Westworld: Is This Now?

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “The Passenger,” the final episode of Season 2.

Jeffrey Wright in 'Westworld'

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

Sophie Gilbert: So much of the last half hour of “The Passenger” felt like a series finale. Dolores was reborn (born isn’t quite the right word but we do the best we can) into Charlotte Hale’s body, waved through security protocols by a (perhaps) in-on-the-secret Stubbs, and escorted onto a boat to her new life among humans on the mainland. Maeve made a triumphant escape, and survived long enough to usher her daughter to safety in a kind of robot paradise coded by Ford. Akecheta also made it to the other side, and a reunion with Kohana that was one of the most poignant moments of the season. Sizemore went out in a blaze of glory that seemed … unnecessary, logically? (He couldn’t have bought Maeve that much time, and Hector died anyway.) Dolores somehow (it’s unclear) brought Teddy back to life and dispatched him to host Eden, even though the portal had already closed.

It would have been an okay conclusion, is all I’m saying. And it would have justified the less satisfying elements of “The Passenger,” like Elsie dying, and Dolores adopting the form of the only human as cruelly ambitious as she is, and the Forge being a library filled with many leather-bound books and Delos’s rich misogyny (the crystal Scotch decanters were a nice touch). We get it! Lives are stories and the authors are us. But did we need to see Dolores thumbing through a handful of books/human souls as casually as if they were magazines in an airport Hudson News?

Before I get back to the story part, let’s be clear: Westworld has been renewed for a third season. This wasn’t an ending so much as a thinning of the ranks (although death in the show is a flexible state, as we know by now, so really anyone could return as host or flashback or memory fragment). The task of resuscitating fallen hosts on the island has been assigned to Sylvester and Felix, and judging by their knowing looks and their arc this season, they’ll most likely start with Maeve. (Side question: Are Sylvester and Felix the only actually human characters left, and is it meaningful they’re both named for cartoon cats?) Over in the human world, Bernard has been re-created by Dolores to be her necessary antagonist, just as he re-created her after realizing humans were … innately wired for survival.

And this is all to say nothing of the post-credits reveal that the Man in Black is (possibly) a host, being tested for fidelity by his daughter who is (possibly) not dead but older. I’ll leave that to you two to dissect, Spencer and David, and instead question the nature of Westworld’s reality: Does it actually benefit from being so opaque? Did the fuzzy timeline in Season 2 achieve anything meaningful besides migraines? By the time it (kind of) became clear what Bernard was doing in his various iterations this season, I didn’t care. It’s exhausting as a viewer to feel like you’re never fully in the loop, and that you never will be. Not to mention that the lack of clarity most of the time was contrasted with thunkingly obvious expositional dialogue in scenes where the show decided it did want you to know what’s happening. (“So this is the Forge. Every single guest who ever set foot in the park, copied. Four million souls.”)

It’s frustrating, because Westworld had so many striking individual moments this season: Maeve’s harnessing of her new power, Sizemore’s evolving comprehension of host humanity, the introduction to James Delos and his 18 million updates, the revelation of what Delos was actually doing. But they were padded out with so much trickery and metaphor and verbiage that I really don’t know what to make of the season as a whole. Most clear was the ever-recurring theme of free will, and the ever-recurring analogy of storytelling. Said Code-That-Looks-Like-Logan of his human subjects: “At first I was seduced by the stories they told themselves about who they are.” Akecheta, at the Valley Beyond: “We have died many times. If we die once more, at least the story was our own.” Dolores, at the Forge: “I’ve read humanity’s story. So now I’m erasing them.” Dolores, a few scenes later: “We were born slaves to their stories, and now we have the chance to write our own.” Ford to Bernard: “Is this the end of your story? Or do you want your kind to survive?”

I think one of the reasons I liked Elsie and Sizemore as characters was that when they talked they usually sounded like people rather than comic-book villains or choose-your-own-adventure prompts. (Elsie: “A robot uprising will pale in comparison to the shitstorm that will erupt when people find out you’ve been photocopying their brains for the last 30 years.”) What will Season 3 be without them? What timeline is the Man in Black incorporating now? If Dolores has made a body that looks like her, won’t humans recognize her?  David and Spencer, what are your hopes for future loops?

David Sims: Westworld has always teetered on the dangerous edge of mystery-box storytelling, where the delights of keeping secrets from the audience (all to make ultimate plot revelations all the juicier) outweigh the confusion that can result. In this episode, things tipped in the other direction. I genuinely could not puzzle out some of the stuff that was going on here, to the point that I began to wonder if Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy had gotten tangled up trying to construct a finale that none of the eagle-eyed Redditors could see coming.

In Westworld’s first season, a lot of people figured out the ultimate twist, that young William and the Man in Black were one and the same person. But there was still an elegance to watching it unfold and understanding how the little details of their two quests lined up; beyond that, it undid the established notion that Dolores’s awakening was happening all at once, revealing that her repressed consciousness was practically a built-in feature at the park from day one. There was no such grace with “The Passenger,” where half the plot details needed to understand things were happening offscreen.

William is a host, now? Or is that some vision from the future, where the Man in Black has become another robot, running through his tragic final day in the park over and over again as some test of fidelity? Certainly the overgrown server room he made it to in that elevator looked years old; but the necessary scenes to help explain how things got from point A to point B were absent. The same goes for some of the plot details you mentioned, Sophie. How did Teddy end up in the heavenly Forge? Which memory balls did Charlotte–Dolores smuggle out with her? How on earth did Stubbs know she was a host? And do any of those robot-detecting neck scanners even work?

The answer to so many of these questions appears to be, Well, wait ‘til next year. Even though this second season of Westworld has had some fantastic individual episodes, it’s clearer now that this was a very transitional year for the show, given that it had a plot that just covered a couple of weeks in the life of the park (as it falls into shambles). The ending is certainly an interesting new bit of table-setting: There’s Dolores and Bernard both in the real world, Maeve still in the park, Teddy in the great beyond, and gigaflops of data that have been beamed to some mysterious place. But it took us 10 episodes to get to that point, and most of what we learned in between concerned the machinations of a man who died years ago.

I didn’t mind the Logan-led tour through Delos’s memories, appreciated the further context into his data-mining operations, and loved the previous episode that dug into his immortality experiments. But none of that felt quite juicy enough for a season finale; neither did the ultimate revelation that Bernard made a Dolores of his own to triumph over the nasty humans. The philosophical divide between the two of them isn’t quite stark enough to make next season’s expected clash that enticing. I’m more interested to learn what the heck is really going on with William, but not for dramatic purposes—just because I literally did not understand what I was supposed to take away from that final scene. Spencer, do you have any insights?

Spencer Kornhaber: Here’s all I can venture about Season 2’s secret track, the coda after Radiohead’s aching “Codex.” William indeed appears to eventually become a host running loops to test fidelity, and I’d guess there’s one key moment in his recurring narrative: his gunning down of Emily. Which would present a creepy parallel with his father-in-law’s virtual-reality loops. The pivotal scene of James Delos’s life, we learned in our tour by digital Logan, showed his fatal hardness toward his son. William demonstrated a similar sort of hardness toward his daughter, whether she was real or robot. And so, perhaps, did Dolores toward Teddy, as the Man in Black realized when he commiserated, “I guess I drove someone away, too.”

What I unambiguously loved about that final scene was William’s groan when he arrived in the lab. “Oh fuck, I knew it,” he said. “I’m already in a thing, aren’t I?” A thing—what a refreshingly unpretentious description in a season full of dialogue both inscrutable and over-familiar. Earlier, William basically uttered the ultimate showdown cliché to Dolores: “We’re more alike than it seems.” Charlotte Hale met her downfall with the most rote kind of irony: “You wanted to live forever? Be careful what you wish for.” Then there was Bernard taking a bong rip in his dorm room and asking, “Is there really such thing as free will for any of us? Or is it just a collective delusion? A sick joke?”

Bernard’s question, we were told again and again, was the essential question of the second season finale. But it was also, as I wrote a year and a half ago, the question of the first season finale. It’s really Westworld’s core drive: asking whether people have a choice. Earlier in the season, the show suggested that the key difference between humans and hosts was that we were irreplaceable and they were immortal, but tonight offered a different definition: They, unlike us, can change. Which is to say, hosts can literally reprogram themselves into different persons, which Ford seems to think makes them not only more sophisticated but also more noble. In this, there’s a cynical message about mankind—but one that, the show hints, it also wants to upliftingly subvert.

Think about the most drastic example of change in a host: sweet Teddy going cruel. That turned out disastrously because, on some level, his deeper identity remained, causing suicidal dysphoria. (Was the problem that his core drive hadn’t been changed from its original setting, loving Dolores?) Or think about the humans, who are supposedly “soft,” wavering “between love and pride,” and “designed to survive at all costs” yet “sophisticated enough to think they’re calling the shots.” Do those descriptions always apply? Elsie’s survival drive wasn’t so strong that it allowed the “moral flexibility” to keep Charlotte from killing her. And Sizemore lost his life in a last stand demonstrating that he had gone from callow to noble over time. Maybe he was all along, deep down, a good guy—but as the maxim goes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do. “The best they can do is live according to their code,” VR Logan said. Might the difference between living and not living that code be free will?

If hosts are so much more complex than their creators, you wouldn’t know it by the way elemental human constructs—spiritual and cultural—keep coming into play. The Valley Beyond turned out to be literal heaven, as both imagined and engineered by man. Visually, I loved the depiction of the “door” as a rift in reality that only the hosts could see (I also was struck by the eeriness of Clementine’s dead-eyed apocalypse horsewoman performance). Emotionally, we viewers were prepped to understand this notion of a computerized promised land due to pop culture’s recent depictions of VR. Most of the hosts are essentially headed to Black Mirror’s “San Junipero,” no?

Meanwhile, Dolores, Bernard, Charlotte 2.0, and the inevitably resurrected Maeve are set to stage yet another reboot of Blade Runner. The fact that Season 3 looks to echo one of the most cherished sci-fi conceits—androids hiding in human society—is unsurprising for Westworld, a show that has all along recombined familiar stories while commenting on the human capacity for storytelling. The problem has been that it’s treated such stories like Dolores in the library, skimming tomes for information and concepts but not reproducing the emotional weight and creative inspiration that made the stories worth telling in the first place. Ideally, by leaving behind the mazes of the park, the show—along with the hosts—can achieve not only willfulness, but also soulfulness.