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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iWestworld/i offers up a party, a sword fight, and a nervous breakdown
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)
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Does William’s story matter anymore? The reveal of the true identity of the Man In Black was one of the linchpins of the show’s first season, a long-running con that eventually paid off with the discovery that the monster human hellbent on terrorizing the hosts and getting to the heart of the park’s secrets was also the seemingly nice man played by a different actor who fell in love with Dolores, once upon a time. It’s a twist that played better for me on the rewatch, but one that still feels like it got more emphasis than it really deserved. The second season had William wandering around the park, trying to make sense of finally having the “reality” he’d pretended he’d wanted for most of his life, only to kill his daughter and not accomplish much else. This week’s episode, “The Mother Of Exiles,” finds him back at home, raging against hallucinations and tormented by the idea that he might not be himself anymore; that someone (Dolores, presumably) killed the real William and now he’s just a host who thinks he’s real.

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Something like that, anyway. William’s scenes in tonight’s episode are engaging enough to watch, but the dialogue has the show falling back into the same faux profundities it wasted so much time on in previous seasons, presenting and representing the same basic questions of identity in the same horrified, awed tone of voice as if dramatic sincerity could be mistaken for actual depth. And to be fair, the only reason any of this still works is that Ed Harris sells the hell out of it. The acting this season is strong across the board, but Harris remains in a class by himself, and even if William doesn’t really have a place in this world anymore (and this episode does nothing to convince us otherwise), it’s fun to see him raging and snarling about.

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“Exiles” does continue this season’s trend towards being more “fun” overall—it’s not a chipper outing, but there are plenty of great action scenes and cool moments to hold our attention. The episode even resolves a mystery it introduced last week, casually throwing out an answer to the identity of what’s in fake Charlotte’s brain like it’s no big thing. But “Exiles” also reveals certain problems the show is going to have to manage as it goes forward, flaws that have been inherent from the start but that mattered less when the focus was just on robots going crazy in a theme park. Namely that as much as I appreciate the turn towards a pulpier kind of storytelling, at some point, the writers are going to have to figure out what the stakes are in any of this. Are we supposed to be horrified that Dolores is willing to kill? Are we supposed to be rooting for Bernard, even though he’s kind of terrible at this? Does it even matter that humanity could die? Caleb is nice enough but everything else…

But hey, given the flash forward at the end of season 2 (at least, I think it was a flash forward), maybe it doesn’t matter; maybe it’s just about wondering what happens to the handful of characters we like before the inevitable occurs. There is suspense in knowing an outcome ahead of time and just waiting to see how the pieces fit together, and it’s very possible that Westworld is aiming for that sort of inevitability. As of right now, Dolores seems to be managing quite nicely. And “Exiles” does a good job defining Serac as both complicated and, ultimately, bad, presenting him as a man so determined to save humanity from itself that he almost doesn’t see himself as a being capable of active agency. Basic narrative coding makes it fairly clear that we don’t want Serac to win, but that we do want Maeve and Caleb and Bernard and Stubbs and, yes, even Dolores to survive somehow. That’s enough to keep things moving for right now.

“Exiles” is the first episode of the season to lack a clear central focus; even with the cold open checking back in with William, this isn’t the Man in Black’s episode, just as it isn’t Maeve’s, who goes on her first real mission for Serac, or Bernard’s, who tries to block Dolores’s play with Liam, or Dolores and Caleb’s. The multiple storylines mean the hour lacks a certain cohesion as a whole, falling back into that Game Of Thrones style of dipping into several running plotlines at once; but the writers find ways for those plotlines to connect with each other at least once or twice, most strikingly near the end. The end result is an entry that lacks in the way of cumulative power, but does just fine for setpiece moments, beginning with William trapped in mental hell, and ending with William trapped for real.

In between all of that, we watch as Dolores instigates the next step of her plan: using Caleb and biometric magic to trick a bank into letting her steal all of Liam’s money. It’s a nifty bit, putting us in Caleb’s shoes as he dresses up like a rich man and bluffs his way past a mildly suspicious teller. This is the sort of modest suspense sequence that the current iteration Westworld has become quickly and expertly good at delivering, finding tension in the moments even when we’re still not sure of Dolores’s larger plan. It makes Caleb even more of an audience identification figure than ever, his confusion and shock reading plausibly and also serving as a good way to make his modest successes stand out even more. I like how this both does and doesn’t answer the question of why Dolores wants him as an ally—I assume a host couldn’t have pulled off that “let me inject you with some of this blood” trick quite as neatly, but Dolores brings him along to the evening soiree to kidnap Liam, where he could’ve easily been more of a liability than an asset. It’s completely possible for this to be a one-sided relationship in the end, a la Ex Machina; Dolores could manipulate and exploit Caleb’s loyalties and then ditch him at the slightest sign of trouble. But it’ll probably be more interesting in the long run if it’s more complicated than that.

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Bernard continues to be woefully outmatched. His one victory is arriving at the big party (which appears to be some sort of creepy sexual auction?) before Dolores predicted he’d show up, grabbing Liam before she can. This doesn’t really change much, although it does give us a solid Dolores vs. Stubbs fight (I really hope Stubbs isn’t dead). Bernard has long been one of my favorite characters on the show, but it’s hard to ignore that his defining characteristic for pretty much the whole run is that he always loses, and it remains curious why Dolores would choose to bring him back at all. Sure, he makes for an easily defeatable opponent, but why have an opponent at all? I want to see him find some way to surprise her that isn’t just “moving a timetable.” As is, while the Bernard and Stubbs banter is excellent, the pair seems so woefully out of their depth that it’s hard to see what purpose they serve.

Maeve is more competent. She fails on her first real mission for Serac, managing to successfully track down a piece of Dolores’s operation before “dying” to Musashi, another host body who managed to integrate himself into the real world and take control of a yakuza gang. Except this Musashi isn’t the one we remember. While Maeve’s story gives us some interesting details on just how Dolores is pulling this all together, it’s biggest reveal comes near the end, when Maeve realizes that the “pearls” Dolores took out of Westworld weren’t the minds of other hosts, but copies of her own. It’s the answer to the mystery of who is the new Charlotte, and it also throws suspicion on Dolores; is she trying to save all of the machines, or just herself? (This is also the moment where the episode briefly ties most of its storylines together, with Bernard and William coming to a similar realization. It’s clever, although I’m not sure it has the sort of impact the show thinks it does. I’d actually assumed all the new minds were just copies of Dolores from the beginning, and only questioned it when I saw articles popping up online offering divergent theories.)

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In the end, despite a few minor setbacks, Dolores appears triumphant. She has Liam in her clutches, and Caleb by her side; Maeve has managed to disrupt her operations, but probably not enough to do real damage; and William is shipped off to a mental asylum, giving fake Charlotte control over Delos, which should make it easier for her to fight off Serac’s take over bid. The last scene, with William talking to a hallucination of Dolores (earlier, he kept seeing his daughter), is full of gravitas and dread. It’s like getting a brief glimpse of the series in its previous season, leaning heavy on mood and leaden conversations (“Welcome to the end of the game.”) and not much else. I’m glad to see Harris again, and it won’t be terrible if we check on him a few more times before the season ends. But I’m even gladder that the show has mostly turned its narrative eye to more immediate concerns.

Stray observations

  • So is Dolores going to replace Liam? Or is she going to use the money she stole as leverage to get him to give her what she wants? I’m leaning towards the latter; he seems weak-willed enough to be manipulated, and alive, he can provide her with information. (Also, the show has made an effort so far this season of only having Dolores kill people who are a direct threat. Liam isn’t a “good” guy, but he’s pathetic enough that if she murders him, it’ll be a change in tone.)
  • Part of my problem with William is that I absolutely do not care about his apparent obsession with free will. It’s a concept, not characterization. He’s clearly also worked up about murdering his daughter at this point, and that’s at least something concrete. But it’s not enough to make him compelling, outside of Ed Harris.
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