Westworld Can’t Quite Stick the Landing on a Fascinating, Frustrating Season
(Episode 2.10)Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO TV Reviews Westworld
Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) was always going to be the star of Westworld’s feature-length Season Two finale, perhaps because she was one of the last characters standing that still had a goal and enough chance for failure. That’s because Maeve (Thandie Newton) is just too good at what she does. Stuff like rustling up her posse, then absolutely Mufasa-ing some jabronis with an army of stampeding cows. This is, first of all, awesome, and second of all, a great way for Maeve to reassert her destiny as the Chosen One. No saving required, boys. But, primarily, because she is so powerful (and therefore bad for drama), we get a lot of Dolores—especially as she runs into the rest of the protagonists.
There’s little I hate watching more than The Man in Black (Ed Harris) rooting around in his own arm like an anteater probing the anthill for a meal. I hate even more that the location of his injury and the bloodflow from his digging is a close reference to Juliet’s suicide. The difference is a level of feeling. The (flawed) trope of a bathtub suicide is supposed to imply that it’s easier, while nothing seems easy about fruitlessly hunting for cables in your arm – all sitting in the sun-baked grit of a fake West. That’s just a good way to get infected. And Dolores, riding up on him, isn’t here to make his life easier.
“The Passenger” calls attention to the pair’s similarities until they meet Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), when they’re further bonded by using him as a foil. As it turns out, Dolores is a creator of an artificial representation, a developer of the kind of immortality William once commissioned. That means the caring Bernard is two levels down, AI-wise, and William is staring an abomination in the face. Good thing Dolores insured William would destroy himself thanks to her handy-dandy Russian Roulette device.
Dolores speaks like a Goddess of Death, and like all deities of destruction is a reflection of mankind’s own obsession with limits. She has her self-loathing reflections (William) and her bumbling vassals (Teddy, et al.), and her own irony-drenched plots to unmake everything.
The culmination of this plot finally gives some purpose for the back-and-forth timelines of Bernard’s buggy memory. It allows us to have both action and immediate reaction (or vice-versa, in some of the episode’s more interesting narrative moments) to what goes down in The Forge, intercut without wasting time between. The Forge is an eerie wet cloning center cast in an early aughts red that offers a VR experience to a couple bots. James Delos is the test subject in this level of Incept-worlds, which leads to some truly weird stuff mixing dreams, memories, and programmable events. These are curated by the system itself, represented by Ben Barnes, who takes Bernard and Dolores on an It’s a Wonderful Life-style trip through Delos’ Matrix.
And you bet your ass it’s a Matrix. They’re programming former guests in 10,000 lines of code. Sidebar: “lines of code” is effectively meaningless. Nobody measures or values their work in lines of code. But just for example, a simple iPhone word game app has about 10,000 lines of code. A pacemaker has 80,000 lines of code. Aside from some of this silliness, the visual representation of a human database as a library filled with stories is completely in line with a narrative-obsessed series like Westworld. Books are souls and anyone that can write it out is as close to God as it gets.
But back to the action: Head of narrative Lee (Simon Quarterman) does silly things and is a silly character. He sacrifices himself for Maeve not because she needs him to, but because he wants to. His is the self-destruction and martyrdom that typifies an episode taking Westworld from the utterly human to something closer to religious, cultish fervor. And with The Forge’s new world, the promised land (and another West to be conquered) is visible, tangible, and just at the end of a longish amusement park line. The line is threatened by Clementine, who, after making everyone go crazy, gets sort of a Legolas “bring him DOWN” moment, as Maeve the Grey (as berobed as a wizard ever was) tries to get her daughter into Mordor. Sorry, the Valley Beyond.
The shining beacon pointing there, visible only to hosts, is director Frederick E.O. Toye’s payoff for countless dusty helicopter shots rising up to the horizon that are far too lame for the cool futuristic buggies they follow. It’s another level of VR for these lost souls, copy-pasted from one land to another like treasured save files ported between a game and its sequel. But Dolores is a diehard for the real world because, damn it, physicists proved humans aren’t living in a computer simulation (no, really) and she wants in on some of that certainty.
Dolores begins deleting the souls of the stored humans, which finally pushes Bernard to choose a side: life over death. Which, ironically, means he has to shoot Dolores in the head and cancel her erasure (which leads to data corruption that you know is coming back in Season Three). This, as William rides the elevator down to meet them, loading his gun in the best possible way to blow his Manhood in Black off.
Maeve halts the tidal wave of warring hosts to see her daughter safely in the new world, but is inevitably gunned down for her efforts by Delos forces. Newton kills it just as hard as Delos kills Maeve. They try to do the same to Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), but thank goodness, he gets away, or else this whole recap would be me ranting about how he deserves a happy ending, goddamnit. It’s no fun when a host gets killed, but they can always bring the hosts back. Humans, on the other hand…
Elsie (Shannon Woodward) gets gunned down and it’s a little stupid—partially because, out of Tessa Thompson’s strong filmography, her Westworld work isn’t the best, making her villainy lukewarm even when she’s a host playing a host playing a human, or whatever—and that about wraps it up for the past. Finishing things out in the present, we finally find out why the show did that silly silent cut away from Bernard whispering the location of the encryption key: Dolores, reborn, had it all along. Now she’s beaming the Valley Beyond folks out to God-knows-where while we find out the extent of Bernard’s sacrifice for his people. He’s always sacrificing himself to help his people, while Dolores is always killing for the same reason.
Dolores gets out thanks to Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) who, let’s be honest, shows more insight and competency in this scene than he ever has, carrying with her a select group of host brains. Including, it turns out, Bernard. The pair now form creation and destruction, yin and yang, for the rebirth of their people in the real world. Gods in their workshop, who’ve taken over after duping, killing, and otherwise moving beyond their creators. And hey, that’s a more satisfying place than many of us could’ve dreamed this show would’ve left us. Or, at least, it would be if Westworld could leave well enough alone. A final fuck-you assures us that no matter how well the show delivers some closure, it can’t get its rocks off without mystery for mystery’s sake.
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.