Two completely fascinating things happened in Westworld tonight. Okay, neither of them will end up on the tourist brochure if the park ever gets up and running again ... but still. If you've grown skeptical that the umpteenth take on "Can androids teach us what it really means to be human?" has any real points of interest left to visit, this week's installment ("Virtù e Fortuna") proves there's some life left in the old model's batteries yet.
The first big "wow" is – well, the whole opening sequence, pretty much. In an act of storytelling audacity that cuts right to the thematic heart of the show, we're dropped right into the middle of a whole new "world," set during British colonial rule in India. In this case, the buyers are couple of vapid, attractive guests: one American and one Brit. They have one of those TV-show meet cutes in which their borderline contempt for one another turns, in the blink of a quick-cut edit, to white-hot passion. They stumble through the bedroom door, pawing at each other like a pair of randy spring breakers. The backdrop for all this? Palatial living quarters, fancy white clothes, tiger hunts, elephant rides and all the other trappings of the Imperial Raj – up to and including "hosts" rendered as fawning South Asian servants.
(There's no other way to put it: This is a breathtakingly racist concept for a theme park. Still, if life has taught us anything these past couple of years, it's that the market for breathtaking racism is a booming one. It leaves you wondering if there's also a Dixieworld somewhere, in which the near-future descendants of today's MAGA types can pretend to be plantation owners and slave traders. But we digress.)
If you're looking to depict the dehumanizing effect of extravagant wealth and capitalist exploitation – not to mention the bottom-line-driven immorality of the Delos corporation – this is a tough sequence to top. The second scene with real, raw power is a more intimate one, centered not on a couple of unknowns but on the show's main character. After securing the Confederados' paramilitary to fight human security forces, Dolores discovers her one-time "father" Peter Abernathy has been mistaken for a guest – a Union sympathizer one, no less! – and was taken captive. With some help from Bernard, she discovers that his mechanical mind has essentially been driven insane. You might remember that last season, Charlotte loaded him up with all the park's proprietary data in order to smuggle it out of the park. He's now suffering from information overload that causes him to bounce uncontrollably from personality to personality when he's not simply glitching out entirely.
For all the talk of finally being free to write her own narrative, Dolores hasn't been given much to do this season but act like Ultron or some other evil robot. That's what makes the rebel leader's tears as she attempts to comfort Peter – who our heroine can't help but think of as the loving father who raised her – so painful to watch. This is real to her – and Westworld challenges us to see it as real, too. It's the show's boldest and most sophisticated use of a host-to-host relationship since the early days of Season One, when entire scenes would depict conversations between two "people" who had no real self-awareness but seemed human to us anyway.
The problem, of course, is that these two sequences combined add up to about 15 minutes of an hour-long episode. The rest is par for the Westworld course.
The alliance between Dolores's entourage and the Confederados is an uneasy one, with Teddy in particular objecting to the Southern soldiers' brutality. But Our Lady of the Motherboards has had one eye on betrayal all along. She uses the boys in gray as a combination of bait and cannon fodder, sealing them outside the gates of the fort during an attack. Then Dolores guns them down en masse before blowing up the nitroglycerin mines beyond the walls and sending both Southern-fried bots and human attackers to kingdom come. It's a fitting enough end for a group of gunslingers who are essentially the Ku Klux Klan minus the sheets.
But the battle itself is lackadaisically staged by director Richard J. Lewis (a CSI veteran), with all the combatants displaying a strange lack of urgency; the big explosion itself is more smoke than fire. In a post-“Blackwater” world, it falls short as both action spectacle and war-is-hell horror. Dolores allowing her beau to free the outraged survivor Major Craddock and his men instead of executing them during the aftermath is the kind of "well, we're gonna need these characters later" decision that makes way more sense in the writers' room than on screen, too.
Maeve and company, meanwhile, literally head underground to escape Ghost Nation warriors, including one of the men who raided her village and separated from her daughter, as seared into her traumatic memories. There they discover some old friends: the annoying technicians Felix and Sylvester (an odd couple of cats, those two) and Armistice, the atomic-blonde bandit with the snake tattoo who used to run with Hector Escaton. But the blasé reactions of obnoxious narrative writer Sizemore, Maeve's prisoner, to everything his host companions do and say undercuts the drama at every turn. When he sees a fellow human run past while engulfed in flames, he reacts by just saying "Holy shit," like it's a particularly cool video game cutscene. He continues to challenge the realness of his captors' feelings for one another, too. The point is probably that he's a human chauvinist pig who cares about no one but himself, but in a way, his who-cares, fuck-you attitude undercuts that point. If he really wants to survive, wouldn't seeing the horrible ways in which other people are dying freak him out? And wouldn't he avoid deliberately goading the androids, whether or not their emotions are preprogrammed?
Westworld frustrates because it doesn't seem to recognize its own strengths. Hint: They don't lie in lines of clichéd dialogue like "We ain't so different, you and I," or in raga-fied instrumental cover versions of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" (as heard in the opening sequence, ugh), or in a predictable cliffhanger in which a samurai attacks Maeve's group when they arrive in Shogunworld. The whole point of the park it has the potential to be anything, but winds up being something awful, because that's human nature. That's rich territory to explore, but the show's still wandering in circles.
Previously: Back to the Future