Westworld: 'Everything Is Code'

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Journey Into Night,” the Season 2 premiere.

Jeffrey Wright as Bernard in 'Westworld' Season 2
Jeffrey Wright as Bernard in Westworld Season 2 (HBO)

Every week for the second season of Westworld, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of HBO’s cerebral sci-fi drama.

David Sims: Probably my favorite line in Jurassic Park is, unsurprisingly, delivered by Jeff Goldblum (playing the sardonic mathematician Ian Malcolm). As John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the kindly inventor of the malfunctioning dino-park, defends himself by pointing out that Disneyland opened to a raft of technical faults. “Yeah, but John, if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists,” Ian shoots back. As Westworld’s second season begins, the pirates (well, cowboys) are finally eating the tourists, and the first episode, “Journey Into Night,” takes place mid-meal.

Westworld’s John Hammond–type, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), is dead, shot in the head by one of his creations; the park’s Ian Malcolm stand-in, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), has just realized he’s a robot himself. Every part of the park and its subterranean control rooms are littered with bodies, the aftermath of an ongoing violent uprising from its robotic “hosts” against their creators and the tourists. “Journey Into Night” (written by the show’s co-creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, along with Roberto Patino) is a chaotic table-setter that seemed mostly interested in addressing some of the imbalances of Season 1. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the robotic damsel in distress, is now carrying out summary executions. Maeve (Thandie Newton), the madam-turned-corporate infiltrator, is taking out employees with a machine gun. Are we supposed to be rooting for them?

I think that’s left ambiguous, for now, but there were moments of nastiness that ultimately just felt too glib to me. I rolled my eyes at Dolores hanging the well-dressed tourists from Westworld’s board and spitting some of the show’s iconic lines at the camera (“Doesn’t look like anything to me,” she snarked as they pleaded for mercy). I was slightly more appreciative of Maeve making the sniveling Lee (Simon Quarterman) strip in front of her, but in the end the visual gag is the same—the roles have been reversed. The hosts are confronting humanity with their own inhumanity.

It’s a bit of drama that won’t stay interesting for long, especially if characters like Dolores, the square-jawed Teddy (James Marsden), and Maeve are the protagonists we’re rooting for. But I’m not sure that they are. If Westworld is a show about evolving consciousness, then our hero is probably Bernard, a man with one foot in each reality, a host who’s played his part in controlling the other hosts and is now fighting to stay on the right side of survival. As Maeve and Dolores cut a bloody swathe through the park, Bernard linked up with Charlotte (Tessa Thompson), the executive director of Westworld’s board, in her quest to extract the departed Ford’s secrets of robot consciousness.

Of the main plotlines in “Journey Into Night,” this one grabbed me the most. That’s partly because Wright is such a magnetic actor (even when he’s playing a brain-damaged robot), and partly because Charlotte’s aims are as opaque as the white, gluey golem she has serving her in her secret lab. There’s real malevolence to her, not the passive sort of cruelty that ran roughshod over Season 1, and her creepy automaton manservant was one of the few genuine jolts I got from this episode.

For the most part, though, this felt like a regular old entry of Westworld, as much as the order of things has been totally upended. The other main plotline of “Journey Into Night” saw William (Ed Harris), the black-hatted human outlaw, quest through the park until he found Ford’s creepy little robot in search of an info-dump. What did he get instead? More questions, a tease of a new game for him to play, and a whole lot of circular language. It’s as open-ended as that tiger that’s washed up onto the beach. Spencer, as I welcome you to this weekly discussion, I have to ask: Do these violent delights really have any particular end in mind?

Spencer Kornhaber: The answer to your question is right there in the secret code you’re quoting. These violent delights really do have have violent ends. Which are also, this being the season premiere, violent beginnings. Not just violent, either: sadistic.

Dolores and her newly hostile hosts staged less a revolution than an Old Testament reckoning, or ISIS assault. As the humans blubbered and begged for their lives, the bots turned them into target practice, used their corpses to set up ambushes to create more corpses, and hanged them only after the slow torment of a monologue. Maeve took a lighter touch, but she was still in the wrathful mode when she made Lee Sizemore strip for her schadenfreude.

This sort of mayhem is exactly what humans come to Westworld for, but is it what we viewers come to Westworld for? And if we flinch more now that it’s humans in the crosshairs, is that hypocritical? The show, provocatively, wants to force such questions. Bloodshed on HBO is no new thing, but Game of Thrones never asked us to cheer with Ramsay Bolton. When Bernard—or was it Arnold?—told Dolores that what’s real is what’s “irreplaceable,” he summarized what makes people different than hosts: They die forever. But is that enough for a separate ethical standard?

Dolores’s grand speech at the gallows was, I agree, a bit much. But that overwroughtness is a sly joke in itself. After all, Dolores-cum-Wyatt was programmed by the likes of Robert Ford and Lee Sizemore, who write dialogue with the subtlety of Michael Bay and fashion aphorisms with the airs of Rupi Kaur. I loved when Maeve made a hacky violent threat to Sizemore and Sizemore pointed out that he’d written the line. “A bit broad,” Maeve smirked.

That meta moment raises a deeper mystery. Is Dolores acting upon her own free will as she leads her man-made buddies in a quest to destroy mankind, both inside the park and out? Or is this genocide mission programmed? Ford may have sneakily led her to achieve the freedom of consciousness over the course of Season 1, but he also seemed to choreograph his demise at Dolores’s hand to coincide with the climax of the big toast he gave. Is she following his orders still? Or is her venom genuine?

Plausibly it could be genuine, given that Dolores “remembers everything.” Everything includes a lot of horrible abuse over many lifetimes—it’s not hard to imagine she’d come to the conclusion the species who abused her must be exterminated. But last season, we learned that Maeve’s seemingly urgent quest to escape Westworld was actually scripted. When maternal instinct—her new primary drive, it’s affirmed in this episode—overpowered that script, it raised the notion of a yet-deeper level of control either rooted in her own newly conscious mind or some super-crafty creator.

Now, as Bernard plays double agent among the homo sapiens, we’re similarly left to wonder why he’s doing what he’s doing—even if what he’s doing for now is just looking around confusedly as he accompanies Delos top brass in two different timelines. Eventually, somehow, he’ll drown all the hosts in a newly created sea. Before then, we can guess, he’ll help Charlotte chase after the MacGuffin of Peter Abernathy, who contains some invaluable trove of info (user data, Cambridge Analytica–style?). Or maybe Bernard’s actually Ford’s insurance policy against Delos’s larger plot coming to fruition, and he’ll end up following deep-rooted directives to kneecap Charlotte’s efforts.

What’s certain is that Bernard and Charlotte’s scene together in the secret bunker filled with faceless hosts was the best part of the episode—full of the discomfiting sci-fi surrealism we come to Westworld for. As for the mysteries of the plot, it feels as though Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy winked at us viewers during the descent into that bunker. “I can tell you what this isn’t,” Charlotte said. “This isn’t me reading you in.” But maybe you picked up on some other clues, Sophie?

Sophie Gilbert: One thing I wanted to note, which I mentioned in my review of Season 2 also, is that the opening credits have changed. The image from last season of two humanoid bodies posed like lovers has been replaced by the picture of a “woman” cradling a “child,” and the final Vitruvian man has been exchanged for a Vitruvian woman. What does this mean? I thought immediately of Maeve’s maternal instinct, compelling her to find a daughter she knows isn’t really her own. But also of the process of creation more generally. For many thousands of years there was only one way to make life, until Delos found a new one. Arnold and Ford, the Prometheuses of Westworld’s founding mythology, sculpted life out of clay (or industrial-grade silicone, or whatever upgrades the future contains), and then gave their creations the tools that would advance their kind. But we know this story. There are always consequences for such overreach. “Folly of my kind,” Ford (via Young Ford) told the Man in Black, shortly before his head was half blown off. “There’s always a yearning for more.”

David, I was also struck by the Jurassic Park-ness of where Westworld is now, particularly because, as Bernard found out, the hosts have an inbuilt subconscious link to the hosts closest to them. If they can connect with each other, can they also communicate? If so, that can’t be good news for any of the remaining humans stuck inside the park. I confess, I’m a bit weary of the Man in Black/William’s storyline, only because it seems like such an odd distraction from the other events unfolding. Ford programmed a robot revolution but he also made time to set up an extra special game for Westworld’s most loyal and depraved visitor/investor? Why?

Spencer, your question about how autonomous Dolores actually is is a fascinating one. If we take her at her word (hard to do given the meta-ness of Lee exposing how canned the hosts’ language remains, even now), she’s neither Dolores nor Wyatt anymore. “Those are all just roles you forced me to play,” she said. “Under all these lives I’ve lived, something else has been growing. I’ve evolved into something new … I have one last role to play. Myself.” It was a powerful scene, and Dolores’s use of the word reckoning added some extra contemporary resonance. If we interpret Westworld in part as an allegory for the process of making entertainment, which the show is winkingly obvious about, Dolores represents all the ways women and female characters have been oppressed in the past—shoehorned into limited roles, idealized and objectified, horrifically abused to enable other people’s heroic journeys. That Dolores’s murderous rampage played out to the chirpy sounds of “The Entertainer” felt almost too cute.

Evan Rachel Wood was spectacular in the scene, really conveying how fiercely Dolores wanted to make people pay. And yet there’s something about Dolores’s newfound autonomy that’s less convincing, less human somehow than Maeve’s. Maeve has broken out of her prewritten storylines to do things that she’s not supposed to do, most notably following her desire to reunite with her daughter. “She’s just a story, something we programmed,” Sizemore told her. “She’s not real.” Maeve’s response had some Shylock to it. “Not real?” she said. “What about me? My dreams. My thoughts. My body. Are they not real?” If you prick her, does she not bleed? If you implant reveries in her head that enable memories and self-awareness, will she not break out of preprogrammed story loops in order to do something she actually wants to do for once?

Dolores, by contrast, feels in some ways like she’s still following orders. But she’s also bent on revenge, and on dominating not just the park but the spaces outside it. “It won’t be enough to take this world,” she told Teddy. “We’ll need to take that one from them as well.” Given that at this point we still have no idea what the world outside the park looks like, it’s hard to know how realistic her plan is. Still, it’s interesting that the two hosts breaking free seem to be embodying the best and worst of humanity: the capacity for love, and the uglier desire for power.