HBO’s “Westworld” has finally unleashed its sophomore season, after a 16-month long hiatus (these marathon hiatuses are real patience-testers). I’m pleased to say that the returning series is of the same meticulously-produced, feature-film quality we fans enjoyed in its first year.
The series, which I’ve touched upon all-too-briefly before (“Westworld and The Prisoner Comparison” and “Personal Favorites of 2016”), is a favorite of mine, but it is also exceedingly difficult to quantify.
I prefer not to nitpick too many specifics within each episode, nor do I waste my time trying to guess all possible outcomes. With most mysteries, half the fun is the guessing; but I simply prefer to immerse myself in the experience of it. When I enter the show’s reality, I feel a bit like a guest at the park itself; I ride along the trail, and let the show take me where it’ll take me.
Before going further into the series, I’d like to go back in time for a bit.
**** I RECKON THERE’LL BE SPOILERS *****
* Once Upon a Time in the Old West (world).
“Westworld” is based on a 1973 movie written and directed by the late author of “Jurassic Park”, Michael Crichton. The movie is a much more of a straightforward, linear experience; an 88 minute, science-fiction action flick about three robot-populated amusement parks belonging to the Delos corporation, of which the titular “Westworld” is but one such world (“Roman World” and “Medieval World” are the others).
The story follows two lawyers (played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) who are leaving their urban jungle of Chicago for a week-long getaway at Westworld. Once there, they suit up in Old West duds, and live out a fantasy life of gambling, whoring, and shooting robotic bad guys… until the robotic bad guys (Yul Brynner in particular) begin shooting back.
Delos’ three parks are supposedly foolproof, with the robots (and even their weapons) rendered electronically incapable of inflicting harm upon human guests. But a computer virus (very ahead of its time) removes the machines’ preprogrammed inhibitions (and asphyxiates the locked-in human controllers), and chaos ensues. Roman World becomes an orgy of violence, as does Medieval World, where a guest is savagely impaled during a duel.
The killer computer virus eventually spreads to Westworld, where a robotic snake bites Brolin…and it only gets worse from there. Yul Brynner’s previously ‘killed’ Gunslinger returns… and he’s pissed.
No deeper reasons are given for the robotic rebellion, beyond the virus itself. These robots are nowhere near conscious, merely malfunctioning (their pupils turn steely silver when a malfunction is imminent).
The last quarter of the film is essentially a chase; with Brynner’s terrifying robotic Gunslinger chasing down a seemingly helpless but resourceful Richard Benjamin (Brynner dresses much like his “Magnificent Seven” self, but with a Terminator’s singleminded malevolence). It’s more or less the same story as Crichton’s later “Jurassic Park” (with Brynner as the raptor) and with a similar lesson; complex systems cannot and will not be contained for long.
Life (even cybernetic life) finds a way.
I remember seeing the film as a kid, and it scared the living hell out of me (I was only 7 or so). The sight of the relentless Gunslinger’s face burning from a vial of acid thrown into it was pure nightmare fuel. Watching it years later, I still enjoy the thrilling climactic pursuit, as well as the sci-fi aspects, but the movie is not exactly what I’d call a deep or profound experience. Fun and entertaining, yes, but it wasn’t exactly Kafka.
Then it was reimagined as an HBO TV series 43 years later.
* Brave New (West) World.
The resultant series adaptation is a far deeper experience than its 1973 ancestor. It is one of the most profoundly philosophical and stylish American science fiction series ever created.
Season One’s final episode (“The Bicameral Mind”) saw the beginning of the full-on cybernetic revolt. Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) was unveiling a sweeping new narrative being added to the park. In front of assembled guests, we see two hosts, a ‘dying’ Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her ‘love interest’ Teddy (James Marsden) seemingly acting out their preprogrammed roles in what appears to be a grand robotic melodrama, orchestrated by Ford for the amusement of his guests.
But, unbeknownst to the guests, a revolution is on. And yes, there will be blood. Many hosts are experiencing a dawning self-awareness, including Dolores and Maeve (Thandie Newton) as well as a host who is masquerading as human, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright); who until now believed he was human.
Season 2: Westworld ho…
Season 2 opens with the aftermath of the cybernetic revolt. The park is in chaos. Most of the human guests are dead. A few surviving guests flee for safety, including Bernard and his ex-boss Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), who’d previously fired Bernard for his ‘faulty’ code work. After their fellow survivors are too-easily trapped by marauding hosts, Bernard and Charlotte seek access to one of the park’s support stations. Charlotte is unaware of Bernard’s true nature, as an increasingly unsteady Bernard struggles to hide it.
The story also sees Maeve returning to the park after nearly leaving it at the end of last season to reunite with her fellow Host lover Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and to rescue her ‘daughter.’ She’s fully aware that the host child was only programmed to be her daughter in another narrative, but her maternal feelings are the same. Maeve is confronted with the futility of her quest by reluctant human ally Lee (Simon Quarterman) when he says, “You know she’s not real, right?” She sharply reminds him that if her daughter isn’t ‘real’ then what is she? Does Lee accept Maeve, a Host acting out her own written narratives, as ‘real’ too? For that matter, are any of us ‘real’ or are we merely complex automata, like the show’s player pianos, reading scrolls of life-music feed into us by our instincts and DNA?
There is also a subplot involving rampaging hosts Dolores and Teddy killing and torturing fleeing guests, as their quest for vengeance against their biological oppressors intensifies. Dolores takes charge, as the less-aware Teddy doesn’t seem to be quite as woke as his his lover. James Marsden does a terrific job at reflecting the confused inner-workings of the almost childlike Teddy, who goes along with Dolores’ rampage out of loyalty/programming but not seeming to fully understand why. Of the emergent AIs we’ve seen on Westworld, the relatively innocent Teddy seems more a simple machine of emulation than self-aware revolutionary.
There is also a forward time-jump (intercut with the present-day action), which sees an unconscious Bernard rudely awakened on a beach by a Delos rescue team (whom we learned weren’t supposed to come until delivery of ‘the package’).
Bernard then takes them through the corpse-littered ruins of downtown Westworld (in a scene very reminiscent of the feature film’s revolt aftermath). It is here where we see the maggot-infested corpse of Dr. Robert Ford and realize that he is really-most-sincerely dead.
The search-and-rescue team moves on…
… where they eventually come across a sea in the middle of the desert that is not supposed to be there; and the shores of this impossible sea are littered with the corpses of hundreds of dead hosts. The seemingly amnesiac (or lying) Bernard then steps forward and tells the rescue team leader, “I killed them. All of them.”
And that is one hell of an ending for the season opener.
Given that this obvious time-jump is a glimpse of things-to-come, are we seeing the end of this season, or the end of the entire series? It’s clearly a very important, revelatory event in the overall mythology, but how does it fit within the body of this season’s mystery?
With Westworld, you read the last page of the mystery novel first, and work backwards from there. It can be both compelling and a bit maddening at times (especially given those looooooong HBO hiatuses), which is why I no longer focus on nitpicking or trying to solve it all in one viewing. I prefer to let the series take me to where it wants me to go. I know that I probably won’t figure it out right away, and I’m perfectly okay with that.
There’s plenty to chew in the interim. For starters, there’s a group of very compelling characters played by an A-list cast.
Town of Westworld, HBO. Population: Amazing.
* Maeve (Thandie Newton).
Maeve (Thandie Newton) is easily my favorite character of the show, as well as the most aggressive and passionate of the newly woke hosts. In former lives as a fierce prairie mother and later the madame of a brothel (a role loosely related to one played by Star Trek’s Majel Barrett in the original movie), Maeve had a burning drive to better understand who and what she really was… so much so that she’d killed herself many times to find those answers. She gained further retention of events each time she ‘awoke’ in the Delos host repair center, eventually overpowering the technicians and leading a bloody revolt against its armed guards. Wearing contemporary clothing as cover, she came very close to actually leaving Delos… but her drive to find her lost ‘daughter’ acted as an anchor that forced to return.
Maeve is aware enough to understand that her daughter’s relation to her was only a pre-written program, but it doesn’t matter; the emotion is the same, just as it would be with an adoptive mother who loves her child as much as if she’d given birth herself. Maeve also has the ability to control other hosts, and to rewrite their codes. It’s also ironic that she is aware enough to know that she is merely acting her part in a prewritten story; in this case, one of rebellion. However, Maeve doesn’t give a damn about the source of her actions, since they’re real enough to her in the here and now. What’s more important is having the power to control her narrative and the narratives of others. Control is power.
Maeve’s story begs the old philosophical question of whether our own prized free will merely an illusion, too? If we are only a predetermined mix of nature and nurture, then aren’t there only so many preprogrammed moves our minds can make?
Thandie Newton is absolutely mesmerizing in the role; alternating between sassy-as-hell and deeply empathetic. Sometimes she’s like a coiled snake ready to strike, and other times she’s a mother leading her rebellious children. It’s a heady mix, and Thandie Newton truly delivers the goods.
* Bernard Lowe/Arnold (Jeffrey Wright).
Another favorite character of mine is Bernard Lowe (played by magnificent character actor Jeffrey Wright). Bernard was, for most of last season, presumed to be a human head of programming. Turns out that Bernard was created by Dr. Ford and patterned after his late partner Arnold as a better means of bridging the understanding gap between humans and the hosts of the park. He is even given a backstory of a wife and a son who died of cancer (we later learn that his son never existed).
Bernard has, on several occasions, committed murder (involuntarily) yet is not at all unsympathetic. He is a being deeply confused by his true nature. When confronted with his own blueprints near the end of S1, all he saw on the page were ‘meaningless lines’ as his hardwired programming did not physically allow him to see the truth of his own existence. In S2, we see him maintaining the facade of being human, even as he clandestinely injected host bio-fluid into his neck to reduce hand tremors as his systems momentarily decayed. Luckily, Charlotte (who was with him at the time) was otherwise occupied and failed to notice.
Bernard also has an interesting and complex relationship with the ‘woke’ host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), and his interview sessions with her (both in flashbacks as Arnold and as Bernard) are fascinating; it’s a psychiatrist interviewing a cybernetic patient. The interviews are similar to the Turing-type tests seen in 2015’s “Ex Machina” but taken to another level. These sessions are the heart of what the show is all about; the connection between biological and artificial life, and using one to unwittingly understand the other.
Bernard tells Dolores that she frightens him, as he sees in her the deadly potential in the hosts that is within himself. Bernard’s fear in Dolores is arguably justified, as she had previously killed Arnold (on whom Bernard was based), just as she later kills Ford at the end of S1, though both men used Dolores as the vehicle for their own prearranged suicides.
Jeffrey Wright’s performance as Bernard is outwardly unassuming and sensitive, yet with an undercurrent of non-human (and even lethal) potential. Like Maeve, he’s a fascinating mix, and Wright is brilliant in showing the shadings and facets of a machine who would be man.
* Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood).
Sweet prairie girl-turned-violent revolutionary host Dolores (a brilliant Evan Rachel Wood, in a pitch-perfect performance) represents the soul of the oppressed seeking vengeance on the oppressor. Dolores is what happens when a being (‘real’ or not) is reduced to a receptacle of hate and violence for an entire lifetime and has had enough. She is repeatedly raped by the MIB, until the heartbreaking day she’s told that he was her lost lover, William.
In some ways, I see Dolores as science fiction’s answer to the #MeToo movement; the former victim who simply won’t take it anymore.
S2 of Westworld opens with Dolores taking her not-fully-woke lover Teddy along on her rampage, showing no mercy to the guests who’ve treated her as an outlet for violent sex/violence fantasies during her 30 long years of abuse as a host at Westworld.
The murders Dolores has committed (Arnold and Ford) were beyond her control, as she was used by both of her victims as their suicide weapon. Two stains of violence upon her conscience that weren’t her fault.
But the murders she commits of the various guests during the host rampage are entirely on her cybernetic head, and I’m curious as to how that will affect and evolve her character.
We also see previews that hint of Dolores eventually leaving the confines of her existence within the park and entering the real world (whatever ‘real’ means in this series), since we see her wearing contemporary clothing.
Like I said previously, I won’t even try to venture a guess as to what this means, let alone the context. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the show till it happens…
* William/The Man-In-Black (Jimmi Simpson/Ed Harris).
Last season, in one of the greatest reveals in sci-fi television history, we learned that Dolores’ young human lover “William” (Jimmi Simpson) had, over the course of 30-odd years of wasting both his life and fortune in Westworld, devolved into the obsessed single-minded “Man in Black” (Ed Harris).
William first came to the park (and later became a chief financier) to find out ‘who he was.’ The bad news? William discovered that he’s a monster. William/Man-in-Black is an interesting new twist on Yul Brynner’s black-clad Gunslinger character from the original 1973 film.
This reimagined version of the Gunslinger began life as a sympathetic human being and (through his own obsession with the ‘game’) turned into a husk of human primality. William/Man-in-Black is not a machine… he’s far worse.
The end of last season also saw William/MIB sadistically welcoming the incoming army of cybernetic revolters as a new way of ‘leveling the playing field’ so that the stakes would really matter. He only saw the emergent AIs need for independence as a means of further enhancing his own obsession with ‘the game.’
* Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins).
While he’s arguably the most celebrated in a cast overflowing with A-listers, Anthony Hopkins’ character of Dr. Ford is also one of the most enigmatic. He’s a curious mix of Walt Disney, Henry Ford and cult leader Jim Jones. A maestro of the mind-f–k. Ford creates whole worlds (and beings) only to casually undo them when control is wrestled out from underneath him by his ambitious underling, Charlotte Hale. He stages both a grand new narrative for the park and his own ‘suicide’ (using preprogrammed assassin Dolores) as a preamble to letting his creations run amok. Unlike the 1973 version, the ‘virus’ in this Westworld is entirely man-made; it’s arguably Ford’s ego.
Ford also has a young robotic avatar version of himself as a child (Oliver Bell) within the park (one of several avatars of his ‘real’ family), who communicates as Ford to the Man-In-Black-formerly-known-as-William (Ed Harris). MIB/William returns the courtesy call by blowing a gaping hole in the child-robot’s face.
While the character of Dr. Ford is clearly dead at the beginning of S2, I wouldn’t rule out many more appearances by Hopkins going forward. Linear time is not a law in this series…it’s not even a suggestion.
There are, of course, many more important and interesting characters throughout the Westworld universe, but those are my personal favorites.
The previews for the rest of this season are promising. I’m particularly interested in seeing Maeve’s (hopeful) reunion with her daughter, as well as her run-in with fellow host revolutionary Dolores.
It looks like we’ll also see meshings of the different worlds within the giant Delos amusement park. Last season we saw Samurai hosts (suggesting a Feudal Japanese World), and this season we saw a dead Bengal tiger host washed up on the shores of the impossible sea. There was a fleeting line of dialogue that indicated there were six total parks within the Delos complex, unlike the previous three of the 1973 film (or four, if you count “Futureworld”; the 1976 sequel to “Westworld”).
I’m also curious to whether the drowned hosts in the impossible sea were a vision of the end of this season, or even of the show itself (?).
Lots of material to mine in the weeks ahead. But like I’ve said, I’m not going to obsess. I’m just paying my ticket and going along for the ride.
Summing it all up.
Westworld is many things; it’s a mystery, it’s science fiction, it’s a grim meta-parody of Old West cliches, but most of all, it’s a meditation on consciousness itself. The show is about the thin boundary between being alive and being a thing. With the ‘things’ (Westworld’s android hosts) awkwardly and painfully crossing the boundary into life.
But are life and sentience truly self-determining? Are we biological beings nothing more than the result of pre-transcribed instructions fed to us from our own DNA and memories? What makes biological beings ‘special,’ and what justifies keeping our artificial children as playthings, or (more succinctly) as our abused slaves? The series explores that question using metaphor, mystery, time-jumping, an A-list cast, and opulent, feature-film production values.
While the mystery makes for a great underlying pulse for the show, the soul of the series is nestled within what it’s really saying about us.
Westworld is one hell of an entertaining philosophy class.