Sunday, April 29, 2018

REVIEW: 'Westworld' - Dolores and William Reveal More of the True Purpose of the Park in 'Reunion'

HBO's Westworld - Episode 2.02 "Reunion"

Why don't we start at the beginning?

The first season of Westworld posited that the park was a place for humans to go to act out their wildest fantasies without fear of dealing with any of the potential consequences. It was a way to curb these sadistic and dark qualities from the rest of society. A way to make the rest of the world a better and safer place. All one had to do was afford admission into the park. That was certainly the journey that the audience saw through William and the Man in Black last season. William started as the romantic hero who fell in love with Dolores and didn't want to simply view the hosts as disposable for whatever his interests and intentions should be. That was always Logan's position. But by the end of the season, William embraced his darker impulses in order to discover the cunning and cruel man inside that was just waiting to burst out. It was all fueled by the big mystery that William and the Man in Black were the same person. The Man in Black was always this cryptic character who would cruelly do so much damage in this world in pursuit of some hidden level. He was obsessed with it in a way where he could no longer care about any individual element. All of that was thematically important in the first season if not all that subtle or original. It was the show making sure that the hosts suffered so much cruelty from the humans so that the audience could sympathize with them once they became sentient and fought back. That was the moment at the end of the season. And now, the second season is starting to reveal that the grand purpose of Westworld wasn't that notion at all. That was simply a marketing tool in order to get people through the door. The hidden agenda of Delos was much more nefarious than that. It was teased in the premiere with Bernard realizing that Charlotte is spying on the guests and collecting their information. And once again, it becomes clear that William is deeply connected to this story.

As such, it's thrilling to see the younger version of William return. It's great because Jimmi Simpson was so phenomenal in the role last year. But now, it's a much darker and sinister version of the character. He has made the full transition into the Man in Black. He's now the executive shaping the narrative of what Delos' investment in Westworld should be. All of this could feel like nothing more than a stunt with the show bringing back the elements that worked last season instead of forging ahead with a new story. And yet, there is immediate purpose to the return of young William. He's introducing the show to the world outside of Westworld. It's showing just how complicated and corrupt it can be while still mirroring several real-life stories of 2018 as well. He is proposing this grand scheme to spy on the guests to collect their information. They can promise complete anonymity and a place hidden from the rest of the world. In actuality though, they can use this information for some nefarious agenda. It's a strategy that William is able to sell to his new father-in-law and the head of the company. Once he retires, it seems like William is destined to be the one to inherit control. He is the one lighting the match that will ultimately lead to the downfall of society. He decided to make this investment and plot out this new mystery that can be used to destroy humanity. It also makes complete sense for him to boast of this brilliant plan to his former lover. He fell in love with Dolores. And now, he sees her as little more than a robot designed to reflect his true self back to him. He's proud to show her his grand creation. And yet, that could be his undoing now that she has full access to her memories.

"Reunion" plays things much more straight-forward and focused than many of the previous episodes. Yes, there are still plenty of time jumps but the story is able to flow quite seamlessly because the focus is only on a select group of people and their stories. The premiere felt the need to touch on everything that was currently happening in the park and what was going on with the entire ensemble of characters. Here, it's mostly about Dolores and William assembling their armies ahead of reaching their final destination. They both have clear and distinct goals for how to emerge victorious in this new conflict. William may be on a completely separate path now that he is playing a new game designed specifically for him in this world by Ford. It's clear that Ford's code can still override so much of the system even though the park is moving beyond what the limitations of the story initially were. But he's walking with purpose knowing that it's taking him to "the valley beyond" where his grand idea currently resides. He now looks at it as his greatest mistake. It's surprising to see how remorseful he may actually be about some of his previous actions. He is still so incredibly cruel to the hosts. He's still a very vicious and deadly man. But his objectives no longer seem like they line up exactly with what Delos is aspiring to achieve. As such, that makes it very fascinating to spend more time in the past to explore the hierarchy of this organization. There is a reason for young William and Logan to continue appearing on the show. Meanwhile, it's a struggle in the present because Ford is ensuring that William has to play this game by himself. Of course, he still has Lawrence as his loyal sidekick. But he too is still just following his code not completely aware of the world despite how blunt William now is about his creation and how it is being manipulated.

The most stunning moments of this hour may come from the various interactions Dolores has with the outside world. It makes sense that Arnold and Ford would take their creations outside of the park in order to sell it to investors. It's a well done pitch to reveal to Logan that every other guest he has interacted with at this party is actually a host. It shows just how far along this technology really is. Of course, Dolores is absent from that room. Instead, she continues to be the pet project for Arnold. He's trying to get her to see the world for what it truly is. She continues to follow her code in saying that she has never seen anything quite as beautiful as the lights of the city. She marvels at the house that Arnold has built for his family. She remembers those previous interactions and would like to meet them some day. But it's all so tragic and ironic to watch knowing what comes next. Dolores continues to be used as a prop in this world. There is the clear yearning for her to develop into something more. Arnold wanted her to become sentient long before he became obsessed with that goal following his son's death. But William just uses her as a remember for the true purpose of Westworld. He sees her as the reflection of himself that needed to be seen. Similarly, Dolores is delving into these memories to see these glimpses of the world. She is in the unique position of knowing what it looks like. She can wield that over the rest of the hosts. It also gives her the knowledge of knowing exactly what she'll find of William's that can be used as a weapon. It's just a mystery that continues to be slowly teased to the audience.

Dolores is rallying her army mostly by revealing to them the true nature of their reality. It's unclear if any of the hosts are able to gain sentience like her and Maeve. It seems unlikely because they all fall in line behind Dolores after seeing more of the behind-the-scenes world. They aren't coming to their own judgments or delving deep into their own memories of the past. They are still in service of others. That's what sets Dolores and Maeve apart. The two of them reunite after reaching this new state in their existences. They can't control each other as easily as they do others. Maeve thought the person responsible for the chaos in the park could be a potential ally to her. But now, she meets that person and sees Dolores as a leader who demands that everyone uniformly follow her through this new conflict. Maeve is on her own personal journey. She's on a quest to find her daughter. She doesn't need this new complication in her life. But that also highlights the differences between them. Dolores believes she's acting with some higher purpose. She has transcended her coding and replaced Ford and Arnold as the god of this new world. She killed God in order to set her people free. And now, she is willing to show them the brutality of this world just so they can support her in her endeavor. It's brutal to watch her continue to enact her revenge on the humans still in the park. She extends that to the people still working underneath to restore the hosts so they can continue to live out their stories. She is able to use that to her advantage when it comes to recruiting people to her cause. She can simply kill them and then bring them back online right away. She is showing everyone a whole new world. It's scary to watch but that's what makes her such a complicated and compelling central character at the start of the new season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Reunion" was written by Carly Wray & Jonathan Nolan and directed by Vincenzo Natali.
  • I'm so absolutely grateful that the surprising casting of Giancarlo Esposito wasn't spoiled for me before it happened. It's a moment clearly designed to surprise the audience because of who is playing the new El Lazo. But it absolutely works. It also showcases how this is a world filled with stories that are never allowed to reach their end points. As such, he has no idea what to do with the rest of his life after achieving his ultimate goal. Of course, it's also disappointing that it seems to be just a one-off appearance.
  • Other new hosts introduced this week are played by Jonathan Tucker and Zahn McClarnon. Both of them appear in that party scene that shows Logan just how impressive Westworld can be. Later on, Tucker appears again as the new ally Dolores recruits to her cause. In the present, he is the leader of a rival army who doesn't trust Dolores until she kills his troops and brings them back from the dead.
  • Peter Mullan also pops up as James Delos, Logan's father and the head of the Delos corporation. He is a man focused on the present and how the newest innovations can be profitable for him right now. He doesn't want to think 20 years into the future because he will no longer be at the company at that point. And yet, William is able to make his pitch to the man in such a way that immediately earns his respect even though he is shoved off to pasture quickly thereafter.
  • Logan also comes across as a more sympathetic character than the first season. Last year he was just seen as the asshole who was willing to abuse Westworld and all of its pleasures. He didn't have the vision for the investment that William does. But now, it's clear that he did escape after riding off naked atop a horse at the end of last season. He has just become a drug addict cheering the end of civilization as orchestrated by his brother-in-law.
  • Dolores and Maeve may not be aligned but it continues to be so fascinating to see how their journeys actually mirror one another. They are both still in love with hosts they are trying to get to see the reality of the world. And now, they have also recruited reluctant humans to serve as their technical support in exchange for not killing them. In that regard, Dolores probably has the better technician even though she's more likely to kill him.