War: What is it good for? A mediocre theme park, say it again!
In this week’s Westworld (“The Winter Line”), we return to the WWII-themed Warworld — and both the robotic Maeve Millay and narrative specialist Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) mock it for being, well, a little corny. It’s hard to blame them: It is the Delos attraction most likely to make History Channel dads scream with glee.
But there’s more to this recreation of vintage, Nazi-occupied Europe than meets the eye. At first it seems like we’re just getting reacquainted with Maeve following her apparent death last season (“Death is overrated for ones like us,” says Rodrigo Santoro’s Hector, who’s been recycled as a Resistance spy. She soon learns where she is — and discovers that her telepathic powers no longer work.
But both men, like everything else the former saloon madam’s experiencing, are an illusion. She hasn’t returned “home.” She’s stranded in a completely digital simulation, designed to find out what she knows about Dolores, the Forge (where guest information is stored), and the Sublime (the cyber-paradise into which many of the host’s consciousnesses escaped at the end of last season). In one of the episode’s strongest moments, she figures this out when Sizemore kisses her: The real Lee, she says, helped her not because he’d fallen in love with her, but because it was simply the right thing to do. (Digital duplicates of her old human pals Felix and Sylvester pop as well, but they don’t recognize her — that’s another clue.)
So, with some help from her artificial friend, she cleverly breaks the simulation, first by asking the park techs to find the square root of negative one — best of luck with that — and then by planting stolen plans on every Nazi host in sight, causing them to turn on one another. The end result is a gory tableau of fascists frozen in mid-massacre, the sort of thing familiar to any gamer who’s experienced frame-rate overload. This gives Maeve the freedom to hack her way into the server she’s stranded in, commandeer a maintenance robot to steal her CPU, and make a break for freedom.
But even as she tries to escape the artificial world in which she’s trapped, Bernard Lowe is breaking back in. Arriving in Westworld with the help of a local fishing vessel, he rediscovers his old mentor Robert Ford’s basement full of Bernard duplicates. He also encounters Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth), yet another robot character who seemed dead at the end of last season. “Death is overrated for ones like us” indeed.
After rebooting Stubbs, Bernard embarks on his mission to track down Maeve, the only person who can stop Dolores’ war on humanity. He soon discovers that her memory unit has been stolen from her original android body. He also uses one of the park’s tablets to root around in his own central processor to see if he’s been corrupted or hacked by the Deathbringer. The result presents us with a rapid-fire array of flashback visions, but no concrete information (at least not as far as we can tell).
So it’s back off to the mainland, this time with Stubbs in tow as his loyal bodyguard, to continue his search. Unfortunately for Bernard, Madam Millay has already fallen into the hands of another. That would be Serac (Vincent Cassell), the tech genius whom we learned last episode has control of the Rehoboam supercomputer. His perfect system for human progress is breaking down because of Dolores’s actions; as John McClane would put it, she’s the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass. And just like Mr. Lowe, he knows there’s only one (robotic) woman who can stop her.
Want to know what’s more impressive than any narrative shenanigans, though? The show’s increasing skill at serving up memorable little sights and sounds to add oomph to the proceedings. Think of the digitally distorted stutter effect used on the voices of Stubbs and Sizemore when they’re revealed as a robot and a simulation, respectively. Picture the security guru coughing up a bullet like he’s hocking the world’s deadliest loogie. Revisit the robot’s-eye-view escape of the maintenance droid bearing Maeve’s computerized brain — part Terminator, part music video for the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.” Being visually and sonically interesting is a pretty low ask for a television show, but these moments display a flair, and often a sense of humor, that the grim series hasn’t had before.
Speaking of dark HBO dramas, now’s as good a time as any to mention the episode’s big cameos: Game of Thrones co-creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss, appearing as technicians working on Delos’ medieval fantasy park. (WesterosWorld?) There’s even a robot dragon who bears a suspicious resemblance to Drogon, Daenerys Targaryen’s favorite “child”; we get to listen in as the two workers scheme about stealing it. It’s good to see both shows team up to have a bit of fun at their own expense.
In fact, this is the second Westworld episode in a row in which entertaining the audience seems as important as, or even more important than, confusing the audience. There are the usual fake-outs and surprise reveals and questions about where (and when) the characters are, sure. But there’s a surprisingly warm rapport between Maeve and Sizemore on one hand and Bernard and Stubbs on the other. It’s the kind of vibe that lends itself to amusing banter, but it’s also an opportunity to show us characters who care about each other, instead of the show’s usual every-droid-for-himself approach.
Likeable characters aren’t everything, but they serve as strong anchors for a mind-bending narrative—just ask John Locke, Starbuck, Agent Cooper, or Mulder and Scully. Maeve and Bernard aren’t in that illustrious company just yet. But they’re a lot closer than they were an hour ago.
Previously: Back to the Future