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Westworld turns things up a notch in “Phase Space”

This is the good, bad, and weird of the episode season two desperately needed.

Bernard and Elsie do some investigating.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“Phase Space” is just the episode this season of Westworld needed. It’s not without flaws, and there were still things that made me roll my eyes. But after the first half of the season alternated wildly between scenes that explored new corners of the series’ world in intriguing fashion and scenes that stalled for time, “Phase Space” was a kick in the ass to the narrative.

Where previous episodes of this season promised a story off over the horizon somewhere, “Phase Space” let a surprising number of characters attain the thing they had been chasing after all season long, which was even more surprising because there are four more episodes after this one.

Maeve found her daughter. Dolores turned the train into a weapon. The Man in Black and Emily had a heart to heart that ended the only way it could have (in her frustration and disappointment). And Bernard took a trip back through his memories to discover exactly the person you’d expect waiting there. There was even a guy with an amazing mustache! If this had been Westworld season two’s second episode, I would be much more excited about everything that’s to come.

But it was the sixth episode, which means it can’t quite make up for all the straining earlier in the season. Still, I don’t want to damn with faint praise — “Phase Space” was a whole lot of fun, and far more good than bad.

In fact, let’s quantify that statement: Here’s the good, bad, and weird of “Phase Space.”

Good: Dolores’s plot finally has some momentum (and some trains)

Dolores knows that you can’t get anywhere without practicing your scales and arpeggios.

Dolores has been stranded all season long in a storyline that seems devoted to giving her the chance to speak exclusively in monologues.

She and Teddy hooked up, and her brief meetup with Maeve suggested intriguing possibilities for how the show might contrast the two’s approach to attaining freedom and self-determination. But really, she’s been buried in a long string of scenes where she talked a lot and occasionally shot at people. No storyline has felt more like stalling for time than this one.

Until “Phase Space”! Now that she’s filled Teddy with a sense of purpose and drive (something that he seems pretty irritated about, since he was always a bit of a homebody), Team Dolores has hijacked the train that brings people to Sweetwater to begin their Westworld adventure and driven it straight into the heart of Westworld’s command center, where a bunch of the other characters are conveniently hanging out, trying to regain control of the park. There’s a fiery explosion, and everybody shudders like they were in an earthquake, and clearly Dolores is making her biggest strike against humanity yet.

If I were to quibble, I’d say that Dolores’s path was always going to carry her here, but I don’t think I’ll quibble. Of all the stories on the show, this is the one that most needed a shot in the arm, and as the various pieces of the episode began to add up to what Dolores was inevitably doing with that train, the last five minutes escaped the show’s weighty gravitational pull to become purely enjoyable on their own terms, instead of on the terms of what they might mean someday.

Who survives that crash? What’s the next phase in Dolores’s plan? Does Teddy turn on her after what she did to him? Just when is all of this happening in the series’ timeline (and especially in relation to what Bernard’s up to)? I’m finally interested in the answers to those questions! And all it took was blowing up a train!

Bad: the easiest-to-predict reveal yet, on a show full of easy-to-predict reveals

Okay, it’s kind of a stretch to put this under “bad,” because I won’t deny that I giggled a little bit when Anthony Hopkins turned up in Bernard’s extended journey into his memories of the (how distant?) past. The show didn’t feature him in the credits, and it did a solid job of making the last thing we saw Ford’s face reflected in that piano. Even my wife (who doesn’t watch the show and was watching something else entirely in another room) got briefly excited at the prospect of Ford being back.

But c’mon. It’s been pretty obvious all season long that Ford was going to be back at some point, and as soon as Bernard started journeying through a past where the Hosts weren’t rising up and the aspect ratio was all different, it seemed clear that he was going to find Ford there. It was perhaps the most predictable reveal on a show so full of predictable reveals that its viewers had unraveled most of season one’s twists by the second episode.

I’m not sure that this is worth holding against the episode, mind. Given how much Ford’s motivations have been on everybody’s thoughts all season long — and given how smartly the show found a way to have its “Ford’s back!” cake and eat its “But he’s still dead!” frosting too, by burying all of this in Bernard’s memory — there’s lots of room for the show to have wanted viewers to get there before Bernard did. But the reveal still loses a little something from just how easy it was to guess that Ford was still pulling strings somewhere. (Update: Some readers have quibbled with my characterization of the Cradle as being part of Bernard’s memories, but I mostly mean that his interpretation of it is informed by his memories. We’ll obviously be spending more time there, and hopefully, the show clarifies this further.)

Good: Emily is a solid thorn in William’s side

William and Emily have a little chat.

My favorite scene in the episode involved the Man in Black, which I can’t say I saw coming. Now that his daughter, Emily, has joined his little party (which, amusingly, seems to consist entirely of series regulars and characters who are just there to be gunned down), the two get to work out their family angst in front of everybody else.

William — the near-mythical “Man in Black” — has seemed so much like a force of nature throughout the series that it’s refreshing to see a character who can reduce him to tears simply by letting him know she’s caught on to his bullshit.

And the conversation between the two about when he brought her to the park as a child (and how he inaccurately remembers her reactions to the elephants in the Raj — he says she was scared when it was actually her mother who was) is filled with little moments that do more to fill in the gap between the earnest and almost sweet William who first arrived in Westworld all those years ago and the gun-toting killer he’s become.

Director Tarik Saleh shoots the whole scene at a bit of remove, the fire reflected in both characters’ eyes. (Actually, you could do a whole review on the use of fire throughout this episode and perhaps how it’s foreshadowing what’s to come in the conclusion.) These two people are wary around each other, but they’re still family. The more they feel each other out, the more Saleh’s camera closes in on them — and the more William feels free to let go of some of his tough facade and let the tears fill his eyes. Writer Carly Wray fills the scene with little details that suggest the connection between the two, without hammering it home. It’s all very elegant.

It’s almost enough to make me give up my theory that Emily is another Host-human hybrid. But not quite. Because, c’mon, she’s a Host-human hybrid.

Good: Maeve’s quest leads her to a darkly inevitable end

Maeve gets answers she maybe didn’t want.

I was initially a little disappointed that Maeve’s quest for her daughter simply led her back to the cabin from her memories. When she figured out where her daughter was in the season one finale, I assumed that her quest would take her through multiple parks on her way back to the girl — not just through one park and then right back into Westworld.

But this is far better, I realized. Maeve finding her daughter, only to realize that her daughter recognizes a different woman as her mother (because why would she recognize Maeve?), was the sort of dark twist on the heartwarming reunion the story required, and that Maeve drags the girl with her off and away from the cabin as it falls under attack by Ghost Nation means we’re in for at least an episode of the two at cross-purposes, as Maeve effectively kidnaps the girl she knows is hers.

Maeve’s story has been the most interested in a lot of the stuff that made me invest in season one, like questions about the nature of consciousness, or how innate our social roles are (versus how much we’ve learned them from others insisting on how we should behave). And the visit to Shogunworld in “Akane No Mai” was probably the best single storyline this season, with its winking nod to the link between Westerns and samurai films. This episode even features a one-on-one showdown in a dusty street — only this one is a swordfight, not a gun duel.

So having it all end up here, with this sort of gut punch twist, has made the season’s single most successful storyline find another level, right at the same time every other storyline has as well. Maeve might have found her daughter, but she can’t guarantee that her daughter will ever find her. It’s weirdly beautiful.

(It’s also enough to keep me from lamenting the fact that we won’t get much more Akane, as she stays behind with the burnt heart of Sakura rather than join Maeve’s quest. Note to HBO: Akane is great, and she can come back anytime.)

Bad: the Man in Black is still kinda the worst

At this point, I get it — nothing is more important to the Man in Black than figuring out Ford’s game or whatever. And on some level, I even understand it.

But goodness, when he tried to leave Emily behind in the dust, it felt like the show’s single-minded storytelling at its worst. Why go down this path, one that only illuminates everything we already know about the character? Why not have him and Emily end up detained via other means? Or why not dramatize the moment when he finally leaves, at the very least?

So much of what frustrates me about the Man in Black is driven by how the storytelling around him seems threadbare and intentionally lacking in focus. I can tell you exactly what all the other characters are chasing, but the Man in Black is chasing a hallucination too much of the time. That’s fine if the show is using it for dramatic irony (as it was in the scene he shared with Emily), but most of the time, the series seems to think we should be as fascinated as he is. I’m not yet, and it’s hard to see how I would be.

Weird: what’s up with Ghost Nation?

The series has placed so much emphasis on Ghost Nation this season while simultaneously leaving the tribe almost entirely on the back burner that it’s pinging my radar (and the radar of everybody else watching the show, admittedly).

What is Ghost Nation up to? What role do they play in the story? With every week that this reveal is pushed back, the more danger the show is in that the answers are halfhearted shrugs, but I want to believe this is all headed somewhere.

For right now, though, it’s another example of the show teasing things but not quite following through. “Phase Space” did a good enough job of following through on a bunch of different story points that I’m confident the series can with Ghost Nation too. But every week makes that a little harder to do.