Westworld‘s Strong Season Opener Isn’t Here to Hold Your Hand

(Episode 2.01)

TV Reviews Westworld
Westworld‘s Strong Season Opener Isn’t Here to Hold Your Hand

Part of me thinks that Westworld fears its own fandom. After teasing its subreddit weeks before its second season’s release with the dangled plot details of the entire story, the show opens with an episode that sees a complete power shift in the relationship between park management and those individuals that, up until now, had simply been the park.

Written by Lisa Joy and Roberto Patino, and directed by Richard J. Lewis, “Journey Into Night” is the title of the new narrative allegedly programmed into (but undoubtedly affecting) the Recompiled West. Its opening conversations—between high-level host Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and members of the Delos recon team—are simultaneously between creator and object, screenwriter and audience, executive and fan.

The typical recap scene that replaces a “last time on” montage works here because the audience surrogate (who, like most audience surrogates, doesn’t know anything) isn’t just out of the loop about what’s going on—he’s out of sync with the audience’s knowledge. He’s being fooled by his human co-workers in the aftermath of last season’s revolt, and we get the satisfaction and added interest of peeking behind at least one of the show’s many veils. It’s a savvy move that plays off of how shows normally pick back up during their sophomore season while nodding to its expectation that you’ve done your homework before tuning in. And you’re going to need every last scrap of it.

With a flashback built into the episode’s structure and timelines already a different kind of hazy than last season’s thirty-year gap, Westworld isn’t here to hold your hand for long. There’s a storyline that immediately follows the events of the Season One finale, and the present, where those events are simply an aftermath to be re-examined. Bernard has time slippage (you know, like that Steve Miller Band song from Space Jam?) and occasional self-awareness, neither of which make his escape from, and subsequent examination of, the hosts’ rampage any easier.

He escapes with Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), who seems far more important and integrated with the micro-level goings-on in the park than her previously understood title as Executive Director of the board of Delos Destinations, Inc. suggests. Together they find that the company will not send further rescue until an insurance policy (“package”) is secured. But we’ve got the package, Hale argues with a security terminal. Bernard misses her suspiciousness because, frankly, he’s just trying to keep it together. But more interesting than his struggles with identity, reality, and the vector both are travelling are the farther-along journeys of the hosts trailblazing their revolution.

Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) is running the show now. Wood, mowing down corporate suits from horseback, does just as much with a gently raised eyebrow. Only for a fraction of a second, this gesture betrays much more interiority than she’s willing to offer with her words. She has to be a little explain-y in her first scene, but the sheer power she’s come into over the first season as a truly empowered and now, conscious, individual means even her most flowery speeches are filled with brutality—the true inner marriage of Dolores and Wyatt.

She even gets a fun conversation with Teddy that sounds as if it were Cowboys & Aliens rather than Robots & Humans. It’s a conversation filled with the kinds of dread you typically find in a classic sci-fi movie, an autonomy-prizing paranoia like that found in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That makes sense, because at any moment, the humans could raise a horrified finger to the hosts scattered (sometimes secretly) among them. Even now, the prime suspects for a mid-season twist walk among us.

Only, with Dolores, this is more than someone guarding their sense of self. It’s the philosophical rage at having your sense of self break free from its captivity. Dolores wants revenge, not fulfillment. And, because she’s attained some higher level of sentience than we can fully understand, she seems to be experiencing time—past, present, future—all at once, like a chess program that understands its victorious outcome after observing its opponent’s opening.

I also really love the timing of when she and Teddy (James Marsden) show romantic intimacy. Two androids making out after discussing the takeover of human civilization is a deliciously weird juxtaposition that is echoed in many of the non-human relationships in the season premiere.

Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) shares this when she faces off with the head of narrative, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), whose elastic lips quiver and placate so perfectly that he immediately clicks into his new role as the Wormtongue informant to Newton’s Saruman, eager to sell everything to live. She, on the other hand, shows deep sympathy for her fellow hosts and compassion towards this snivelling survivor—all the forgotten sentiments that were once the pride of humanity are now what set the robots apart.

All humans have on their side in this fight is time and experience. They’ve been conscious (and in control) a lot longer, which means they can use intuition and small, intimate gestures to communicate with each other—like when the security forces speak with Sizemore and he hints that Maeve is his captor. Of course, it doesn’t work out well, but then again, it doesn’t quite backfire. Maeve gives him another chance… while spouting off a line he wrote her.

Sizemore becomes the true surrogate for the audience: reluctant, frightened, and totally uninterested in entering the park, since he knows its true nature. And because, well, it’s also replicating nature. He’s an indoor kid. He’s also the subject of TSA-like stripped dehumanization by Maeve, who, rather than explicitly kill everyone, would rather put her needs first and bring the one that wrote cruelties upon her down below her.

The only living thing thriving in this new order is human cigarette Ed Harris, who reminds us how he maintained himself as the legendary Man in Black by being as macho as the Marlboro Man. Harris can be old and wizened as he needs, but unleashes his inner action hero when it’s time for the shootouts he’s been play-acting for three decades. Though he’s having fun with these new stakes, he’s faced with the cybernetic man-boy that Robert (Anthony Hopkins) left behind, who tells him that the new game is afoot and it’s meant for William. He’s got to escape through “The Door,” which is as vague and ominous as first season’s maze center, but at least this time William’s excited enough about the prospects that he’s taking it seriously. Then he wastes the kid. Yikes.

Rather than pile mystery on top of mystery—though there are plenty of unexplained components of this episode (hosts setting traps?)—it seems the writers are now more interested in focusing in on their oppression allegory—which has been and remains iffy at best, considering that there’s a pointed scalping of a Native American host in this episode—and moving it towards the future. I’m loving the path the hosts are set on, and that allows me to be tangentially curious about why, say, there’s a big ocean full of dead bodies and also a tiger from Park 6. Since there’s a central conflict that matters, the frayed edges now concern me more rather than less. This shift of focus brings about the collision of worlds in the narrative, but also in the park. Someone’s messing with the sanctity of this space and, as any programmer will tell you, as soon as different systems interact, there will be all kinds of unexpected bugs.

Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.

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