Jeffrey Wright (right?)
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)

Who are we rooting for here? And do we have to be rooting for anyone? Westworld’s first season began with a consciousness waiting to be born; with Dolores stuck in a hellish loop of sacrifice without her knowledge or consent, before building to a moment that could change everything—the death of a single fly. The season ended with her shooting one of her creators in the back of the head. In many ways it felt like a necessary journey, a chance for her and the other “hosts” in Westworld to finally come into their own and enact some much deserved vengeance on the humans who’d paid good money to use them as slaves. Season two does not find Dolores or her compatriots in a forgiving mood. There are corpses everywhere, bodies left to rot in the sun as the mechanical vultures go through their subroutines, and while it’s understandable, and even deserved, it’s also a lot to take in. I don’t particularly care for any of these dead people, but most of the hosts we see going about their business aren’t transcending their designs, but rather fulfilling what they were always meant to do. Westworld was always about the killing. It’s just now, nobody has any extra lives.

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It’s a good joke, but I’m not sure you can build a whole season (or show) around a good joke, so I say again: Who are we rooting for here? Dolores, who’s gone full-blown revolutionary, spouting rhetoric about becoming her real self as she tortures and slaughters anyone who gets in her way? She still seems to be at the heart of whatever story Westworld is trying to tell, but while it’s great to see her move past perpetual victimhood, her essentially mysterious and alien nature—the nature that made her so fascinating to Robert and Arnold, the nature that alludes to depth without ever precisely delivering—makes her a difficult figure to become emotionally invested in. Intellectually, I can realize that my shock at seeing her stringing up human victims as she delivers a manifesto on selfhood plays right into a trap the writers have left for me: the presumption that Dolores’ “girl-next-door” programming ever meant anything about what’s really lurking in her electronic neurons. But in terms of actual feeling, she remains distant, a cipher with a gun and a dream she isn’t sharing.

Which is fine, but that does leave a bit of a narrative vacuum. “Journey Into Night” plays the now-expected games of time and perspective, opening with a conversation between Dolores and Bernard (or Arnold?) before moving two weeks ahead of the “incident” that ended season one, with Bernard discovered by a Dellos security force lying unconscious on the beach. Before too long, we’re jumping back through Bernard’s scattered memories of what happened, back to the night where the real killing began, before checking in on William (a.k.a. The Man In Black), Dolores, and Maeve to set up plotlines that we’ll presumably be following in the weeks to come. Then we jump back to the present, and get the episode’s big kicker: a huge and unexpected body of water, filled with host bodies, including poor, doomed Teddy.

As final images go, it’s a strong “the hell?”, a vibe largely missing from an otherwise surprisingly conventional episode. Oh sure, there are time jumps and mysteries and people saying oblique things about a “valley” (said valley most likely being the aforementioned big mess of water with all those drowned robots), but the basic plotlines are all fairly straightforward. It’s something of a relief to start the second season with the show still willing to tease us a bit (what does Bernard remember? What game has Ford left for William?) but also happy to provide basic things like character motivation, clear goals, and very immediate stakes.

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All of which should go a long way towards answering that all important question: who, again, are we rooting for? Because even on shows made of assholes (waves lovingly at The Sopranos), there was still a vested interest in hoping the antihero lived to be a dick another day. Is that the case here? Bernard is probably the most immediately sympathetic of the bunch, with Maeve running a close second; poor Bernard didn’t even know he was a machine until three-quarters of the way through last season, and now he finds himself running point for people who will certainly murder him the instant they discover the truth. In the past, he’s suffering from tremors as his consciousness collapses under the strain, and the only way he can save himself (and keep Charlotte Hale from discovering the truth—Charlotte, by the way, is nowhere to be seen in the “present”) is by injecting himself with some liquid taken from an offline host.

That’s a good, meaty conflict right there, and sure, Bernard has killed a few people, but it’s not like it’s his fault, right? While the character remains interesting, and Jeffrey Wright is great in the role, it’s hard to root for someone so fundamentally passive. He’s not the protagonist type, at least not the sort of protagonist we’ve come to expect—he spends most the premiere staring with numb horror at the events unfolding around him, and while that’s completely understandable given both the nature of those events and his specific relationship to them, it’s not particularly dynamic. (Which, honestly, is a problem I’d throw at the show as a whole—for all its feints and misdirects and obfuscations, there’s not a lot of tonal variance; just dour sarcasm, detachment, and mysticism all the way down. But we’ll save that for another review.)

So, if you want dynamism, what about Maeve? She rescues Lee Sizemore (that smarmy writer fella) from certain and uncomfortable death at the hands of a particularly psychotic host, and after some banter, demands that he help her find her daughter, who’s presumably trapped somewhere in the park. Maeve remains entertaining, and her determination to find her “child” is easy to grasp, and yet, as Lee reminds her, it’s just another bit of her programming. Which, of course, is the point; again and again, the show makes us question just what matters about any of this, and while that makes for fun debates, it can be hard to center a narrative so determined to undermine itself. That that undermining is necessary to the whole idea of the thing—that the show is, in part, about how the stories we believe define us even when those stories were written for by people with little interest in our well-being—doesn’t make it easier to connect with any of this. At its worst, it’s like reading a recipe for chicken pot pie and then trying to believe you’re full.

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Then there’s William, free at last to have the adventure with actual consequences that he was dreaming of for so long. I have no idea if we’ll be getting more flashbacks to younger Will (I kind of hope not, but with this show, who the hell knows), but for now, it’s fun to watch a few scenes of Ed Harris In A Weird Violent Western. I’m rooting for him in the sense that, hell, it’s Ed Harris, but the long con last season did little to inform my view of the character, and even as I find his adventures entertaining, I struggle to see how they connect to the show as a whole. I expect he’ll run into Dolores again at some point, and maybe she’ll kill him, and who knows what Robot Boy Ford was talking about; but William spent most of last season seeming to operate in his own little world even when he was interacting with other regulars, and there’s no evidence of that changing here.

Really, that’s my problem with this premiere. It’s not a bad episode—the show remains as beautiful to look at as ever, and even with the added running time, it rarely drags or feels overtly padded. But given the apparent revolution that ended last season, it’s curious to see things start out this year so comparatively conservative. There are hints—a tiger corpse, the discovery that Dellos is up to some shady stuff with customer DNA. But for a premiere, it’s weirdly unambitious, content to check in with the major characters and send them on their way, and not a whole lot else. Let’s hope things pick up next week; because if I don’t have a character to root for, I’d at least like a story worth caring about.


Stray observations

  • Still impressed that Ford managed to build a whole person and managed to get it past Dellos’s security. (Not that this new security force is all that impressive.)
  • Karl Strand is the head of the Dellos team looking into the massacre, and there’s a moment when Bernard speaks his lines in unison with him: “less than ideal.” It’s small stuff like this, stuff that will almost certainly have a greater impact down the line, that keeps me interested despite my misgivings.
  • Stubbs lives! No idea how he got to that beach, though.
  • “I have one last role to play: myself.” —Dolores. This is a bit much. I guess the next stage in her evolution is college student who just discovered pot and self-help books?
  • “I killed them. All of them.” -Bernard

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