’s in the Forge, it’s time for some guesses as to some finale events (possible future spoiler: Whose bodies really ARE those?).