One of Westworld’s biggest weaknesses has always been the distance between set-up and payoff. Take season one. The pilot ends with Dolores violating the one ironclad rule that hosts live by, the rule that makes the entire park possible: she kills a fly. It’s a small act of violence that immediately sets our expectations for what’s to come, and it’s one of the reasons the pilot is so well-remembered. And yet it takes an entire season for Dolores to make good on that promise. On the rewatch, it’s possible to appreciate the slow build, the intricacy of the structure, the clever ways the writers used the form of the narrative itself to mimic Dolores’s dawning consciousness, but cleverness only gets you so far. For all its gruesome violence, Westworld has always felt a bit bloodless, a show about an amusement park full of robots that go crazy that refuses to ever loosen its tie. That delay is a major reason why. The longer we wait, the less visceral the inevitable becomes.
Two episodes into season three and already everything feels different. More immediate. Last week, we got a glimpse into how Dolores is managing her war in the real world, and we met a human desperate for some hope that things might change. This week, we find out what Maeve’s been up to, and watch Bernard revisit Westworld and run into an old friend. Both episodes are heavily involved with setting up what this season is going to be about, laying down plot beats that will shape the weeks to come; but both episodes also offer immediate satisfaction, telling relatively self-contained chapters that build off each other in neat ways. Unlike the weakest parts of previous seasons, these episodes don’t feel as though you won’t have any idea what’s happening until the end. There are mysteries, but those mysteries aren’t keeping us at arm’s length.
It’s fun, is what I’m saying: “The Winter Line” is an absolute blast. Maeve waking up in the Land o’ Nazis in last week’s post credit sequence seemed like a harbinger of bad times to come, thoughtless worldbuilding that suggested the writers had completely exhausted their capacity for new ideas. “Line” picks up exactly where that left off, and while it takes a little while to get there, we eventually learn that the emptiness of that imagination is—well, if not intentional, then at least built into the design. In the episode’s cold open, Maeve believes she’s once again trapped in the park, working through yet another of its idiot storylines. For a while, that seems to be the case; she suicides, wakes back up in the tech lab, and faces down many of the same fools she did before, once again going through the motions of being self-aware in an existence where self-awareness is hell. But it’s a trick, and what makes this episode great is that we find out it’s a trick about halfway through, more or less exactly when Maeve herself does.
It is immensely satisfying to find out a story is smarter than it initially appears, and while Westworld has managed this trick before, doing it so quickly here generates a tremendous amount of goodwill. Maeve goes from confused to curious to empowered to controlled in the space of an hour, and all of it is entertaining and plays off what we know about the character. Very little of this is precisely new, at least in terms of science fiction plotting; people have been overloading computer systems in order to break them since the original Star Trek. But that doesn’t make Maeve’s efforts less exciting to watch. Once she realizes that she’s in a simulation of a simulation, and that poor Lee Sizemore really is dead, she adapts with remarkable efficiency, straining poor Warworld until it breaks and almost—almost—escaping in real life. It’s a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end that points us in the direction where we go next.
And that direction is: Engerraud Serac (Vincent Cassel), the man behind the algorithm whose name Dolores was so desperately trying to find in the premiere. The stakes are immediately evident. Serac realizes that Dolores is a threat, and wants Maeve to kill her. Again, this is pretty old genre stuff. Send a machine to kill a machine, that sort of thing. But it works just fine, because the idea of a Dolores/Maeve fight is intensely appealing—any conflict between two characters where I don’t want either side to really lose is a good hook. Sure, the fate of humanity is technically at stake, and the reappearance of fake Lee Sizemore (along with Sylvester and Lutz, the two techs who hung around Maeve for so long) is a reminder that the show has actually had people who’ve changed for the better. But the bigger ideas work better when they’re attached to individuals we can invest in, and it’s a pleasure to watch the series streamline itself so efficiently.
Speaking of sides: we find out soon enough why Bernard left seclusion and decided to return to Westworld (which is in the South China Sea, turns out). He knows Dolores has him over-matched, and he’s trying to track down a more aggressive host to help him in the fight: Maeve herself. He discovers Stubbs fairly quickly, and we get confirmation of what was only hinted at last season—Stubbs is a host himself, programmed to protect the other Hosts, and he attempted to kill himself after Bernard left the park because it seemed like his mission was over. Normally I’d complain here about the show turning one of the few humans left into a machine, but as retcons go (if it even is a retcon), it fits well enough, and it’s just nice to have Stubbs back. He even gets some good action sequences as Bernard uses the Delos computer systems to scan himself, trying to find if Dolores has put any secrets in his code.
We learn that some of the park staff, including techs and security, are still working, not out of any malicious intent but because on the assumption that Delos has yet to lay them off. And we find out that Maeve’s brain was removed from her body, which, thanks to the episode’s intercutting between its plotlines, we discover just as Maeve herself starts putting things together. It’s very elegantly done, and manages to create more of a connection between the stories, which helps the episode overall feel more purposeful and focused. Bernard doesn’t find out exactly what’s going on, but he gets the info he needs, and he leaves the park with Stubbs in tow after a quick change to the machine’s core programming.
That’s the plot, more or less, but there are all sorts of grace notes throughout this that help bring it to life. This isn’t the most moving hour of the show, and you could even argue that it’s mostly about setting up the future—but with its canny use of series history and its sense of humor, it never comes across as wasted time. I love how Maeve’s simulation brings her back in touch with a version of Hector; it’s a relationship that I was never hugely invested in, but the way it’s played here, with Maeve first realizing he doesn’t remember himself, and then understanding he isn’t real at all, makes use of their connection without overplaying. The quick arc of fake Lee is even better, creating unexpected pathos and even giving a proper send off to the “real” man without cheating or forcing a revival. Hell, even the banter between Bernard and Stubbs works well, quickly establishing a relationship that we can look forward to seeing in the weeks to come.
I enjoyed the premiere because even with its self-seriousness, it still found time for some cheap thrills. “The Winter Line” confirms that this isn’t a fluke. Without the need to lean on fractured timelines, the episode is well-paced (it’s 58 minutes long, but for once, I didn’t mind the time) and gripping, full of immediate pleasures and intimations of conflict to come.
- Apologies for missing the post-credits scene last week. Normally I would’ve made it a point to catch up on it and edit the review accordingly, but things have been weird lately. (I did watch it before watching this episode, and it’s effectively disorienting; glad I didn’t have to wait a week to find out the twist.)
- I’m always torn about Maeve’s dialogue. On the one hand, the archness fits the character, and in concept, it makes sense as something programmed in, a constant subroutine running to find the perfect one liner in every situation; on the other hand, the artificiality of it can be clumsy and distracting in practice, and more than a little forced. To her credit, Thandie Newton does a great job selling even the clunkiest of phrases, and I’m very glad to have Maeve back on the show.
- Hector gives her a suicide pill in the cold open, and she ends up jamming it in the eye of a Nazi.
- I love that Maeve figures out she’s in a simulation when fake Lee makes a move on her. The people who designed the program could only imagine someone like Lee behaving heroically for selfish reasons; as she points out, he did the right thing just because it was the right thing to do. The rare moments when the show actually demonstrates optimism about human nature still catch me off guard.
- I complained earlier today on Twitter at how so much of Westworld’s various fantasies were driven by semi-realistic recreations of historical eras. However self-serving those recreations were, it still struck me as shortsighted. Where were the parks with monsters? And then, not an hour later, I watch this and a fucking dragon shows up.