Warning: This contains spoilers. Not caught up with Westworld? Read our spoiler-free review of Episode 1.
“Are you real?” “If you can’t tell, does it matter?” That’s the response William gets when he visits Westworld, only to be greeted by a slinky front-of-house robot. It’s the kind of on-the-nose dialogue that’s starting to feel familiar in HBO’s remake of Michael Crichton’s 1973 flick, but as Episode 2 immerses us more and more in this faux-reality, it only gets more intriguing.
Episode 1 gave us enough of a whiff to get us hooked – shiny surfaces teasing hidden secrets. Episode 2 has the trickier challenge of actually turning that potential into a narrative. And so, where the show’s opener focused mainly on the robots and the people keeping them running, Episode 2 spends more time with the human punters.
Those are, specifically, William and his co-worker, Logan, who effectively act as the new version of the two protagonists in the original movie. William is a gentle, nervous type, who is being taken to Westworld as something of a stag do by Logan. Jimmi Simpson plays him with the requisite good looks and timid likeability you’d expect, not quite comfortable with the seductive welcome offered by his hostess. She dares him to guess what she is with the kind of provocative pout you’d see in a computer game, which, upon reflection, is about right for a paid attraction where men go to live out their fantasies.
Ben Barnes, who has experience at being less of a nice boy from 2009’s Dorian Gray, plays Logan with a swaggering ego and been-there-done-that casual attitude that feels like a believable norm for regular visitors to Westworld. Where William is more likely to help a stumbling old prospector up off the ground, Logan is the kind of person who stabs him in the hand at the dinner table, when he follows them into a restaurant and offers them an adventure. When the duo first arrive, they’re asked to pick their guns and hats from costume racks on the wall. William takes a white hat. No points for guessing what colour hat Logan takes.
For Logan, the way to tell the difference between real and not real is simple: to shoot everyone – something that William is appalled by. But if that’s the kind of environment William’s being exposed to, and if he’s going to be a main character with some form of development, are we going to witness him become gradually corrupted over the next six weeks? Shifting personalities, and (more importantly) the awareness of them, after all, is Westworld’s bread and butter – the notion that, like William, the hosts aren’t programmed to know who’s a robot or not, until they begin to experience those “reveries” installed by Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins).
That’s what we saw start to happen to Dolores in Episode 1 and she continues that transformation here, as Boffin Girl (Shannon Woodward) spells out to Jeffrey Wright’s Mr. Science: “Whatever Abernathy had could be contagious.”
Sure enough, Dolores starts quoting Shakespeare too: “These violent delights have violent ends,” she warns Thandie Newton’s Maeve, who promptly seems to get infected too. And the infection isn’t just reciting Romeo and Juliet: it’s remembering what’s happened to them before.
It’s only fitting that Maeve should take the spotlight in this episode, as we’re spending time getting to know humans and their vices – and what we get is a shocking little sequence, which reveals that the madame of the local inn once had a daughter, until her home was violently raided by (you guessed it) Ed Harris’ Man in Black. We don’t get a whole hour of flashbacks, though, which keeps the show’s pace up and also makes the discovery all the more effective. Besides, there are probably so many memories of human guests mistreating Maeve knocking about in her hard drive that it would take longer than an episode to show them all.
Maeve is already close to being decommissioned, due to her lack of, shall we say, pulling power – one of the creepiest things we’ve seen in the show so far is the way they alter her aggression to make her more assertive and, potentially, attractive to guests. Newton is excellent here, able to vary her performance just enough to make it convincing; compared to the humans, the robots remain, eerily, still more engaging.
Maeve getting reveries, though, is enough to send her to the lab for fixing – and, in a sign that your day can always get worse, even if you’re a robot whose memory is wiped on a daily basis, she wakes up halfway through that repair process. It’s a genuinely freaky moment, as she runs through the building, scared and violent.
This is the closest we really get to a major plot development, although we do hang out with the Man in Black a bit, as he looks more into the map of a maze he unearthed on someone’s scalp. It’s a slow-burn tease, one that leaves us wondering, again, what on earth he’s up to – and what this maze is all about. Is the Man really a rogue human? And if he has been there for years, the people running Westworld surely must be aware of him?
Throughout, the lines between human and robot remain wonderfully blurred, not least because Jeffrey Wright’s Mr. Science is confiding things in Dolores – human secrets that are just waiting for her computer memory to divulge, as those reveries bubble to the surface. When we realise that she’s hearing voices, you wonder: Is it Abernathy’s? Wright’s? Ford’s? Someone else’s?
Evan Rachel Wood is as captivatingly ambiguous as ever – oodles more complex than writer Lee (Simon Quartermain). Compared to the robots, Lee’s lack of self-awareness is a nice little touch, as he pitches his plan for an epic new storyline to Dr. Ford. One of killing, rescuing, killing, sex and generally being a hero, it’s a narrative full of cliches and exaggeration. Dr. Ford rejects it in a delicious, single syllable (“No.”) – a reminder that Anthony Hopkins is often better when not given long monologues to act his way through.
“[Guests] come back because they discover something they imagine no one has ever noticed before. Something they fall in love with,” Hopkins waxes lyrical, as Ford goes off on one about his beloved invention. And it’s a cracking (and blatant) statement of intent for the show, which reinforces its critique of all the violent, shallow impulses that audiences want. The exciting stuff here isn’t the guns and the intercourse; it’s the twitching facial expressions, the swatted flies, all those other small details.
But, Episode 2 seems to ask, what if Lee’s pitch is right? What if that’s what all humans visiting Westworld want? To be like Logan and The Man in Black? What if the guests’ desire to glimpse who they could be is just the darker version of themselves? It’s a provocative question to ask in our era of modern entertainment – a question that’s as intriguing as what exactly Ford is up to. We see him strolling through the desert (note: in a black hat) to find a church, but what does that have to do with his own designs for the park? Do those intentions involve the Man in Black and his maze? And, more to the point, do they involve the robots intentionally becoming self-aware and vengeful?
“It’s something I’ve been working on for some time,” Ford promises Lee of his own planned narrative. “Something quite original.”
Two episodes in and Westworld remains less a narrative and more a load of musing on mortality and philosophy and other Big Ideas – you can almost hear the cogs grinding as the plot machine is slowly put into motion. But as long as we can’t quite tell what’s real and what isn’t, the fascination that uncertainty inspires remains all that matters. Roll on Episode 3.
Westworld Season 1 is available to watch on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The contract-free service includes access to a range of Sky channels, from Sky 1 (Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash) and FOX UK (The Walking Dead) to Sky Living (Divorce) and Sky Atlantic (Westworld, The Young Pope). A 14-day free trial is available for new subscribers.
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