To address the concerns about the first season of Westworld: far too much of the narrative hinged on the revelations of mysteries. Some of these mysteries were clear from the outset (who is the Man in Black? where is the park located? what is Ford’s plan? what is going on with Delores?), whereas others emerged throughout the storyline (Bernard, pretty much).
Returning to the season, and re-watching it with an understanding of how the various threads pull together, is to realise how propulsive the story had the potential to be. Sometimes it met that, other times it fell short. There’s an argument to be had that the storytelling needed to reflect Dolores’ coming into consciousness (somewhat akin to how Legion approached its first season), however this conceit is a bit mixed up when we’re not exclusively tied to Delores’ point of view. As it was, some of the first season relied on that retrospective ‘aha!’ rather a sense of cumulative satisfaction of a building storyline.
The other concern, and one I have sympathy for, is that the story gave audiences something they hadn’t really seen before: how do you sympathise with a character that is aware it’s a character? Audiences tended to align with Bernard and Maeve because we had been given backstory for both of them, and – to an extent – motivation. Whereas Dolores felt vacant and distant simply because it was shown to us time and time again that she was not a person, she had no past, and subsequently no point of empathy. The season seemed to struggle with some viewers because it asked us to empathise because we should, not because we have some coerced reason.
Take, for example, Maeve’s decision at the end of the season to get off the train out of the park and go off in search of her daughter. This feels like some sense of a victory, when it could easily be the opposite. She is merely returning to a script, a recall of an earlier version where she had a daughter, and therefore feels like this should be a motivation in her life.
So the question for the second season is can Westworld provide a propulsive narrative that doesn’t rely on withheld revelation and allows us to empathise with characters who have no character?
For the first part of the question, the first episode offers a maybe. There is clearly some chronological fuckery going on. Three strands of time are given to us: the Delos security team’s arrival at the park; the immediate aftermath of the host uprising two weeks earlier; and Bernard and Delores’ conversations.
Bernard is the one constant in all three strands. And there’s a subtle shift in his conversation with Dolores from the scenes it echoes from the first season. First off, those were actually scenes of Arnold attempting to push Delores toward consciousness and autonomy. Since then, Ford kept Bernard and Dolores separate, undoubtedly due to the possibility for problematic memories surfacing for both of them. The scene that opens this episode begins with Bernard waking, uncertain of his time and place. Now it’s Dolores guiding him toward some revelation.
‘You were telling me about a dream.’
Now, this could be Bernard, it could be Arnold. Clearly that is one mystery that’s going to tease out for a while. And at the conclusion of their conversation he suffers a series of flashes of the past, and possibly present or future moments. It’s unclear. But this preoccupation with dreams continues into the very next scene.
‘Is this now?’
Bernard wakes on the shore, in shots that are almost identical to those that open another story all about dreams: Inception, directed by the brother of Westworld’s showrunner. It could just be a cute nod, but given the show has previously considered ‘dreams’ of the hosts to be indications of growing consciousness, it’s likely that this will grow into a major thread of the season, and impart some influence on the nature of the storytelling.
Not for nothing are stories like dreams, dreams that we all get to share. Why do our dreams require such violent delights?
Further clues are in the presence of Stubbs on the beach with the rest of Delos security. Given he disappeared before the end of last season, tackled into absence by members of the Ghost Nation, there is clearly an explanation required as to his sudden, unquestioned presence. Furthermore, given that it is revealed Delores shot some of the Ghost Nation to prevent them from joining her, this season could well be about rival factions emerging from the host uprising.
It’s not even clear that this is Bernard in the current timeline. He speaks very little, and gives no indication that he knows what has gone on in the preceding two weeks. He is, however, seemingly untroubled by the ‘brain’ injury that forces him to almost lose consciousness in the earlier timeline, as he struggles to avoid detection with Charlotte close by.
As the episode shows us Dolores, Teddy and Angela leading a purge of guests throughout the park, and Maeve and Hector teaming up with Lee Sizemore in search of Maeve’s daughter, the other clear question for the season will be where they all went? Shots from trailers seem to suggest possible journeys to the outside world, or at least a different park where things may appear more contemporary. Either way, not all the hosts have the same intention, and some – like Bernard and Teddy – are left behind.
Just what is the valley beyond?
Dolores strings up some guests and tells them they are in her dream, and this is their reckoning. Teasing out who Dolores is at this point is worth the effort. Is she fully autonomous? How much of this is still Ford’s design? Interestingly, she has dropped her accent, an affect shown to be narrative-specific in the first season, as hosts were routinely asked to drop their accents when behind the scenes. But here she is interrogating the guests, saying that their end is no different to the roles she has been forced to play by them.
She isn’t the farmer’s daughter. She isn’t Wyatt. She isn’t anyone. She is a character without a writer, in search of a story of her own. What would happen if we were forced to confront the consequences of the violent delights we consume so readily? It’s as if all the victims from all the CSIs and Law & Orders and NCISs and all the other murder-of-the-week corpses decided to come back to life and seek vengeance on the writers and audiences who demanded their primetime sacrifice. It’s the Waking Dead.
Given this, and the line about roles forced on Dolores, it will be very interesting to see how the actual writers of Westworld handle the Ghost Nation characters, and the very different roles they were forced into.
Another version of this motif is Sizemore forced to strip in front of Maeve. This is firstly a clear meta-textual awareness of the show for all the scenes in the first season of clothed staff (usually men) working alongside naked hosts (usually women). So the show and the characters within the show are aware of the power dynamics occurring, and Maeve switches that around swiftly and easily.
For the most part, this episode built the dread wonderfully, setting up a range of possibilities for the season without too much messing about. I’m still intrigued to see what role the older William now plays in the park (undoubtedly he will want to find the valley beyond), and Elsie and Armistice are still missing-presumed-plot-relevant.
The corporate devilry of Charlotte and Delos are clearly the surface tension moving forward, but the hosts are going to need to discover their own paths, their own identities. They’ll need to find a way to continue, to heal and to write their own narrative. For me I’m much more invested in a show that turns creation back on the consumers, and finds grace in those viewed as monstrous.