'Westworld' Recap: Back to the Future

Endgames and origin stories become clearer as the journey to the edge of tomorrow continues

Endgames and origin stories become clearer as 'Westworld' travels to the edge of tomorrow – our recap of tonight's head-scratcher of an episode. Credit: HBO

They call it Glory, or the Valley Beyond. It houses everything you need to destroy the forces behind the theme park(s). No mysterious maze here: It's the promised land, the place where both the revolutionary robot Dolores and her human nemesis the Man in Black are headed. And it makes his week's Westworld ("Reunion") rough riding all the way.

First, there's the aftermath of the bloody host rebellion. Its leader, Dolores, shows her beau Teddy and enforcer Angela (Talulah Riley) the innards of underground complexes where hosts are repaired by human technicians. It's a harrowing sequence in which actor James Marsden, a warm and versatile presence, really sells his android's panic and fury. Miss Abernathy and her entourage learn from a tortured employee that their destination will be guarded by hundreds of human soldiers. Back in the park proper, they attempt to enlist a rogue host army called the Confederados, led by tough-talking Major Craddock (Jonathan Tucker). Only after Dolores' gunslingers kill and revive him does the military man seem open to linking up.

The MiB, meanwhile, has a similar plan. After he rescues his old sidekick Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) from certain death, the pair head to the town of Pariah. There they encounter the Mexican revolutionary known as El Lazo – a role Lawrence himself once played in the park's narrative, now brought to life by Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito (!) – and suggest an alliance of their own. El Lazo and his men, however, have been preprogrammed to refuse ol' Bill's offer; they kill themselves rather than join forces with him. You're so used to viewing the Man Who Would Be Gus Fring play a Big Bad that to see him die within minutes comes as a real surprise, robot revivals on tap or not.

But the evening's biggest shock comes in the form of the long-awaited encounter between Dolores and Maeve. Weirdly, the climactic face-off between these two rebellion leaders you might have expected is just a chance meeting that gets unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the episode. The two autonomous androids bicker, their menfolk draw their weapons, the confrontation fizzles ... and the groups go their separate ways. After a full season following their parallel plotlines, it's a hell of a disappointing intersection.

Then there are the de rigeur flashbacks, set both before and after the events of the corresponding timeline during Season One. We watch as Arnold, the park's other co-founder and the basis for Bernard, shows Dolores the real world for the first time in order to prep her for an important assignment. Yet she reflexively repeats the same line — "Have you ever seen anything so full of splendor?" The player is not quite ready for prime time.

Next, Logan Delos (Ben Barnes) takes a meeting with a Westworld rep named Akecheta (the great Zahn McClarnon from Fargo). He takes sleazy failson of privilege to a private party and challenges him to spot the robot among the guests. Eventually Logan's attention is drawn to Angela, but it's a ruse: As you probably guessed the moment the scene began, everyone at the party is a host, including the tour guide himself.

We then jump forward for several scenes involving the Man in Black's younger self, William (Jimmi Simpson). These take place after his come-to-Satan heel turn from Season One, and show him successfully convincing his future father-in-law James Delos (Peter Mullan, very gruff and extremely Scottish) to invest in the park. On Billy's advice, he does so not "to underwrite some fucking investment banker's voyage of self-discovery," but as a backdoor way to collect information about the guests and use it to make a fortune. So: Westworld is Facebook!

Finally, William berates Dolores in one of the underground complexes, ridiculing her as "not even a thing … a reflection" of his own desires. He then takes her to the edge of the park, where gigantic terraformers are at work for reasons unknown. This seems to be the Valley Beyond, the great post-revolution destination; she refers to the place as "a weapon." The Man in Black, meanwhile, says it's his "greatest mistake." His plan is to burn the whole place to the ground.

Fortunately, occasional flashes of wit lighten the darkness now and then. As the Man in Black's hapless sidekick – the Teddy to his Dolores, if you will – Lawrence is shaping up to be funny in the deadpan way that some of Deadwood's hard-luck cases used to be. He makes his Season Two debut upside-down, strung up from a tree with his head hovering just above a fire-ant hill. "Friend of yours?" his captors ask regarding the MiB; "Little hard to tell, given the orientation and all" he replies, still dangling. Later, when the pair arrive in Pariah to find its inhabitants massacred and its lush banquet tables crawling with rats, Lawrence reacts with the understatement of the episode: "Whoever did this is someone I'm strongly disinclined to encounter."

But the night's cleverest bit of comedy isn't a line – it's an accent. When we're reintroduced to William during the flashbacks, we discover they're taking place after his first-season storyline in part because he's added a distinctly Ed Harris-ian Southern twang to his voice. Yee-haw, what a poseur! It's no slight against actor Jimmi Simpson to say that the accent sounds off coming from anyone but the Harris version of their shared character. The result subtly suggests that this dude isn't some natural born killer but merely, well, a dude – a spoiled rich kid playing cowboy.

That said, all the usual caveats apply. The return of Logan and Young William and the debut of James Delos add even more assholes to a cast of characters full to bursting with them. Despite the stamp of co-creator Jonathan Nolan and Mad Men vet Carly Wray, the script still tends toward the obvious (the predictable twist at the party, a too-cute bit that introduces the "doesn't look like anything to me" catchphrase) and the clichéd (someone actually says "You have no idea what you're up against"). The plotting is plodding, with one thing happening after another and no clear climax or standout sequence to point to.

And with the exception of a sprinkling of jokes, the tone is so unsmilingly serious that it feels like its parodying a Weekend Update Stefon bit: "This park has everything: unhappy robots, unhappy people, unhappy robots who think they're unhappy people …" Like the characters, we've got a long road ahead of us before we reach our destination. If the show stays in this grim mode, it may not kill us to take that ride. But it won't exactly thrill us, either.

Previously: Rewind, Reboot, Reload