Westworld: Ride the Tiger

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Virtù e Fortuna,” the third episode of Season 2.

Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden in 'Westworld'

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

Spencer Kornhaber: Samurais, tigers, and flamethrowers, oh my! Freeze-frame on Bernard’s tablet as he diagnoses Peter Abernathy, and you’ll note that Dolores’s dad is cycling not only through personalities, but also through narratives, and narrative genres. Westworld, this season, has done the same. The violence and dread and faceless hosts of the premiere? That was horror. The investor gala and urban flashbacks of the second episode made for a techno-mystery of sorts. This week, we got action. Pretty great action, in fact.

Just as the previous installment opened with a pre-credits change of scenery, this time we were plunged into an environment unfamiliar to this show but plenty familiar to Western entertainment: an outpost of the British Raj. It makes a creepy kind of sense for this to be one of Delos’s other parks. If the Wild West is the racist font of America’s myth of rugged adventure, colonial India is England’s. How damning, and fitting, for this show’s rich to pay to be transported to a simpler time, when they could treat brown foreigners as subhuman. The turnaround by the valet Ganju, as newly unhinged as Dolores’s troopers are, thus plays as if it’s a multi-layered revolution: of class, of race, of android.

Back in Westworld—which, it becomes clear, is just a swim away from E. M. Forster World—we rejoined Delos in the process of reconquering its park. Two weeks after the uprising, Bernard and the corporate squad from the beach made their way into the mesa HQ, where they found remnants of a slaughter and were greeted by the ever-salty presence that is Charlotte Hale. Still on the hunt for Abernathy, that walking data breach, she seemed to suspect Bernard may have helped him slip away. Bernard, confronted, began to glitch into a flashback to two weeks back, when he was still Hale’s sidekick. (Thankfully, the timelines are a lot more decodable in Season 2 than in Season 1, no?)

What ensued was a series of fairly righteous set pieces updating Western clichés with sci-fi gizmos. To liberate the prisoners of the villainously mustached Rebus, Bernard and Hale turned up his compassion rating as well his firearm accuracy. To win the alliance of the men at Fort Forlorn Hope, Dolores offered them high-powered assault rifles. To escape from Ghost Nation warriors, Maeve’s crew unlocked the hidden elevator to one of Westworld’s underground passages, astonishing their pursuers. The highpoint was a showdown between Delos’s troopers and the hosts at the fort—with Dolores double-crossing her Confederado recruits, apparently so as to draw the humans into an explosive trap.

All this romping was only punctuated—rather than overly suffused with—the show’s obligatory lectures about consciousness. Again and again, we saw just how committed the woke hosts are to their emotional drives even though they realize those drives to be constructed: Maeve pines for a daughter she knows is fake, Hector makes bold declarations of love written by Sizemore, and Dolores appears to earnestly feel as though Abernathy really is her father. It’s not so crazy for them to indulge these pangs. Don’t we humans convince ourselves that we want what we want for reasons higher than primal urges, or more noble than self interest?

The encounter between Dolores and Bernard was oddly emotionally resonant, too. For so many years, he was the one interrogating her and evaluating her subjectivity. Now that he’s at her mercy, he fully understands the role he’d been made to play all along. The larger implications of that roleplaying are still be be revealed, too. What did he see when he broke through Abernathy’s encryption? The less-than-savory results of a project he contributed to, no doubt.

All in all, this season has represented a nice expansion of the show’s palette, and a deepening of its story. It made for an especially nice twist for this episode to end with a traversing to the mountains. Snow, more than tigers, feels out of place in the Westworld we’ve come to know, and the panic that Sizemore conveyed upon realizing they’re in the presence of Shogun World hosts was terrifying. Sophie and David, who do you expect to escape the katana?

David Sims: Westworld has long drawn unfavorable comparisons to that special cult sensation of the 2000s, Lost, the show that is always held up as the perfect example of what can go wrong when mounting ambitious sci-fi storytelling on television. Lost is the byword for a show that asks too many questions and then gets hung up on the answers, or an ambitious story that just can’t stick the landing. But I’m here to dismiss that comparison—Lost was the kind of TV that there just isn’t enough of today, one that took big swings and thrilled in the ways it would entirely upend the rules of its world.

That’s what “Virtù e Fortuna” felt like to me—it was action-packed, for sure, but I was mostly delighted by the very idea of this park’s worlds bleeding into each other, of the rules of Delos’s cloistered little environments melting away. It did feel particularly apt, as you noted, Spencer, that the other environment we saw this week was the British Raj. The two characters we meet here both fancy themselves thrill-seeking renegades, suspicious that anyone around them might be a host and thus daring each other to prove their humanity (and thus, their superiority) before embarking on an ambitious hunt.

But once things start melting down and the hosts turn on them, all that confidence melts away. The notion of an actual revolution going on felt much more pointed here, since the trappings of this world are even more obviously colonial. The Wild West is, after all, always portrayed as a land of renegades and outlaws; in the British Raj, the fundamental structures designed to prop up the (white, British) guests are melting down. It’s a metaphor that pairs well with Season 2’s larger plotline, where all the established rules of Westworld have malfunctioned.

All of that applied to this week’s action-packed pseudo-Alamo sequence, too—what with the zombie soldiers and the automatic rifles. But I confess to being less interested partly because the traditional “stakes” of Westworld have dissolved. Newer, more complicated quests are springing up instead, but a lot of the fighting seemed designed to ram home Dolores’s particular heartlessness toward both the guests and many of the hosts she’s enlisting in her cause (“Truth is, we don’t all deserve to make it,” she said with a shrug).

In a weird way, the character I empathize with most right now is Lee Sizemore, as he’s frog-marched through all the scenarios he helped design and picks up on pieces of his own plotting, realizing how simultaneously chintzy and fundamental they all are. He knows Maeve’s attachment to her “daughter” is another simulacrum, but her consciousness is well beyond the walls he built around it at this point, so who is he to argue with her? As Westworld shakes off the bindings of its first season and redefines the limits of its plotting, Lee is the audience surrogate who thought he knew how everything worked, and is now trying to wrap his mind around how much things are changing.

Now, with Shogun World’s formal introduction on the horizon next week, those changes really have arrived. Much like last week, “Virtù e Fortuna” felt like table-setting to me, nudging many of its host characters into crucial positions (such as Teddy defying Dolores’s murderous orders, or the reintroduction of Abernathy, contending with the malicious Delos programming in his head). But I admit I’m very excited for the revolutions on the horizon. Sophie, what do you think awaits us in Shogun World?

Sophie Gilbert: Well, gosh, probably some violence and some mysteries and some speeches about finding beauty in the heart of darkness or somesuch. I feel for James Marsden, really I do, playing the increasingly uneasy and hesitant Jake Hoyt to Dolores’s Alonzo Harris—following her into places he’d rather not go, questioning her Old Testament justice, wincing every time she makes a decision that’s ethically indefensible. Never has Teddy’s name seemed so apt.

Here’s a question I’m struggling with: Is the writing within Westworld bad because Lee Sizemore is a hack or is the writing within Westworld just bad? We’ve got Dolores, speaking in pat clichés about breaking free with the pull of a trigger, and Teddy mouthing Inception-speak about the world being just a speck of dust sitting on a much bigger world. There was even a “We’re not so different, you and I” speech as Teddy faced the fact that he is indeed serving a tyrant, even if that tyrant is also the woman he loves. It’s just not particularly persuasive stuff, especially now that Dolores seems to be stuck in flat, monotonal warlord mode. I’d love to see her respond to anything these days with the awed enthusiasm of Hector greeting a woman wielding a flamethrower. (“She has a dragon!”)

That said, I found the new environment of Colonialismworld/Old Rajworld invigorating, not least because it introduced a character who—unlike anyone else we’ve met within Westworld—isn’t interested in the hosts at all. Grace, played by Katja Herbers, even went so far as to shoot her lover to make sure he was really human, which is the neatest version of a Turing test we’ve seen in science fiction. Is she really here for the tiger hunts at the edge of the park, or is the leather-bound notebook with elaborate diagrams she’s referring to part of a larger scheme? Either way, color me intrigued.

Here’s another thing that’s interesting, though: A handful of hosts this week made choices that defied their coding and their history. Free will is one of the most crucial elements of being human, going beyond self-awareness to allow not just the understanding of who (or what) one might be, but also the ability to choose. It’s a complex debate within AI, but it was embodied this week by Teddy, when he refused to execute the remaining soldiers, and by Hector, explaining his love for Maeve. “You’re fucking programmed to have no love but Isabella,” Lee exclaimed, rather petulantly. “When I walked in the place where you play god, I realized Isabella was a lie,” Hector replied. “Just words in my head. But this, this is true. She’s my life. She’s all I ever dreamed life could be.”

In other words, the hosts might be limited to the vocabulary they’re programmed to contain (hence Maeve’s nice threat to Sizemore last week in his words), but they’re able to function at a level of humanity not yet seen on the show by choosing their partners and their actions. It’s also a good counterpoint to Dolores’s singleminded pursuit of power and world domination, which still feels like it could be a Wyatt loop. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see if Shogun World’s hosts are having a similar existential reboot.