Westworld: Strike the Match

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Les Écorchés,” the seventh episode of Season 2.

A still from 'Westworld' Season 2's 'Les Écorchés'

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

Sophie Gilbert: If Westworld is just a higher-tech Jurassic Park, like we discussed a few weeks ago, then “Les Écorchés” is the moment Dr. Grant discovers that West African bullfrogs can change sex at will, and the velociraptors reach the visitor’s center. Some (but absolutely not all) questions were answered. Some extremely pivotal characters were shot. Some even died. And Bad Teddy brought his vengeance down upon Coughlin and his black-ops security squad like a Dilophosaurus in the passenger seat of Dennis Nedry’s Jeep.

To start with the basics: Ford, whose soul lives in unhuman form inside the Cradle of Westworld’s servers, is the architect of all this chaos. These violent ends have been his goal all along, given the ugliness he sees in humanity, “the most murderous species since time began.” By comparison, he told Bernard, the hosts are “something very different. An original work, more just, more noble.” Ford, the Promethean creator, wants to preserve the life he’s made at the expense of mankind, setting up a showdown that he’ll help the hosts win.

He’s facing off against Delos (embodied now by the increasingly awful Charlotte Hale), which we found out weeks ago had been using Westworld as a giant data-mining operation, secretly extracting information from guests without their consent. But their goal isn’t using people’s data to help sell them things, it’s … (dum dum DUM) eternal life. The conversations between James Delos and William earlier in Season 2, and the routine between Dolores and Bernard in last week’s episode, were just microcosms of a larger project: uploading the human soul to help humans live forever, like hosts. “Every piece of information in the world has been backed up, copied,” Ford explained. “Except the human mind. The last piece of analog technology in a digital world.” The more humans reveal about themselves within Westworld, the more Delos learns about human nature, which it’s essentially trying to copy and paste via a janky USB equivalent awkwardly inserted into Peter Abernathy.

So now we know what Delos was doing. We know what Ford wants (and since Bernard conveniently plugged himself into the Westworld mainframe, Ford appears to have been able to survive Angela’s suicide attack on the servers, maybe by directly attaching himself to Bernard?). We know what Dolores is up to (deleting the backed-up host data and heading to the valley beyond). We know Bernard is really just another body for Ford to manipulate and abuse, even to the point of forcing Bernard to commit murder. And we know we’re headed for an even more epic showdown in Sector 16, Zone 4, thanks to the information Bernard (under torture) gave to Charlotte about where Dolores was going with Peter Abernathy’s control unit.

The timelines, though, are still fuzzy at best. The Man in Black managed to survive multiple gunshots that came his way thanks to Maeve’s transcendent retaliation for his attack on her and her daughter. Maeve also managed to survive being shot, after Sizemore intervened (and he appears to be continuing to protect her). And Maeve’s daughter was taken by Ghost Nation, which—depending on theories about what its members are actually up to—might not be a bad thing.

I found this episode thrilling, but that was the point—it’s the big build up to the big finale, in which a few supporting players (Angela, poor Clementine) are sacrificed and the rest make their way to the last shootout. The scene where Dolores and her army marched into action, stepping over fire and cast in burnt orange light, reiterated the contrast between the two sides (the previous shot was of Charlotte and Stubbs in the cold blue glass of the park headquarters). The question is, who do we want to win? Dolores and Teddy have been undeniably corrupted. Delos is rotten to its core. The poem Ford quoted to Bernard was William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” which observes cruelty inflicted upon innocent animals by humans and a cycle of death and rebirth. (“They broke my head,” Peter Abernathy told Dolores. “They filled it full of howling and sorrow.”) But are the hosts still innocent?

Spencer, what did you make of the most action-filled episode so far? Are we in agreement that Elsie, Stubbs, Sizemore, and Maeve are maybe the last souls worth saving? And were you as disappointed as me that the Man in Black lives to growl another day?

Spencer Kornhaber: On that last question, absolutely. When it seemed Maeve and Lawrence might make a very final mockery of William’s gamer smugness, it made for one of the biggest thrills of the season. When Maeve, in turn, was shot, it was one of the biggest scares. That neither fate turned out to be permanent reminds me of how rarely the show escapes its middle zone of entertainment: We get twists but few true shocks, and speeches about emotion but little of the actual thing, though we came close to both sorts of payoff with this crackling episode.

Maeve and William were, of course, just two of the many characters to face near-death experiences in this hour. But except for with William, I wasn’t cheering for many demises. Though she may be heartless, it really wouldn’t be pleasant to see Charlotte Hale’s head opened like a can of crushed tomatoes by one of the show’s supposed heroes. And while Sizemore is a cad, we’d be having less fun with him ending up on one of Westworld’s patented piles of bodies.

The looming threat of doom did help underscore the significance of one of the grander turns of the episode. Dolores sacrificed the “advantage” that the hosts had, their immortality, by destroying their backups. Which means, from some vantages, that they’re more human now. But the humans, in the hunt for Abernathy, are still looking to become more host-like. Perhaps, even, the quest for the park-user data helps explain why Delos has been so cavalier about the loss of life in the host uprising. All those murdered guests, were they to be cloned back to consciousness, would not present the threat of wrongful-death lawsuits.

But the technology for cloning still isn’t perfected yet, and it’s not quite clear why. For now, Robert Ford lives on only as a digital ghost, albeit one that can transfer from computer bank to host head. It’s a thrill to have Anthony Hopkins back on screen—if the show must be full of pontification, let it come from a master—even if the gimmick of him playing the devil on Bernard’s shoulder will no doubt get old (Westworld fans should be well-familiar with Fight Club and its descendants). For now, we can enjoy finally getting to see the stylish trailer moment when darkness clears and Bernard is machine-gunning people down. We can also better understand, perhaps, Bernard’s confusion when he wakes up on the beach some time in the near future—by which point he’ll either still be under Ford’s management or somehow, no doubt painfully, arranged a separation.

Remember: The beach is the future. Like you, Sophie, I’m feeling a bit brain-broken by the timelines lately. It didn’t help that this episode started in a Delos lab, then flashed back to action in another Delos lab. But such is the cost of this season’s conceit of unraveling a two-week mystery over 10 weeks. As the “main” plot of any given hour catches up with the endpoint we began at (oy vey!), keeping things straight will likely become only more of a struggle for the viewer, who may feel as though they’re pushing together two magnets of the same polarity. What’s important is this: Dolores’s team attacked the Mesa, stole Abernathy’s control unit, and blew up the Cradle while the other main characters escaped in one way or another.

Sophie, you asked who we should be rooting for as we head to the final reckoning. Ford insisted that the hosts are separate from our own species in that they’re less given to savagery, but little in Dolores’s actions this seasons suggests that he’s right. She’s as cruel as the God of the Old Testament, and man, remember, is created in God’s image. But Maeve has long occupied the moral middle ground, which is to say the high ground, and tonight she condemned Dolores’s methods. If the hosts are really to be a race superior to our own, it’s only Maeve who shows why. It’s touching that she still wants to save her kid, but I wish she’d heal up and then save the world instead. David, is she now our one true hero?

David Sims: You nailed it, Spencer—in this increasingly dispiriting tech experiment, Maeve, who’s largely wielding her power out of a real sense of love, is the only one the audience can really root for anymore. What’s motivating everyone else? Dolores’s mission of liberation is tangled up in her quest for vengeance. William’s notion that he’s still at the center of some grand game has gone from arrogant to pathetic. Charlotte wants to bend progress into capitalism; ghost-Ford has more of a notion of bringing about the Singularity. Bernard is a character I still feel fondness for, but right now he’s little more than a vehicle for massive information dumps—his true purpose in all this remains unclear.

So Maeve, then, has the narrative I’m most invested in—not the mystery around her daughter (who isn’t an actual character), but the very reason Maeve is still in the park—her flowering humanity. Her relationship with Lee is basically the first of its kind in Westworld: a friendship between host and human that is based on mutual understanding, rather than a means to an end. It flies in the face of the evolved, human-replacing consciousness that Ford has planned, or the cold-blooded evaluations of Dolores and Charlotte, each of whom are seeking some sort of supremacy.

This episode was chock-a-block with that favorite Nolan storytelling tool, the long, expository monologue, something I actually have a lot of admiration for—both Jonathan and his brother Christopher excel at turning instruction manuals into snappy prose. Ford’s explanation of the deeper, colder motives powering this expensive leisure park clicked nicely for me. I also appreciated the show shedding light on that Dolores/Arnold scene last week, perhaps just because I was so thankful it didn’t turn out to be a vision of the future, and of machines making machines.

But overall, I must confess that I have no strong grasp on the show’s disparate timelines at this point. It feels so anti-climactic that Dolores’s bloody swarming of the underground labs, and Bernard’s pivotal decision to shut things down, came before Charlotte’s much more routine interrogation of Bernard (complete with creepy robo-waterboarding). I’m hopeful that the last three episodes will serve to untangle everything and give me some larger sense of why the stories have been presented in such random order, as was the case last season. But I’m struggling to think of a reason that isn’t just, It makes things seem cooler and more interesting.

Confusion for confusion’s sake: It’s one of the most common complaints I hear about Westworld. So far, this season has done a fabulous job deepening the universe Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have constructed, and digging into every possible knotty future-concept proposed by artificial intelligence. The test of the next three episodes is whether they’ll build to real answers.