The biggest reunion in this week’s Westworld isn’t between any of the characters—though there are a few meetings that you might’ve been expecting—but between the audience and a reason to care about the central quest. Ah, motivation outside of speculation! In the mysterious trenches of Season One, it was sometimes hard to discern if you were watching because you liked the characters or because it was a dozen-hour-long word problem you were assigned by your social media feeds. But now, thanks to “Reunion”—and its continuation of the season’s focus on the characters behind the park and its effect at large on a real human population—it’s never been more worth watching.
The 2001: A Space Odyssey-like match cut of the opening credits, between a hat and bison both twirling in the air in slow-motion, compliments the bald-headed host mother and child being created before our eyes. It’s not Stanley Kubrick’s Star Child, because that’s a symbol of human evolution. Westworld, especially this season, is about a new sentient species taking over where humans failed. To understand this failure, we have to understand why the park began.
That means a big flashback. One where we’re reminded that, oh yeah, the Arnold behind the park and the Bernard-bot still inside it looked exactly the same—and what Jeffrey Wright does with both is enthralling. The episode opens with Arnold and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) walking through a real, human city on the eve of the host’s debut, showing the simple country AI the big city. Arnold tells her about his wife (who is probably more than a little concerned with his favoritism towards this host) and his son, Charlie. Even though he’s building with his son in mind—be it his swanky downtown home or his complex android—he’s not sure anyone deserves the mechanical and technological wonders of the modern world. At least, nobody human.
As we see throughout the episode, since we keep flashing back to the park’s beginnings with Dolores and Angela (Talulah Riley), the methods by which the project began were always sinister and always doomed to failure. It was pitched as a sexier, darker version of Jurassic Park—but instead of being built entirely by an eccentric grandfather, it was funded by Wall Street bros and YouTube stars. A theme park like you’ve never seen (and for good reason). A silly scene where an investor is unknowingly shown the merchandise at a meeting has a predictable, if well-acted, payoff and the financial courtship practices of Delos are predictably id-ridden. At least the heir who’s the target of these advances (Ben Barnes) is unabashedly and refreshingly bisexual when recruiting for the host-laden orgy that secures his backing.
Another flashback later in the episode shows the same heir/investor seeming permanently affected by his work, introducing James Delos (Peter Mullan) and William (Jimmi Simpson) to the idea of Westworld. He sees it as a betrayal of humanity, even if he’s just taking as many hosts as possible to the sad sack (that’s what I call his bed). For why he sees it as a betrayal, we’ve got to jump back to the future.
This is a future where Dolores and her crew are tricking humans into leading them to the inside of the park, the secret tunnels and maintenance bays where she can really do some damage. This is where Teddy (James Marsden) wakes up. The turning of Teddy, as he sees disassembled hosts brought back, is a showcase for the perennially underappreciated actor, who delivers some genuinely staggering reaction shots that make you think about the gut punch while you’re doubled over. Marsden accomplishes the impossible task of looking like he’s reckoning with the collapse of his identity and reality. No screaming, no weeping, no speeches. He just looks like the world dropped out from under him.
That’s fine with Dolores, as long as he knows the truth. She’s continuing to be the Bad Bitch of the West, even as she meets a few posses along the way to the multi-named valley that is her destination. She has a standoff with Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton)’s boy brigade, which allows Dolores to practice the host-respecting rhetoric she’s been preaching while wrecking every human’s shop, and with Jonathan Tucker’s criminal element. The latter suffers a violent six-shooter Last Supper that doesn’t let the hot lead spoil the painterly quality of the set and blocking.
The other people heading that way are the Man in Black (Ed Harris) and, after another badass shootout with minimal fucking around (because getting shot sucks extra hard now), the newly re-freed Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.). And Lawrence, like Teddy, needs to be woken up… kind of. A long speech basically explains the rewritten narrative to Lawrence, who’s more than happy to oblige, but it’s a ridiculous treat listening to Harris.
Harris’ lingering snakerattle after grumbling out the phrase “the men we could’ve beeeeeennnnn” is the grizzled cowboy equivalent to Isaiah Whitlock Jr.’s extended “sheeeeeeeee-it” on The Wire. They’re iconically overacted pronunciations from iconically overacting figures caught up in their own self-importance. It’s beautiful excess for two souls that know they’re lost but will preach until they’re dragged off the pulpit. Harris quickly shifts his heavy timbre to the heavy tone of the conversation at hand, during which William describes the park as a place hidden from God so people could sin in peace. He also hints that he’s been watching (Like God! I wonder if he has a complex?) and keeping tally, which calls back to the memory and DNA records that they found of park visitors in the season’s premiere. It might not be Ammit’s scales of justice, but it’s also not blackmail like some expected. It’s in the damnable grey area of social media and metadata, where databases have more personality traits than your last date.
The Man in Black’s adventure ends with a hell of a casting coup for El Lazo—now that Lawrence is a permanent fixture by The Man in Black’s side—who gives a killer monologue detailing a metaphor between training animals and training an AI. Then he blows his brains out. And all of his men blow their brains out. No shortcuts or easy allies here. Robert’s embedding Easter Egg assumptions about where William will go and what he will try from beyond the grave, like if Ready Player One rubbed dust in your eyes instead of ALF.
The Man in Black’s torture makes more sense as we keep flashing back and keep learning the depths of William’s depravity. He uses the hosts more than anyone, so it’s only fitting that he be trapped among them, forced to walk with them. It’s a punishment of his own roundabout design, like the bespoke punishments of Tartarus. He’s no longer an antihero whose strange quest once seemed honorable, but a different villain suffering a fate he keeps trying to spin as a blessing. “I’m not owned, I’m not owned!” the Man in Black shouts as he (and everyone else) forges ahead towards The Door.
Read our episodic reviews of Westworld here.
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.