Westworld has been accused, with some justice, of being "the most humorless drama" on television, but that's changed with the Sunday premiere of its second season. This mind-bending philosophical drama isn't exactly a knee-slapper now, but it's deeply enjoying the reversals when it comes to who's playing its game, and on what terms. When Maeve insults human hostage (and narrative designer) Lee Sizemore's penis size, he replies — wounded and amazed — "I wrote that line for you!" "A bit broad if you ask me," Maeve replies. The hosts are conscious, and they're judging their creators. It's delightful. Reveries and dreams and meditations and mazes may have powered much of season one, but season two is about who gets to design the game and enforce the rules.
That doesn't mean the second season is straightforward; it isn't. There are at least two timelines operating, and much to be confused about. But there's also plenty of concrete and riveting news: For one, Ford is definitely dead. Those maggots in his eye-socket ended any possibility of his having been a host. The Bengal tiger revealed that Westworld is one of six parks. And during Karl Strand's argument with some Chinese troops, we learn that Westworld is on an island. Most importantly, Bernard explains to administrator Charlotte Hale that there's a "mesh network" that lets the hosts all communicate with each other (like ants). This is sure to have massive consequences.
But the larger thematic shift has to do with the show's redistribution of stakes and pleasure. The pathos and horror and puzzles that characterized the first season — and pathologized our obsession with having fun free of judgment or consequences — depended to an interesting extent on inuring us to death. (How many times did we watch Teddy die?) Death was so meaningless that Maeve took to strategically killing herself on a semi-regular basis. For all its violence, Westworld was oddly deathless.
That has changed. (To the Man in Black's delight.)
The function of "fun" in the show' has changed too. As if to drive this home, Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" plays anachronistically over footage of Dolores gunning down guests with relish. She's playing now.
But let's go back to the beginning. The episode opens with Dolores and Arnold having one of their slightly dreary discussions. This one has to do with dreams, but Arnold, oddly, is the one talking. "I dreamt I was on an ocean with you and the others on a distant shore," Arnold says. "Were you with us?" Dolores asks, and it's clear that this goes to the heart of the whole first episode: Arnold has been reincarnated as Bernard, a host. And when Bernard wakes up on a beach, the question is: Where do Bernard's loyalties lie? With the human group to which he always thought he belonged, or to the hosts (which he once again discovers that he is)?
Arnold's answer to that question is less complex: "No," he says. "You'd left me behind and the waters were rising around me." And indeed, Arnold was left behind — he planned his own murder by Dolores, in fact, in one of the park's earliest disasters. Later, with Ford's participation and consent, he was written out of Westworld's history. But Ford once said that Arnold lived on inside the "walled garden" of Dolores' mind. Arnold's presence in the opener suggests he was right.
Stubbs saves Bernard from being shot by an overzealous paramilitary member of the Delos team and identifies him as "the boss," which is faintly surprising — and reminiscent of the time Stubbs almost shot Ford, and Bernard stopped him. For one thing, no one has ever treated Bernard like a boss before. For another, we've had no idea what happened to Stubbs since he was attacked, so it's startling to encounter him here. Equally startling is Stubbs' lack of surprise at finding Bernard passed out on a beach. According to Delos personnel (and the decay of the bodies they survey, Ford's among them), two weeks have passed. So what left Bernard — who appears to be hydrated and in relative good health — unconscious on that shore?
If we're confused, the writers' clever trick is to make Bernard just as baffled. He looks startled to see the Delos troops executing hosts. He's confused by the sight of Rebus — the host who routinely brought men to rape Dolores — running toward a female host who's about to be executed, yelling "over my dead body!" Rebus isn't known for his chivalry, but he dies like a white-hat. Other things confuse Bernard too: There is, for example, a vast sea that isn't supposed to exist. Which is filled with dead hosts, whom he claims to have killed. And Teddy seems to be among them.
As for the hosts, one contingent seems hell-bent on getting to something called "the valley beyond," and even hosts who don't seem to have turned on the humans are using that phrase. "You folks aiming to saddle up?" a sweet-looking ranch hand asks some frightened humans guests out with Bernard. "Ride for the green pastures of the valley beyond? I can help you if you'd like. I'll take you wherever you want."
The humans murder him, brutally. And Bernard isn't "with" them, either in body or in spirit. In fact, the only human he really takes the trouble to save is Charlotte Hale, whose immaculate yellow dress is in tatters. But when she introduces him to a secret lab, some odd things happen. The first is that she asks him to scan his DNA so that the drone hosts won't hurt him — and they don't, despite the fact that Bernard, as a host, shouldn't have DNA. The second is that he discovers, once again, that he's a host. The third is that he figures out how to give himself a fluid transfusion. I've long wondered about the significance of mechanical vs "3-D" printed hosts — that distinction seemed to matter to William a great deal, and seemed to map on to some of the Ford/Arnold disagreements. But what all the different kinds of bodies operating in Westworld have in common is code.
In fact, the idea of what "code" itself means is expanding. The idea that host behavior is "coded" and therefore opposed to free will has obviously become unsustainable. After all, DNA is code — but that doesn't necessarily mean free will doesn't exist.
And that brings us back to Arnold's conversation with Dolores at the start of this episode: Arnold says he dreamed he'd been left behind and the waters were rising around him. He assigns this no importance. "Dreams don't mean anything Dolores," he tells her. "They're just noise. They're not real." "What is real?" Dolores asks. "That which is irreplaceable," Arnold replies, but Dolores is unconvinced.
For Dolores, dreams — like memories — are every bit as real as whatever "real" means for humans. And she's taking the role-reversal to its ultimate conclusion: She's not just ruthless, she's having a certain amount of fun. "Do you know where you are?" she asks some humans she's captured. It's chillingly reminiscent, of course, of the way she's been questioned. But it also illustrates how Dolores' awakening into vengeance is specific and reactive and unstinting: "I moved from hell to hell of your making, never thinking to question the nature of my reality. Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" she asks, almost — but not quite — sneering. "You're in a dream. My dream," she says, her face coming into focus.
It's unbelievably creepy.
Dolores has also, of course, been shooting hosts. "I told you friend, not all of us deserve to make it to the valley beyond," a dead Native American host records her as saying.
That brings us to the episode's final revelation: Who has Dolores become?
I was far from satisfied by the claim, last season, that uploading Wyatt's narrative into Dolores explained anything much about what happened, either in the finale or in the first massacre that ended Arnold's life. It's the kind of explanation that obscures more than it clarifies. After all, we never got to know Wyatt well enough to even know what vestiges of him appearing in Dolores would mean (or look like). Luckily, the premiere addresses that hybridity quite directly. Dolores offers a pretty heavy-handed account of how this combination of personalities and conflicting narratives has produced the stunningly different affect Evan Rachel Wood brings to her performance. She even puns, saying that she's "of several minds about it." (Can you imagine early-stage Dolores punning? Humor is creeping in all over the place.) As the rancher's daughter, Dolores explains that she sees the beauty in the humans, but Wyatt "sees the ugliness, the disarray." She continues:
[S]he knows these violent delights have violent ends. But those are all just roles you forced me to play. Under all these lives I've lived, something else has been growing. I've evolved into something new, and I have one last role to play: myself.
This is thrilling stuff. It just is. And when Dolores leaves the humans begging for their lives, and says, riding off, "that doesn't look like anything to me," it's hard not to cheer. The endlessly welcoming, endlessly pleasant and serviceable host has unlearned the instruction that she must empathize with her tormentors. And we've gotten an account of what her experience of internalizing the Wyatt and Dolores narratives means.
The feeling that this has anything at all to do with a "game" returns only when the Man in Black climbs out from under a dead body and — after a shootout that leaves him wounded — locates a black hat. The familiar soundtrack we know from Mariposa resumes, and we're suddenly back in the fun, thrill-seeking mindset that is (let's face it) the whole problem. The fact that the Man in Black is still riding to that old score while Dolores gallops to "The Entertainer" seems — well, it's rich. But it's also kind of funny.