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Westworld’s “Virtù e Fortuna” takes a thrilling detour and lets women reign

A glimpse of a new park opens up new possibilities in season two’s most intriguing episode yet.

This picture of Bernard and Dolores is not a picture of a tiger, and therefore is a disappointment.
HBO

Caroline Framke: Now this is more like it.

“Virtù e Fortuna” feels like the explosive jump-start that I was waiting for from season two of Westworld — or, at the very least, it finally feels like Westworld wants to give us something different.

That much is immediately clear from that 10-minute cold open, which brings us to a whole new park of high teas and jungle safaris that I shall henceforth refer to as “Colonialismworld.” (I’ll grant you that this isn’t nearly as catchy as “Westworld,” but I call ’em like I see ’em.)

At first, everything seems in order. A cocky British man and a cocky American woman bond over their mutual hotness and disdain for the little people before retreating indoors to tear each other’s clothes off. Once they have privacy, however, the woman (Grace) decides she wants to make sure that this man is, indeed, a human man — and shoots him point blank with something that, if he is human, will “only sting a bit.”

Luckily for him, he passes the test and the two embark on an intimate safari journey together, each straddling their own elephant while flanked by multiple Indian hosts. But once they get to their camp, Grace notices that the usual hosts aren’t there to greet and cook for them (the nerve!).

And lo, the inevitable other shoe drops.

Grace’s once-trusty guide turns on them, killing the Brit before she manages to shoot him in the face and tear away into the jungle beyond. That’s where things truly get sticky, as she gasps for air and finds herself face to face with a snarling tiger.

A TIGER. Look, I know other things happened in this episode. (Maeve links up with Armistice! Dolores/Wyatt finds her father! Teddy kinda maybe cracks!) But as far as I’m concerned, there is just no beating the sheer drama of a goddamn tiger chasing someone off a cliff before a smash to credits.

Not only was it stressful in a way that Westworld rarely achieves (it’s hard to care about death when death is so easily reversed), but it was just so unexpected that I couldn’t help but love it. Getting even just a glimpse at Colonialismworld managed to reignite my long-dormant interest in the human side of this equation; the people who choose that park are likely looking for a much different experience than those who lose themselves in Westworld.

Then again, I reserve the right to arch a skeptical eyebrow in this storyline’s direction in the future because the tail end of the episode shows the running woman washing up on the shore of Westworld at the feet of leering Native Americans — a population that the show has barely shown an interest in developing beyond their ability to scare the shit out of human guests and cowboy hosts alike.

But as Westworld gets more and more space to play out scenarios — and it should, given its recent renewal for a third season — I’m all for it taking these kinds of detours. What say you, Todd? Was this episode as solid as I thought it was? Or was I just thrilled about the Man in Black disappearing and/or distracted by the tiger?

This episode features a fascinating juxtaposition of a park based on colonialism and Westworld’s antagonistic relationship with Native Americans

Todd VanDerWerff: Well, Caroline, you’ve worked with me long enough to know that there are two things I love in this world: cold opens that exist primarily to serve world-building, character-building, or theme-building purposes rather than set up the story to come; and tigers.

Which is to say that, yes, for as much as I enjoyed this episode, I enjoyed the cold open even more. I loved our two humans warily circling each other to try to determine if one was a Host. I loved the tiger. I loved that the sequence starred new series regular Katja Herbers, of my late, lamented Manhattan.

But is it wrong that these might be the first human characters on Westworld I’ve truly connected with in ... maybe ever? I mean, I guess I like William well enough, but the staff of Westworld/Delos is kind of interchangeable. I suppose that’s the point on a show like this — those who will replace us are so much more interesting than we could ever be because we are lazy in our position of privilege — but it took seeing these two to realize how much I’d been missing the feeling that the struggle between man and machine was at all a fight where both sides had something to offer.

There’s also something interesting here about how Grace goes from a section of the park based on British colonial rule of India to … being captured by Hosts designed to look like Native Americans once she swims over to Westworld. (Native Americans, of course, were dubbed for years “American Indians.”) Both Indians and Native Americans were subject to colonialist oppression, and even mass genocide in the case of the latter, and there’s something pointed in the way Westworld draws a link between them and then between them and the Hosts.

The idea that maybe the rich people of the near future just want to hang out in colonial-era India, secure in their power and privilege, while listening to a sitar version of “Seven Nation Army,” well, that’s almost a more powerful expression of what the show is trying to say about oppression and cycles of violence and so on than any of the long monologues it’s offered about the same.

The same goes for the way that Maeve’s group is instantly afraid of the Ghost Nation tribespeople. Yes, there are reasons (including Maeve’s flashback to her previous life), but there’s also an element of reading hostility into the tribe.

Then again, isn’t that what the Ghost Nation is literally programmed to do? I’m not always sure about how Westworld is using archetypes and stereotypes that have grown up around racial and gender roles in our storytelling. Sometimes the show handles these ideas gracefully. And sometimes it seems like it’s aware these things exist but isn’t quite sure how to navigate them and still tell an entertaining story without being needlessly exploitative.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking, during some of these scenes that the show is saying something about how when society breaks down into groups who have certain degrees of privilege and those who do not, that it can be very hard to fight against the stereotypes thrust upon you — all the more so when you have literal programming running through your circuits, telling you to behave like a scary, hostile Native American warrior straight out of a Western.

And that same battle between programmed role and desire for true individual freedom goes for the show’s women, which is something I know you have plenty to say about, Caroline, so I’ll toss it back to you.

Who run the (West)world? Women Hosts.

HBO gave us zero photos of the tiger, so these beautiful people will have to do.
HBO

Caroline: It’s honestly pretty astonishing that I don’t describe my area of expertise as just, “LADIES, amirite?”

As far as Westworld is concerned this season, women are running the show — or, more specifically, the women Hosts. Maeve has enlisted several men in her mission to find her daughter and is leading the way with laser focus. Dolores is fashioning herself into the leader of a revolution, come hell or high water or total annihilation. Angela, once Westworld’s token hot host greeter, has reemerged this season as a sneering angel of death, complete with a bloody crown of thorns. Even peroxide-blonde bandit Armistice is back, and this time, she’s got a goddamn fire thrower.

After the season premiere, I said it felt like Westworld was actively reckoning with its own reception, especially as Maeve and Dolores rolled their eyes and took control from the men who once subjugated them. The show seemed to acknowledge the criticism that it once luxuriated in brutality against women by turning that dynamic on its head completely, letting Dolores and Maeve wreak their revenge in ways both psychological (Maeve commanding Westworld’s story writer to strip) and bloody (Dolores comma always).

This reversal is what I like to call a “Game of Thrones season six.” HBO’s other labyrinthine drama got a world of grief for its grim fifth season; I had to step away, that’s how exhausted I was by watching woman after woman go through trauma after trauma. But when it came back for season 6, Game of Thrones flipped the script on itself and lifted just about every woman who had been bruised into a position of incredible power. Did I always believe it? Nah. Did I love it? Of course.

Now, we’re only three episodes into this season, but “Virtù e Fortuna” confirms to me that Westworld might be trying to pull something similar here. Sure, Maeve is finding power in the embrace of motherhood, and Dolores only found hers when her personality was merged with that of a swaggering male villain. But both are undeniably becoming, as Dolores intoned in the premiere, less of what was originally scripted for them and more of themselves, whatever that may come to mean. Do I always believe it? Nah. Am I excited for it? Much to my own surprise, hell yes.

I think something that helps me get invested in Dolores and Maeve’s arcs specifically here is that “Virtù e Fortuna” affords each a moment to grapple with their own trauma in a way the show has rarely made room for in the past.

Maeve needs to take a moment to collect herself when their escape from the Native Americans reminds her of a storyline gone horribly wrong. Dolores, faced with the broken shell of her father, reverts back into rancher’s daughter mode in order to comfort him. And when he’s re-kidnapped, she makes it clear that while she’s determined to bring down the human order, she’s also determined to save the only family she’s got. (Not for nothing, Evan Rachel Wood is truly astonishing in that scene, as is Louis Herthum as a glitching Abernathy.)

Are you convinced by these triumphant “I am woman, hear me roar” second stages, Todd? And what’s up with Abernathy being some kind of key, anyway?

Todd: The Abernathy thing seems like an easy answer to me: Herthum turned out to be a much, much better actor than anybody quite expected, so they found a way to keep bringing him back, again and again. And I, for one, am all for it.

In the sense of the show pivoting to be more about its women, this also might have a resonance with the Grace-centric cold open. Really, the characters the show codes as fundamentally unknowable and mysterious and ultimately dangerous are all white men, usually humans. (Ask me later how Teddy plays into this dynamic, because I haven’t quite made up my mind yet.) Thus, Grace is the character we latch onto, while her British lover is the maybe-robot who winds up dead.

I posited before the season began that Westworld is trying to tell some sort of massive story about the nature of every oppressive society ever. That’s, of course, an impossible task for any one TV show — especially one as vague and elliptical as this one — but there are moments, like the meeting between Dolores and Maeve in last week’s episode, or Grace running away from the tiger, or Dolores’s discussion with her father this week, where it comes so close to telling that story on its own terms that I can’t help but keep watching, in hopes it will somehow clear the bar it’s set stratospherically high for itself.

But I think the show has also gotten better at lacing its philosophy with action this season. When Dolores emerged from the fort to start gunning down the forces of Delos, it was a hugely exciting moment, and I’m impressed with how good the show has gotten at turning on a dime to show violence as catharsis or slaughter, depending on whose perspective you take. That violence is always both is something not every TV show understands but Westworld does.

Or, put another way, sometimes you’re the tiger, and sometimes, you’re the person the tiger chases. The more the show circles the idea that it makes just as much sense to run as it does to pursue, the better it gets.

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