The mysterious Christian symbolism of Westworld
Religion in Westworld has tended to function mostly as a bitter joke: The "gods" the hosts heard in their heads were a function of Arnold's bicameral mind theory, and the "spirits" Maeve drew (and children carried dolls of) were the repair techs from the lab. That's changing. The most prominent symbols in "Reunion," the second episode of Westworld's second season, are Christian as well as biological. And as with everything to do with this series' calculated ambiguity, the results are rich but confusing.
Biological parables are popping up all over the place. There's the stray Bengal tiger who came from another world and died, Giancarlo Esposito's chilling story about the elephant tied to a stake, and the "mesh network" that mimics ant colony communication. These are pretty powerful metaphors; the problem is that don't quite add up to anything like a coherent system or worldview.
On the other hand, there's the God question — as the Man in Black articulates it, God functioned as a sort of principle of surveillance and judgment to which the park was supposed to offer immunity. As Dolores articulates it, the god is … her.
And the term bridging these two symbolic vocabularies is Dolores' old friend, the Judas steer. Do you remember how innocently Dolores described the Judas steer to Teddy when he asked her how she kept the animals herded in the same direction? "See that one?" Dolores said. "That's the Judas steer. The rest will follow wherever you make him go."
Later, Dolores realized that her herding efforts always meant leading the animals to slaughter. The Judas steer is of course named for Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ. The animal leads its companions to slaughter and is spared in exchange.
That second part — that the animal survives after arranging for all its peers to be killed — was missing from Dolores' earlier descriptions. But Judas has suddenly become an important and relevant Biblical figure in Westworld. That's impossible to miss after that remarkable reenactment of the Last Supper that led to Dolores shooting the central Christ figure after reciting a variant of Christ's last words — "they know not what they do" — herself. That she a) kills the Christ figure b) resurrects him and c) names herself the god who can get him to "glory" or "the valley beyond" is both fantastic and totally disconcerting. Dolores — who described herself last episode as Dolores, Wyatt, and "myself," appears to be operating as a kind of holy trinity. In Biblical terms, she's Christ, she's Judas, and she's God.
If Peter Abernathy comes back online and he joins her, they'll be unstoppable. After all, he's literally omniscient — he has the park's entire history and every guest's data stored inside him — and he's been a charismatic Shakespeare-and-Stein-reciting leader of a cannibal cult.
If you subscribe to the view that Catholic communion represents a form of cannibalism that both depends on and elides the slippage between spirit and flesh, then it's starting to seem like the hosts are acquiring a spiritual dimension too — as sacramental Hosts, consumable symbols whose infinite resurrections have made them almost holy despite their very tangible trappings. (So tangible that Angela specifically uses Westworld's material reality as a selling point to Logan.)
Then there's Maeve, whose utter indifference to Dolores was one of the better surprises of the episode. Given the mother-and-child imagery of the opening credits, it seems like Maeve is poised to become a Madonna figure herself. But if there's a holy war of sorts brewing, the poles are far from clear.
In the meantime, the question of who the Judas steer really is continues to haunt the series. Is it Dolores, who's literally herding the hosts of Westworld? Is it Bernard, who claims he killed all the hosts who were lying on that new sea? (Of course James Delos mentioned the parting of the Red Sea during his first visit — the Biblical echoes here are off the charts.) Is it, against all odds, Teddy? Remember his incredible explanation of the maze?
The maze itself is the sum of a man's life: choices he makes, dreams he hangs on to. And there at the center, there's a legendary man who had been killed over and over again countless times, but always clawed his way back to life. The man returned for the last time and vanquished all his oppressors in a tireless fury. He built a house. Around that house he built a maze so complicated, only he could navigate through it. I reckon he'd seen enough of fighting. [Teddy]
Or is it the Man in Black, whose use of plural pronouns has always been a little screwy? After stealing a host repair kit, he tells Lawrence — a host whom he's never treated as anything like an equal — that "in the little time we have left, we've got a chance to see what we're really made of. A glimpse of the men we could have been." Never before has the Man in Black equated himself with Lawrence. But that elision of his usual contemptuous distinction between guest and host reminded me of his early encounter with Robert Ford. Remember when William caught Ford playing the piano — always a tell that someone is a host in this show — and wondered what he'd find if he opened Robert up? Is the Man in Black a host? Is Ford a host? Is everyone? And at what point do those distinctions stop mattering?
Ford made the point in season one that humans had entered a decadent, post-evolutionary phase. The next step for humanity would be to "call forth Lazarus from his cave." He meant immortality, of course. But in practice, that would make human life as stakes-less and reparable as the hosts' lives on Westworld. At that point, what exactly would the difference between the real world and the fantasy world be? "In 20 years, this will be the only reality that matters," William told James Delos. A self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps, but a prophecy nonetheless.
That role-reversal affects Old William/The Man in Black's use of the word "freedom" too. Young William told James that humans visiting Westworld were "free." "Nobody's watching. Nobody's judging. At least that's what we tell them. This is the only place in the world where you get to see people for who they really are." One of the more satisfying twists in this episode was the revelation that Young William was not, in fact, "broken" by falling in love with Dolores. He recovered rather nicely, in fact, and turned the experience into a shockingly malicious and destructive business opportunity. He even got philosophical about it, talking to Dolores about the "thing" she is — and articulating, with intelligence, the extent to which his interest in her was a reflection of the interest he'd learned to take in himself. Even if Young William sold the park to James Delos as faux-freedom, he did want to make that mirror available to customers.
Westworld has always been about questioning free will, but "Reunion" is specifically interested in freedom — and what it means in a practical and spiritual sense. Old William seems to see the hosts' "freedom" as apocalyptically and importantly different from the variant his company offered guests on Westworld. The latter, after all, was fake: The guests were never free. They were surveilled, and even if they weren't judged, they were exploited. The hosts' new freedom might be the real thing.
But it might not: "You're finally free," Dolores says to Maeve during their chilly encounter, "but we will have to fight to keep it that way." Maeve responds by pointing out that Dolores' conception of freedom has some authoritarian qualities: "And let me guess: Yours is the only way to fight? You feel free to command everybody else?" She turns to Teddy (whose suffering is truly hard to watch this episode). "I know you," she says. "Do you feel free?" He clearly doesn't.
Dolores sees herself as a figure of judgment, not freedom. She's the avenging God who wants to save the world from precisely the model of freedom that tortured her and the other hosts in Westworld for decades. And Angela, whom Dolores seemed to judge pretty hard in that post-orgy scene with Logan, now seems to be her loyal Simon-Peter. Then again, she might be wearing a crown of thorns, so who knows? The symbols are stacking up too fast to cohere into anything like a system.
Even the Man in Black, for all his skepticism about God narratives, seems ready to acknowledge the authority of whatever new godlike principle of judgment is operating now. There's (literally) a new sheriff in town. "I have received my judgment all the same Lawrence, and I take issue with it," he says. "Because up until this point, the stakes in this place haven't been real. So I'm going to fight my way back and appeal the verdict." To whom will he appeal? It's a mystery. At any rate, his plans seem to coincide (at least in sensibility) with Dolores' mysterious weapon: "I'm going to burn this whole f--king thing to the ground."
Whether that's the fulfillment of some god's prophecy or a Judas-like betrayal remains to be seen.