Westworld: What's in 'The Valley Beyond'?

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Reunion,” the second episode of Season 2.

Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores

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

Spencer Kornhaber: “Up until this point, the stakes in this place haven’t been real,” the Man in Black says to his dim sidekick, and his observation applies to Westworld as much as to Westworld. For the most part, intellectual curiosity rather than emotional investment has been viewers’ primary drive. We on the couch may have sympathized with the hosts, but it’s hard to feel that lives that can be rebooted are in dire need of protecting. The human characters have generally been so oafish (Lee Sizemore) or so inscrutable (Robert Ford) that it’s tough to care much about their fates. Season 1’s battle between Ford and Delos over who really controlled the park just pitted one kind of creep versus another.

Yet tonight’s refreshingly informational episode widened the show’s scope, and with it, the reasons to become obsessed. Westworld, we learned, exists in a world resembling our own—somewhere near a coastal metropolis (more fodder for the theory that the park is in the South China Sea?), and some time probably not too distantly in the future (are we not currently at the investment stage of “AI, AR, VR”?). The project is mysteriously tied in with, per Logan Delos (Ben Barnes), the health of our “species,” and Dolores has sought out a “weapon” to destroy us all. So in a way, we’re now in a Marvel movie: Humankind itself hangs in the balance!

As important, though, is the tingly new sensation that there may be three-dimensional characters to emerge from the crop of off-their-script hosts. The encounter between Maeve’s and Dolores’s crews neatly illustrated that the newly conscious robots will differ on philosophy, motivation, and technique just as we humans do. “Revenge is just a different prayer at their altar,” Maeve said, nicely deflating Dolores’s amateur-thespian Beatrix Kiddo shtick. But I’m intrigued by the host on the sidelines, Teddy. When he roughed up a lab tech and took off his own hat, it raised the possibility that the sweetest and most killable of the hosts could break bad, mirroring William’s journey from noob to Man in Black.

Speaking of breaking bad, Gus Fring—er, Giancarlo Esposito—is here,  playing the recast version of El Lazo, the revolutionary once inhabited by the host known as Lawrence. He informed William that Ford’s custom-tailored adventure is a one-player game, but he also offered a glimpse of the very human existential crises that afflict even robots who are still stuck in their scripts. That his grand rebellion’s success left him emotionally unfulfilled speaks, after all, to the paradox best described by philosopher Miley Cyrus in “The Climb.” When he imparted his “childhood” “memory” about circus elephants, it appeared to answer why so many hosts have continued their narratives even after Ford’s big rules overhaul. They simply haven’t realized they could be doing something else.

The irony is that the Man in Black has surrendered his human agency and locked himself into a story written by Ford, apparently for the Man in Black alone. His metaphorical status as a video gamer has never been clearer, with him “cheating” by grabbing a goody from a hidden stash. His speech to Lawrence in the tavern was certainly as tedious as most RPG cut scenes are. Sure, it’s curiosity-making that he wants to “appeal the verdict” (Dolores’s judgment against mankind?) and burn the place down. But viewers, by now, already understand that the park attracted visitors to “sin in peace.” They also know that Delos was secretly watching, a point lavished with yet-greater-ominousness by the flashbacks to young William and his father-in-law. Westworld writers, break out of your loops!

The show really does feel held back by such bloat and bad dialogue, even as it digs into a meatier story. Logan’s lines in the flashback to the investor pitch were unforgivably generic in their jerkishness (Warhols on the ceiling, etc.), and the show doubled-down on its laziness by hinting him to be an evil bisexual (“I’ll show you where I hung the Rothko,” he said, coyly, to his drinking buddy). Still, it’s hard to be cynical about the wonderment he felt upon realizing he was at a lively cocktail party staffed entirely by robots. This is what Westworld needs more of: scenes that make us ask whether we’ve ever seen something so full of splendor, rather than making us check our phones during yet another monologue about human folly. Are you feeling as of two minds as I am, Sophie?

Sophie Gilbert: A little. Is it just me or are the scenes within Westworld not that compelling anymore? I was much more into the jumps outside the park, which, as you mentioned Spencer, alluded to its location. (If Westworld’s on an island, which the premiere seemed to reveal, that only makes the Jurassic Park parallels stronger.) The flashback in which William and his father-in-law visited the park also confirmed, as you noted, that Westworld isn’t just raking in cash from admission fees and souvenirs: It’s also a giant data-collection service. “This is the only place in the world where you get to see people for who they really are,” William told James Delos (played by the Scottish actor Peter Mullan). “And if you don’t see the business in that, then you’re not the businessman I thought you were.”

In other words, Westworld gratifies the darkest fantasies of the park’s visitors and then uses their information to … do something bad, probably. This is a tech company we’re talking about! I personally enjoyed the show’s take on Silicon Valley excess, if only because Logan seemed momentarily thrown by the large-scale Turing test that doubled as an investor pitch. “Nobody can do this,” he stuttered, seeming almost angry. “We’re not here yet.” But Westworld is. Logan’s robot orgy with Angela and some other hosts seemed to cheer him up, at least. (There’s something delightfully extra about a show that explores the dystopian nightmare of unfettered technological progress also starring Elon Musk’s ex-wife.)

There was something thrilling in seeing the earliest phases of Westworld as a business, and also experiencing the world outside the park for the first time, both for the audience and for Dolores. Was it the investor pitch that Arnold deemed her “not ready” for, in his brief conversation with CGI Young Ford? Did he want to protect her, even at that point, from Logan and his entitlement-bros? Flash forward to however many years later and Dolores was back, as thrilled by the unfamiliar city as ever, while Logan seemed to be sinking into addiction and bitter resentment that his brother-in-law had usurped his business empire.

More depressing, though, was seeing once-sweet William become his sadistic future self, with Jimmi Simpson portraying the character’s awfulness for the first time. Not only did he specifically bring Dolores to the real-world party celebrating his “coronation” as the new head of Delos (putting her in front of his wife and daughter), he proceeded to strip her naked and then berate her for failing to sufficiently redeem him. “You really are just a thing,” he told her, nastily. “I can’t believe I fell in love with you.” What saved him, he went on, was realizing that Dolores wasn’t a person but a “reflection,” a device in which William could discover things about himself for the first time.

Robot, meet toxic masculinity. I still don’t fully understand (and maybe am not supposed to) what it is about Dolores that turned William into such a monster. That she couldn’t love him back? That her memory reset every time he abused her? That her language function in these early stages seems fatally limited to platitudes about stars and splendor? But there’s something fascinating in how “Reunion,” by stepping outside the park, was able to comment more explicitly on contemporary questions about morality when it comes to technology. By contrast, I just couldn’t get that excited about the characters in Westworld, still set on their various missions, even if we did get to see Maeve and Dolores face off for the first time in a while. I’m intrigued by what “the valley beyond” might be, though. What do you think, David? Was this episode more of a destination or a weapon?

David Sims: If anything, this episode felt like a necessary if routine stop at the gas station on the road to something more exciting. The flashback-heavy worldbuilding had the hint of fan service, but in centering the episode on William and his turn from white-hatted hero to black-hatted nihilist, “Reunion” turned what could have been a boring infodump into something a little more oblique. You ask just what turned William into a monster, Sophie? Nothing, really, except for his own vanity, his own revulsion at realizing he’s not the hero of any story in particular. The crux of his humiliation at the end of last season was that at the end of his long quest to rescue Dolores, she didn’t even recognize him, having returned to her original loop.

William is smart enough to know that was just part of her programming, but as his older self told Dolores in the first-season finale, she helped him “find himself” by unconsciously rejecting him. In referring to her as a mirror, William is being quite unintentionally revealing, because that’s almost what his younger self wanted from Dolores—someone to help him bask in his own glory. Instead, he just got a view of himself at his neediest, and it was enough to harden his heart. Last season I wrote about Westworld as a metaphor for video gaming, and William is the Gamergater at the heart of that allegory, a man desperate to beat every corner of the game and bend it to his will, to prove his dominance by becoming lord of a virtual domain.

This fantasy recurs throughout the episode, and throughout the show in general. It’s one that appeals to the dunderheaded Logan Delos, as he sees how all the robotic hosts around him can freeze at a moment’s notice, and be arranged however he might like. It’s even one that’s enticing to Dolores as she rampages through the park with her zombie host army, running roughshod over Ford’s old storylines and violently pressing the Delos staff into service. But it’s inherently limited and empty—like you say, Sophie, every triumph in the park now feels particularly faded, even when it’s at the hands of the hosts.

The new “game” Ford has designed for old William, titled “The Door,” seems to be an experience designed to remind him of this pointlessness. How else to interpret that circular conversation with El Lazo (which, let’s not forget, is Spanish for “lasso,” or loop) and the image of all of his henchmen shooting themselves and falling into a perfect circle around him. Stop trying to think of this game as something to conquer, Ford is saying—you’ll only keep turning in circles. William’s response, of course, is a brusque “fuck you,” followed by pumping Giancarlo Esposito’s body full of bullets.

Surely that’s why this episode opened with Dolores, who in her childish innocence saw a city of skyscrapers as a world of stars strewn on the ground. Arnold, bewitched by her optimistic view of things, saw her as a necessary step in human evolution, a concept Ford eventually seems to have come around to. William, in convincing his grumpy father-in-law to invest more in Westworld, sees Dolores and her fellow hosts as a chance for leverage, for surveillance, for intelligence-gathering and moneymaking. It’s a life cycle that exists for so many real world inventions, so many supposed great leaps forward. The stakes in this season of Westworld seem to rest on whether William’s bleak vision will be allowed to endure, or whether Dolores (or someone else) will start to strike that down.