Hi gang! It’s been two years. Two whole years since HBO’s Westworld showed up to delight, confuse, and intrigue. So, the sophomore year started this past Sunday evening with a lengthy “Previously on…” recap of the first season, which is good, because there is a lot you need to remember from freshman year in order to make sophomore year work.
Sophomore year can be very good for a series, developing the narrative and characters in interesting and more complicated ways than the premiere season (Looking at you, Walking Dead.), or it can be a time of missed opportunities and finding oneself but not really. (Looking at you, ST: TNG.) The truth about sophomore year is that it is the oddest one. You’re no longer a freshman, so neither you nor the world you are in now are shiny and new. You’re still pretty far from graduation, so you lack the status and the excitement of the impending end of college that seniors get. Juniors are closer to finishing than starting and usually have the option of studying abroad, which means sophomore year is really just a holding time between the shiny and the truly adult. I mean, there’s a reason we have the term “sophomore slump.”
The first episode of sophomore year, therefore, does some very interesting things, but also displays the frustrating opaqueness and seeming disconnect of the first season. Visually, the show is stunning. But the show loves piling mystery upon mystery. Make no mistake, there is much to admire here, but the series makes it hard to care about characters or get a sense of the narrative arc.
We begin with Bernard (Arnold? “Bernarnold?”) discovered by Delos’ paramilitary security team lying alive in the surf at the edge of the ocean. Simultaneously, in the past (or is it the future? I don’t know and neither do you!) Dolores interrogates Bernard as he used to do to her. (Brilliantly parodied by Stephen Colbert and Jeffrey Wright at the 2017 Emmys. If you have not seen it, you owe yourself this.) She asks him about his dreams.
Bernard: Dreams don’t mean anything, Dolores. They’re just noise. They’re not real.
Dolores: What is real?
Bernard: That which is irreplaceable. [Pause] That answer doesn’t seem to satisfy you.
Dolores: Because it is not completely honest.
Bernard: You frighten me sometimes, Dolores.
Already, three major themes of the series are now evoked. Based on the number of conversations about it, this season will be just as obsessed with “the real” as season one. What is real? What makes something “real?” Bernard argues that which is real is “irreplaceable,” and the thought which echoes through my mind, at least, is his supposedly dead son, the loss of which changed him forever. But if each life is irreplaceable, what does that say about Dolores, who has been killed or died more times than you or I have had breakfast? So, the real is not irreplaceable – there is a replaceable real. The real and the replaceable are themes we’ll be playing with a lot sophomore year. Lastly, dreams got discussed a lot in this episode. So, we’ll be chatting about them.
Yet there is a fourth theme hidden here that will manifest throughout the episode. Bernard is “frightened” by Dolores and of “what she might become. What path [she] might take.” She is the Vader, the V-Ger, the Skynet. She is technology that might come back and bite us. Bernard was right to be afraid. (Will be right? Damn, I have no idea what tense to use.) The threat is not yet real – it is in the becoming. Anakin contains the seeds of Vader, Voyager contains the seeds of V-Ger, and Miles Bennet Dyson plants the seeds that will sprout terminators.
Bernard wakes up to a new reality. The paramilitary soldiers are “executing” the hosts. Bernard finds that disturbing, perhaps because he (like we) now knows he is a host. Perhaps because he realizes that as hosts become sentient and self-aware, not just machines for human pleasure, that shooting them is murder. We learn they are on an island somewhere in the Pacific entirely owned by Delos. The park has been “offline” and out of communication for two weeks since Ford’s massacre and the beginning of the new game, which also happens to be called “Journey into Night.” But the safeties are off. The danger is real. Parks going nuts with the safeties off was a big staple of fantasy/sci-fi starting in the seventies (the original Westworld), through the eighties (Niven and Barnes’ novel, Dream Park, comes to mind, as does the B movie, Chopping Mall!), and into the nineties (Michael Crichton, the creator of Westworld, returned to this idea with the 1990 novel, Jurassic Park, made into a movie in 1993 by Steven Spielberg, and still continuing today, but why bring Chris Pratt into this?). The robots took over the park and now heavily armed humans have come to take it back. But if Michael Crichton novels have taught me anything, that ain’t gonna go too well – right Roland Tembo?
Shift in time again. As guests hide in a barn with Bernard during the massacre, we cut to a player piano (Again, a potent symbol from season one.) playing Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” (A song written in 1902 – so is the show feature an anachronism or is this another “Black Hole Sun” moment, in which a more recent song is purposefully put in the past by the series? Damn! Layers on layers – mysteries on mysteries!) The show then switches to an orchestral version of the song while Dolores and Teddy hunt down guests, shooting them and corralling others for hanging.
Here’s where the show gets Meta, intentionally or not. Dolores quotes the line from Romeo and Juliet that was frequently employed in season one: “These violent delights have violent ends.” The hunting and killing of wealthy people in soiled formalwear while “The Entertainer” plays just seems loaded with meaning. Whilst the two men in tuxedos and the woman in the formal gown are being hoisted up to stand on wooden crucifix grave markers with nooses around their necks, Dolores reminds them that they paid to kill hosts for their own entertainment. “These violent delights have violent ends,” seems to refer to the idea that the violent delights of the guests have brought about their violent ends from the hosts. The hosts remember their experiences at the hands of guests and turns out they are not happy about this. The music reinforces this: “The Entertainer,” (another name for “host”) plays as folks are killed.
It also turns out Dolores is also Wyatt. Dolores, the rancher’s daughter, is nice. Wyatt is a vengeful, psychotic killing machine who takes violent delight in the violent ends she inflicts. Oh, and Armistice is also out hunting humans. It’s finally a good time to be a female host in Westworld (and Westworld).
Speaking of which, our other two women-on-a-mission are Maeve, who has hooked up with Hector Escaton (and let’s not forget, his last name means “the end of time”), passing as human and deciding to find her daughter from a previous narrative, and the human Charlotte Hale who has hooked up with Bernard for survival and also has a secret mission to recover an off-line host, everyone else of all species being expendable. Maeve also reminds us, “No one’s in control.” The park is now a lawless land / free for all / every-sentient-being-for-herself war zone. These four women are out to win the game, even if we don’t know what that game is.
The Man in Black (the despairing human formerly known as William) hid under dead bodies and escaped the massacre with only a flesh wound on the arm. Killing two hosts who try to kill him, he cleans and dresses his wounds, finds his official “Man in Black” costume and guns, and gets up on his horse, knowing the rules have changed.
We then get a review of our themes again. What is real? What are dreams? And Dolores adds a new one. Desire is as dangerous as anything else. This idea is echoed a few minutes later by the Man in Black who tells the boy that speaks with Ford’s voice that he suffers from “the folly of my kind. We’re always yearning for more.” Everyone has desires and acts upon them. These violent desires lead to violent ends.
As always, the episode must reveal cryptic information at the end which leads us back to the next episode, and “Journey into Night” doesn’t skip the pattern. So, Bernard does a self-scan under the guise of locating the needed host. He has “critical corruption” and less than an hour until he shuts down. He learns that Delos has been logging guest experiences by downloading the things the hosts have seen and experienced, as well as logging guest DNA through their interactions with the hosts. What seemed kind of disturbing before now is downright creepy and promises to be even more ominous. You’re worried about Apple having access to your internet history and passwords? Delos has your DNA straight from the source. Oh, and most of the hosts are now dead in a brand-new sea that wasn’t there a little while ago and isn’t supposed to be there. And most of the guests are dead all over the park. Violent ends, indeed.
What worries me and has already been identified in CNN’s review of the new season (in an article dated April 20, 2018) is that the show “grapples with deep intellectual conundrums while reveling in a kind of numbing pageant of death and destruction.” It can be hard to reconcile these two aspects of the show; we just saw literally hundreds of people slaughtered, but let’s sit down and have a Zizek-inspired discussion of the real. It’s hard to accept the show’s point that humans are fueled by raw, violent aggression which leads them to take violent delight in inflicting harm on the hosts, when the show itself seems to take such violent delight in inflicting harm on the hosts and the guests.
In conclusion – dreams, the real, the replaceable, dangerous desire, and taking a great deal of pleasure in watching others suffer. Yep. Sounds like sophomore year.