Holster your six-shooters and hitch your horses: After a two-year hiatus, Westworld is back — only it’s barely recognizable as Westworld anymore. Taking last season’s scattered segments set outside the Delos corporation’s theme-park system and stretching them out to (almost) an entire episode, the sci-fi brain-teaser’s season premiere (“Parce Domine”) introduces its new main character: the real world. It’s part Black Mirror, part Battlestar Galactica, and, on the whole, a major improvement.
Our chief protagonist for the big comeback, however, is still Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood, clearly having a blast). Back in Westworld, she was the leader of the robot rebellion, an uprising so bloody that she earned the nickname “Deathbringer.” Now loose in humanity’s world, her agenda hasn’t substantially changed. The episode’s cold open shows her targeting and taking down a rich asshole who assaulted her during one of his vacations to the park. She knows both that he murdered his first wife (and is likely abusing his second) and that he possesses confidential information for another major tech company called Incite. Thanks to her ability to hack his smart house’s security system (and his own stupidity), he doesn’t outlast the encounter. No great loss.
Dolores has a bigger target in mind, however. That would be Liam Dempsey (John Gallagher Jr.), the son of Incite’s founder. He seems nice enough, and honest about the relatively small role he’s played in the success of his father’s company. But he’s got a love-hate relationship with its biggest innovation, an orb-shaped supercomputer named Rehoboam (Reddit sleuths, open your Bibles!). He has only superficial access to it, he discloses, and only the computer’s unnamed “original architect” knows precisely what it’s actually doing. Rehoboam’s exact powers are unclear, though we learn in bits and pieces that its algorithmic prediction engine has helped map out a better life for literally the entire planet. Well, kind of, anyway — God knows we’ve seen enough malcontents in the show’s first two seasons to know this brave new world isn’t for everyone.
At any rate, Dolores is dating Dempsey under an assumed name, and she’s on the verge of getting him to spill all his secrets when she’s jumped by Liam’s bodyguard/security guru. He’s sussed out her ruse. Unfortunately, he also thinks she’s human, which leaves him unprepared when she massacres all his men and replaces him with a robotic duplicate.
By comparison, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) is keeping a low profile. He’s on the run and undercover as “Armand Delgado,” a worker at a meat-processing plant somewhere in Asia. During his off hours he runs diagnostics on himself, trying to ensure that no one — especially not Dolores — has been tampering with his code.
But for the moment, he has more pressing problems. Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), the interim CEO of Delos (and secretly a host herself), has laid all the blame for the Westworld massacre at Bernard’s feet, making him the world’s most wanted man. When a pair of workers at the plant recognize him for who he is, he switches into battle mode and makes short work of them, then flees. His destination: Westworld. Home is where the hard drive is.
Into this volatile mix steps a new character, Caleb (played by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul). He’s a veteran of an unnamed conflict — in flashbacks we see him in action wearing both camouflage and civilian clothes, making his exact role unclear — who’s struggling to make ends meet in an algorithm-dominated job market. His mother is in a nursing home with dementia. His best friend is actually just a simulated voice on the other end of a phone; the real person died in combat, and the computer replica is part of a therapy program that isn’t doing Caleb much good. This ruse gets a big-reveal moment near the episode’s end … though if you didn’t see it coming, you haven’t been watching Westworld very closely.
In order to pick up some extra cash, Caleb uses a Tindr-for-crime app, one of the show’s more amusing futuristic innovations. (It’s the kind of thing Walt and Jesse would dream up.) After serving as a bagman-for-hire, he stumbles across a badly wounded Dolores, following her shootout with security goons. Will he teach her what it really means to be human? Or will she reveal he’s secretly a robot?
Written by series co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and directed by Nolan himself, this episode looks, feels, and even sounds (thanks to a tremendous synth score by composer Ramin Djawadi) like the slick Hollywood techno-thriller it actually is. It’s all flying cars, graphic violence, and Dolores riding a motorcycle in a red mini-dress.
The x-factor here is Paul, a welcome addition to the cast. We’re unlikely to hear his glum character holler “Science, bitch!” anytime soon, but that’s fine: The actor seems to get more soulful and sad-eyed as he ages, lending his sketched-out soldier-boy storyline more power than it might otherwise have at this early stage. He also helps add pathos some of the premiere’s funnier images, like his use of that crime app, or a meal break with a robot coworker that echoes the famous “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” photograph. Being funny on purpose has never been Westworld‘s strong suit; this is the kind of innovation even Caleb could get behind.
But there’s one last violent delight to be had once the closing credits finish rolling. In a stinger segment, we rejoin Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) as she wakes up in an unknown location, with only a 1940s hairstyle, a terrified German captive, and a fistful of bloody knuckles to clue her in. She peeks out the window, and sure enough, she’s in the middle of a Nazi occupation somewhere in Europe. Looks like it’s time to add WWII World to the list of in-poor-taste theme parks, and to cross the former saloon madam off the “deceased” list despite her apparent demise in last season’s finale. Given Maeve’s powers of technological telepathy over other hosts, the big question is less whether she’ll survive the Third Reich and more whether she’ll join Dolores’ war against humanity. Or maybe she’ll lead a robot resistance against it.