The colonial critique inherent in Westworld’s premise has been present from the start. The only ones with any real power in the park are the guests, the outsiders, the invading force; they can murder, rape, and pillage to their heart’s content, without concern for their own safety or any sort of punishment, venting their will on a populace that lacked the most basic tools (memory, self-defense) to understand or protect themselves. (It’s the perfect colonialist fantasy, really: a land that was literally designed to be exploited.) But just in case anyone missed the point, “Virtú e Fortuna” opens on a section of the park we’ve never seen before, one without the familiar trappings of the American West: a throwback to British-controlled India. It’s disorienting at first, seeing different architecture and people who aren’t wearing spurs, but you catch on soon enough. It’s just another group of rich folks playing around in a fantasy version of the past, having a grand old time right up until the moment the past bites back.
This week, I did something I should have done ages ago, and re-watched Westworld’s first season. At the risk of providing aid and comfort to my enemies, I’m going to offer up a caveat for my review of the second season premiere: I should have done my rewatch before season two began, and not doing so almost certainly hurt my ability to properly assess the material. I apologize for that. The rewatch helped me reconnect with the show in a way I didn’t think was possible anymore. Season one’s ambitious (too ambitious, I think) recursive structure made it sometimes difficult to finding the story’s emotional through-line the first time around. I spent so much effort trying to keep track of which plot was when and seconding-guessing every character identity and relationship that it was less like experiencing the show and more like trying to solve it. And while I understand that sort of thing appeals to some folks, it’s not how I engage with art, and, at the time, it left me cold.
Watching it again, though, and knowing all the big twists—Bernard/Arnold, the real identity of the Man In Black, Robert Ford’s intentions—I was caught up in all of it. The biggest revelation was that the William flashback plays so much better when you know it’s a flashback, but I’ll save that for an episode that actually has him in it. Suffice to say, in my review of this season’s premiere, I asked who we were rooting for; it was my way to try and pin down what I thought was the show’s frustrating lack of emotional depth. Now that I’ve gone through the whole thing all over again, the answer is obvious: We’re rooting for the robots. (Even more embarrassing: That was the argument of my very first review of the series!)
It’s fitting, then, that this episode spends so much of its time on the murderbots we’ve come to love, following Dolores as she wins over the Confederados and betrays them; Maeve, as she, Hector, and Lee make their way deeper into the park; and poor Bernard as he struggles to hold his shit together. (Poor, poor Bernard. Of all the main character hosts, I think only Teddy has it worse.) Apart from the opening scene, which follows a human woman fighting for her life in Raj World, the whole hour is dedicated to the hosts. It’s not the most inventive or illuminating the show has been, but it’s exciting and often surprisingly emotional, the sort of meat-and-potatoes entry that doesn’t take that much work to enjoy.
Fun as it is to parse out the mysteries (apart from seeing the park’s version of India and explaining where that tiger came from, we also spend a few minutes in the “present” and discover that Charlotte is very much alive after all), it’s nice to have something as direct as this is, something that allows for moments like Dolores finding the host that used to be her father, or Bernard reprogramming Rebus to be the fastest, most virtuous gun in the West. Scenes like this are immediately, viscerally gripping, finding fascinating ways to generate legitimate feeling while still engaging in the sort of conscious deconstruction that has defined the series for the start.
It’s hilarious to see Rebus go from being a kidnapping psychopath to a Dudley Do-Right style hero; one minute he’s planning to sell a group of captives and threatening one of them with rape, the next he’s gunning down his fellow bandits and loudly proclaiming his intent to protect the virtue of every woman he sees. But as funny as it is, it raises questions about the nature and permanence of identity, questions that the episode repeatedly brings up in other contexts. If the hosts’ personalities can be so easily reversed, how is it possible for them to have any selfhood at all?
And yet Dolores, with access to her entire past, is clearly moved to find Peter Abernathy again; whatever’s going on with him, he has just enough of the man he used to be inside his brain that he responds in kind. Plot-wise, it matters because we already know Charlotte is hunting Peter down, and adding Dolores into the mix means a greater chance of conflict and drama. It also doesn’t hurt that Bernard is able to decrypt the file that’s jamming Abernathy’s programming—poor Bernard then gets snapped up by Clementine, but the fact that there’s a host in the park with all that precious Delos intel locked in his brain, and that Dolores wants to protect him, is surely going to have ramifications down the line.
All of which is good—as is the fact that the episode ends with Maeve and the others running into a samurai in the wild—but what makes all of this work so well is that it still somehow matters when Dolores struggles to reconnect with her “father.” Given how much Westworld is a meta-commentary on storytelling, it’s no big surprise that some of the show’s most powerful moments are when it finds the truth inside the lie that drives all good narrative fiction; that even though all of this is made up and fake, it still speaks to some sort of universal experience, and that the fakery somehow makes that truth all the more potent. The hosts are starting to build their own stories (note Lee’s outrage when he discovers that Maeve and Hector are a couple), and while Ford’s influence isn’t gone completely, there’s enough wiggle room here to add a thrilling, and much needed, sense of unpredictability. A sense of life, you might say.
That life helps make Dolores feel more real in her revolutionary self than at any previous point so far this season. I’d been worried that the character’s ascension to consciousness would leave the writers flailing, and a few earlier scenes almost seemed to suggest that she’d simply traded one cliché (sweet girl next door) for another (“strong female character”). But while she’s still cold as ice when she needs to be, using the Confederados basically as bait to help trap a Delos security force, her real frustration and sorrow over Abernathy allows Evan Rachel Wood much more room for nuance. It’s especially great that she’s now self-aware enough to realize that Abernathy isn’t really her father, and yet still recognize that the connection is important to her. It’s something I expect we’ll be seeing again and again this season—hosts who recognize the artificial nature of their histories while still using those histories to define themselves. That self-awareness is critical for making this more than just a plot about a bunch of automatons enacting the final wish of their creator.
- Another reason I should’ve rewatched the first season sooner: maybe then I would’ve remembered that the season two premiere “Journey Into Night” was named after the title of Ford’s last storyline.
- Rewatching the first season made me even more sure that the show is about the end of the human race at the hands of the machines.
- The last we see of the (I think unnamed?) woman from the cold open, she’s survived the tiger attack only to wind up in the less-than-charitable hands of the Ghost Nation. Which could be either a mean-spirited joke—congrats, you’re dead!—or could mean she’ll show up later. I hope it’s the latter.
- Dolores sees Teddy letting some prisoners go against her express wishes. Poor, poor Teddy.
- I got so caught up in other things that I completely shortchanged Maeve’s plotline this week. She, Hector, and Lee reconnect with Lutz, Sylvester, and Armistice, and, just before the end, get charged in the woods by a guy with a sword.