Todd VanDerWerff: In terms of getting me excited about season two of Westworld, “Reunion” was far more successful than the second season premiere. It’s the first episode to establish how season two will be roughly structured — with every episode focusing on two members of our central foursome (in this case, Dolores and William take center stage, while both Bernard/Arnold and Maeve make only short appearances) and with those storylines teasing out interesting parallels and intersections between the characters.
It’s also just a compelling look at how both Dolores and William have changed in the decades since they first met, when she was a Host unaware of her reality (still being protected and somewhat coddled by Arnold) and he was a young businessman certain that whatever he was seeing in Westworld was what the rest of the world was going to become obsessed with. (Logan, for his part, will have none of it. He chuckled about how humanity is only too eager to invent the species that will violently displace it.)
Credit for the episode’s script goes to series co-creator Jonathan Nolan and Carly Wray, and it’s the latter name who interests me because her last gig was on our beloved Leftovers, where she co-wrote the final season episode “Certified,” which sat atop our list of the best TV episodes of 2017. And while I’d hesitate to extrapolate too much from the new writers Nolan and his co-showrunner Lisa Joy hired for season two, it’s interesting that the more character-centric approach Westworld is adopting this season isn’t all that far from how The Leftovers preferred to structure its own episodes.
That said, I’m also a sucker for every new thing we learn about the world of the show, and if nothing else, “Reunion” underlines that Westworld isn’t that far in the future. Indeed, the scenes with the young William (as Robert and Arnold seek funding) appear to take place within about 10 years of 2018 — if that. I never thought Westworld took place on Mars or anything more far-fetched like that, but knowing that it takes place in what amounts to a very slight extension of our own reality weirdly makes the show more compelling to me.
Anyway, Caroline, tell me if you agree with this very important critical thought I had: Evan Rachel Wood? More like Evan Rachel Good!
Does the Man in Black’s storyline have a point?
Caroline Framke: Wow, Todd. I daresay I’ve never seen such splendor.
“Reunion” does set up this season in a way that I might not have anticipated and am intrigued by, though the fact that we’re two solid hours into this season and it all still feels like setup keeps me from loving it. Anyway, as for the “Westworld was made possible in the very near future” reveal, I’ll give Ben Barnes credit for Logan’s equally dumbfounded, thrilled, and horrified reaction to realizing just how far AI had come without anyone else realizing it.
But for as much as a fantastic, creepy cameo from Giancarlo Esposito tried to get me invested in the Man in Black’s quest, to me, there are two threads “Reunion” introduces that could be especially fascinating going forward.
One is what exactly William and the Westworld investors were looking to do with their sadistic theme parks. Peter Mullan’s businessman (Mr. Delos himself!) scoffs that a Vegas-esque pleasure zone can’t possibly last too long, telling William in no uncertain terms that he has to come up with a better idea than that. What William then pitches him is startling, and a little annoying because I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. Westworld, William says, is a place where people let go of their inhibitions and do whatever the hell they want. What more could a company want than the unfiltered wants and desires of a potential client base?
Basically: Westworld is the data-mining gold mine that corporate dreams are made of. That is resonant to our world for obvious reasons, but it’s also smart on the show’s part to find and lay out a distinct purpose for Westworld’s nefarious higher-ups than a self-impressed, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could screw and/or murder whomever you wanted?”
The other thread belongs to that brief scene between Maeve and Dolores, which represents a crossroads. Maeve, determined to find her daughter, sees Dolores and sneers at her grandiose monologuing about liberty (which, same). Dolores, determined to bring down her oppressors, can’t understand why Maeve wouldn’t want to tap into “the revenge inside.”
Maeve wins this standoff by pointing out that if Dolores is fighting for freedom, then she’s got to let Maeve act of her own free will. But given Teddy’s wide-eyed horror at learning the truth and his pained eyes whenever Dolores commands he carry out some vicious order, I’d wager this isn’t the last we hear of an inter-host divide.
What are you thinking about these forks in the road, Todd? And is there something about this Man in Black crusade I’m just not getting, because Giancarlo help me, I don’t get it!
Todd: I enjoyed having Giancarlo Esposito drop by for a scene of portent and barely hinted-at horrors before he was killed off to return to his regular gig over on Better Call Saul. But I agree that the whole Man in Black story is kind of ... just there.
Or maybe not! I think we’re supposed to be wondering if this is all part of another level of Ford’s plan for the Hosts, if the Man in Black is on some sort of quest to either aid the Hosts in their goals or help preserve humanity from Dolores’s wrath. And I guess that’s all theoretically interesting on the level of, “Mightn’t Ford want to preserve himself as a kind of god?” level, but it feels like it doesn’t have its feet on the ground, when the rest of this season very much does have its feet on the ground.
Or maybe not! It’s probably also worth noting this episode brings in Arnold for a couple of short scenes at the very beginning, in which he introduces Dolores to our world and talks a bit about what drives him. And in these scenes, we also get a sense that the young Robert didn’t have much patience for Arnold’s weird artistic dreams, his hopes to create not just a perfect Host but a kind of perfect consciousness. Obviously, something changed between that flashback and the Robert we saw in season one, and I guess we’re going to be teasing that out more.
Or maybe not! Maybe the Man in Black’s quest is to find Robert. I can’t help but note that there’s a blank space in the opening credits that could very easily be filled with “and Anthony Hopkins,” even if it sure seems like he’s dead. This is a show that could very easily revive every single character, if it wanted to, which detracts from the stakes a bit but also has something to say about the consequences of our digital deaths and resurrections.
Or maybe not! For as much information as the stuff set in the past gave us about the reasons the Delos corporation invented what would ultimately become human obsolescence (which is eerily timely with all of the conversations we’re having about how the internet has broken us), the real thrust of the narrative isn’t about humans at all, but about the Hosts, and about the idea that corporations will always love to build their dystopias atop an endless supply of cheap or even slave labor. Dolores, awakened to this possibility, wants to get a weapon. Maeve just wants her daughter, even though she knows it’s a kind of false choice.
I keep contradicting myself in this section because Westworld, by design, contradicts itself. And with the Man in Black, in particular, I’d love a little of the forward momentum all the other characters have at this point. It feels like William had it in the past, but now he’s lost it.
Then again, maybe that’s the point.
What’s up with all the monologues anyway?
Caroline: Like you said about the premiere, even when season two is being mysterious and possibly two-faced, it at least has the added value of some real stakes on its side. Everyone has a clear goal; no one has a clear way of getting to it. It’s hardly the first time Westworld has felt like a video game, but I’m far more interested in getting to play these versions of the characters than last season’s flailing, sporadically insightful ones.
But it seems like hardly a Westworld discussion can go by without arriving at this classic Westworld divide. Is it cool and fun that there’s never any telling when we’re on firm ground or quicksand? Or is it all annoying to the point of distraction?
I’ll admit it: I’d be far less in the latter camp were it not for this show’s obsession with the aforementioned grand monologuing on a dime. Even if it’s not technically true, it sure seems like every single scene hinges on some character’s ability to take center stage and muse aloud about the World and Our Place in It.
#NotAllMonologues are bad. Our beloved Leftovers almost always found a way to weave its speechifying into the dialogue in a way that made sense; it surprised the hell out of me, for instance, when I realized that Nora’s series finale speech ran a stunning eight minutes. So in the right hands, that kind of speech can be electrifying.
But Westworld’s are so often circling the exact same subject matter from slightly different angles, one after another, for a solid hour. By the time we saw William bringing a naked Dolores back online to marvel that he ever had feelings for her, “a thing,” I could feel myself struggling to pay attention.
But hey, maybe I’m wrong to want something resembling human speech from, y’know, Westworld. What say you, Todd? Should Westworld focusing on its characters a bit more this season also mean a bit more personalization, or is that not really the point?
Todd: I think everybody in Westworld should talk in monologues all of the time. Okay, not really. I, too, find many of these speeches deeply enervating.
You bringing up the Leftovers monologue made me realize why, too: That speech is a story. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It builds. It moves, for lack of a better word. And the same is also true of, say, some of the great advertising pitches on Mad Men. But it’s not really true of many of the monologues on Westworld, which just sort of sit there, daring us to find them profound. And every so often, they are. But most of the time, I find myself wishing the show would just settle down and give us something.
Maybe that’s why, even in episodes I more or less enjoyed, like “Reunion,” I feel like I’m finding less there the more layers I pull back. Westworld has abandoned the mystery box this season, to its betterment. But it hasn’t abandoned being needlessly mysterious, to its detriment.