Westworld: From Cradle to Grave

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Phase Space,” the sixth episode of Season 2.

Evan Rachel Wood in 'Westworld'

Every week for the second season of Westworld, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of HBO’s cerebral sci-fi drama. Because no more screeners will be made available to critics in advance for the rest of Season 2, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.

Sophie Gilbert: If you discount the flashback scene in which “Arnold” was revealed to be “Bernard,” and in which “Dolores” was revealed to be “Dolores-Wyatt hybrid (Dolyatt? Wores?),” this episode began and ended with characters sitting at the mechanical piano. In the first scene, Dolores trilled a few keys before chatting with her newly hostile and homicidal lover, Teddy, about finally breaking out of their loop for good. And at the very end of the episode, “Bernard” (I have no idea anymore but am guessing) entered the Matrix-like hard drive of the park only to encounter Ford sitting at the piano, happily making music.

Westworld, as we know, loves symmetry, pairings, and parallels. Consider last week’s “Akane No Mai,” when Maeve, Hector, and Armistice encountered their Shogun World counterparts, or how the show foreshadowed the reveal that “Grace” (Emily) was the Man in Black’s daughter by having him rescue Lawrence’s child. So now we know that Ford is secretly still around in some form inside the “cradle” of the park, literally pulling the strings of the piano to make it play his tune. Is his pairing with Dolores a clue that she’s under his control? Or is it a sign that she’s as empowered as he is?

I found “Phase Space” frustrating, because so much of it felt like writers doing necessary work to put pieces in place rather than anything particularly thrilling on its own merits. In Sweetwater, Dolores confronted her new rebooted Teddy, whose empathy has been minimized to make room for his new mercilessness and antagonism. Is it just me, or does new Teddy seem to have kept some of old Teddy’s lingering suspicions regarding Dolores? “The man who rode that train was built weak and born to fail,” he told her. “You fixed him. Now forget about it.” It would be ironic if in adjusting the characteristics of the one person truly loyal to her, Dolores sealed her own doom. Regardless, though, James Marsden shifted modes effortlessly to portray Teddy’s new callousness (and Angela, for one, seemed to approve).

In other parts of Westworld, Delos finally brought in the big guns to secure the park after Charlotte was able to demonstrate that the data inside Peter Abernathy was safe (in part by nailing the poor man to a chair while a horrified Ashley looked on). “Amateur hour’s over,” Coughlin (Timothy V. Murphy) sneered, before making fun of Ashley’s gender-neutral name (pity the fool who starts an unnecessary spat with the third Hemsworth brother). Meanwhile, “Bernard” and Elsie entered the “cradle,” or the room where all of Westworld’s servers appear to be stored. “It’s creepy,” Elsie said. “It’s like a hive mind. Every single one of them is in here alive.” Bernard, not totally comfortingly, told her that it’s just data. But we’ve seen enough by now to know that Elsie is right.

How else to explain how Maeve continues to silently command hosts to kill themselves? The one thing I’ll say for this episode’s big fight sequence between Tanaka and Musashi is that it played out in daylight, unlike last week’s incomprehensibly murky set pieces. Maeve couldn’t save Sakura, but she did get to escort Akane and Musashi to the lake of Sakura’s birthplace, where Akane said goodbye to the woman she’d come to love as a daughter. (I’m not convinced the grisly scene of Akane cutting Sakura’s heart out was necessary, nor the proliferation of decapitated and maimed bodies in every single Westworld space this week, but maybe I’m just too squeamish for this show). Then Maeve found her own daughter, only to be shocked by the revelation that Westworld had given her child a new mother, and that Ghost Nation were attacking them both again.

Which leads me to the question: What is Ghost Nation up to this season? Every time Westworld needs characters to be separated or interrupted or jolted out of an emotional moment, the Nation are there to help. But are they serving as clumsy narrative segues or are they doing something else? We might ask Emily, who’s the only human inside Westworld who comprehends them as more than antagonists to be evaded. Spencer, what did you make of Emily’s reunion with her father, who promised her they could leave together but who seems hopelessly addicted to the park and to the game he still thinks he can win?

Spencer Kornhaber: The campfire catchup between the Man in the Black and the Lady in Beige and Charcoal made for one of a few not-so-lovely parent/child conferences in this episode. Akane carved out her adopted daughter’s heart, Maeve found the kid she’d been looking for under care of a different mom, and various hosts had eerie confrontations with their creators, whether with Dolores ordering around Bernarnold or Bernard discovering VR-world Ford.

But it was indeed the interactions between Emily and William that most powerfully underlined how Westworld’s technologies mess with the very nature of human connection. The early scenes of Emily begging for the attention of a parent she apparently hasn’t seen in ages seemed to signal a regular-old deadbeat-dad tale, but his frostiness had a practical rationale: He doesn’t believe that’s his daughter. Rather, he thinks that she’s a host, created by Ford to screw with him. Yet how well does he know Emily anyway? After all his dopamine-addicted adventuring in the park, he can’t remember whether it was his daughter or his wife who was scared of the elephants in Raj World.

We viewers may sneer at William’s suspicions that he’s dealing with a doppelgänger: We’ve seen Emily survive her way through the meltdown of the park over the course of this season, and her stated intention to bring her father back from his K-hole of potentially suicidal gameplaying seems genuine. Yet this episode further complicated the task of telling apart robot and nonrobot, and I’m certainly not going to say that William is 100-percent wrong to be paranoid. Dolores’s interview with Jeffrey Wright’s character, the conversation that opened the entire season, was shown to be a “fidelity” test à la what was applied to the wannabe immortal James Delos. We were reminded, too, that there are various models of hosts, some more human-seeming than others—and Bernard’s skull is just like our own, save for the milky marble within.

Exploring the theme of believability was apt for an episode that made for such a rich showcase of acting. I don’t recall Ed Harris being called upon in Westworld to put in the kind of work he did here: showing sensitivity and tenderness, generated both from cynical performance and, surely, actual fatherly love. Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores continues to cannily mutate in her affect—the old farmgirl never got to crisply enunciate words like agency or fidelity—but more fascinating is what James Marsden is doing as Teddy. He appears physically different (older even?), with his personality tweaks conveyed not only in dialogue and action, but also in mannerism. Thandie Newton, meanwhile, was pushed to show yet-rawer compassion and heartbreak in her farewells to her pseudo-Japanese friends and her reckoning with her pseudo-daughter.

It’s a treat to see these characters being put into new positions. I agree, Sophie, that this episode had a lot of dutiful plot-pushing, but I disagree that it felt like a chore. Rather, halfway through Season 2, there’s a sense of giddiness setting in as the show and its inhabitants enter a new level of the simulation. The revelation of the “cradle” is a literal game-changer: Maybe scenes we’ve seen before were actually taking place in this shadow world, and scenes to come surely will take advantage of the trippy notion that Westworld’s hive mind is actually just another Westworld. Other long-hyped thresholds are being crossed, too. Delos’s security squad finally arrived—via private-military types showing yet greater amounts of rudeness than the show has already ascribed to such characters—just as Dolores’s team’s train made it to the edge of the park, with a boom.

The only story of transition to grate on me in this episode was in the farewell to Shogun World. Last week’s episode offered a filling omakase of morally dubious samurai-cinema tributes; we didn’t need a gruesome saber duel to finish things out. The insistence by Akane and Musashi to stay behind as Maeve & co. foraged ahead smacked of plot expedience more than anything else, and it’s too bad the show couldn’t find a way to work one of these intriguing characters into the core cast. I’d single out the heart-removal and decapitation as especially gratuitous bloodshed, but then again, this was an episode that elsewhere featured an unanesthetized crucifixion and craniotomy. Westworld loves gore, always, but there seemed to be a special emphasis on it this time.  David, any idea why?

David Sims: The simplest explanation I can offer for that drawn-out, arm-slicing samurai battle is that Westworld had the great Hiroyuki Sanada on board for a couple of episodes, and it couldn’t exactly let him go without at least one big duel. But why is the show saying goodbye to him and his co-stars so soon? Though I appreciated the meta-humor of Shogun World just being a redressed version of Westworld, it’s an industry joke that can only go so far. And now it seems viewers are being left with what barely amounts to a mini-arc there, with Sanada and Rinko Kikuchi turning in admirable work in their short time on the series.

Westworld was still able to get away with broad clichés, like the defeated samurai committing seppuku and the awe-inspiring sight of Mount Fuji, because the idea is that this whole plotline was cooked up by Lee Sizemore, hack supreme. But, as Spencer noted, characters like Akane still had enough pathos that I was sad to see them go so soon after Maeve’s two-week tourist jaunt. Then again, this is Westworld—it’s tremendously easy for characters to return, even if they’re played by Academy Award–winning actors who were violently killed off last season.

Pardon me for invoking one of my favorite maligned films of the 21st century, The Matrix Reloaded, but that was what sprang to mind on seeing Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) return in the flesh (so to speak) after a fair number of voice-only teases this season. Bernard has journeyed into the source code of Westworld, and sitting at that piano is its ultimate architect, Ford, a gray-haired master of riddles, here to present Bernard with a few more from beyond the grave. As Maeve, Dolores, and even Lee continue to fiddle with Westworld’s programming from their vantage points, it makes sense that the real showdown will have to happen within the park’s server rooms, so I’m eager to see how that’ll look.

Like Spencer, I’m continually thrilled at how the show is expanding its storytelling boundaries while remaining within Westworld, including the letterboxed “cradle” that Bernard is now inside. But like Sophie, I thought this episode was largely a people-mover, getting everyone in the right spots for the season’s final act. There was the quick exit from Shogun World (via warp tube), Bernard plugging his brain-pearl into the mainframe, and Dolores and Evil Teddy riding the train of destiny together.

Maeve’s one-sided emotional reunion with her daughter was well-acted by Thandie Newton, of course, but mostly existed to reintroduce the mystery of Ghost Nation (who seem similarly self-aware about changes in the park, but are possessed of nebulous goals). As to any larger questions about Westworld’s timeline, I confess I’m fully at the show’s mercy—I can’t begin to figure out when Dolores’s conversation with the Arnold-bot is supposed to be happening, for example. Perhaps Ford will help put all the puzzle pieces together, but I’d wager things are going to get a lot more jumbled before they begin to make sense again.