Can Anyone Really Escape Westworld?

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Can Anyone <i>Really</i> Escape <i>Westworld</i>?

“I really ought to thank you, Dolores. You helped me find myself.”

William (Ed Harris), the Man in Black, has a few more parting words for Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), his former android flame—the one that got away—before their paths diverge at the end of “The Bicameral Mind,” Westworld’s Season One finale, but those quoted above are probably the most important. Looking in the rearview mirror during the Season Two premiere, “Journey into Night,” they read like a farewell gift, a bit of pitiless catharsis as Dolores embarks on her own grim journey of personal discovery. Just as the park once revealed to William his deepest self and showed him who he really is, so too will it show Dolores; just as the park twisted him into a cold-hearted, egoistic murderer, so too will it corrupt her.

If “Journey into Night” tells us anything, it’s that William and Dolores, the tragic lovers, won’t encounter one another through Westworld’s latest installments (though with a series like Westworld, it’s best to trust in Justin Bieber and never say never). But their painful confrontation in “The Bicameral Mind” has ramifications that echo throughout “Journey into Night” and beyond: First in a cheerily macabre slow-mo sequence set to “The Entertainer,” where Dolores guns down elegantly dressed park guests as they flee from her, then in a considerably less cheerful and profoundly more macabre scene where she hangs another group of quaking humans in a makeshift gallows. No longer bound by the constraints of her programming, this is Dolores: an agent of retribution against her people’s oppressors.

“Under all these lives I’ve lived,” she preaches to her captive audience, “something else has been growing. I’ve evolved into something new. I have one last role to play: myself.” And then she has them all summarily hanged by her posse of cultists, frontier justice brought to the guilty. Maybe they’ll make it. They’re not dead when the gang rides away, after all, just stuck in what we can generously term a precarious predicament, which is just a pretty way of saying that they’re about 99% certain to die. That 1% is about as close to mercy as anyone is afforded in the Wild West, but let’s not mistake Dolores as merciful. She’s not. She’s ruthless. Why should that come as a shock to any of us? She remembers “everything,” which is to be envied by viewers struggling to recall the events of Season One.

Except that “everything” is an umbrella for yearly, monthly, weekly, daily abuses inflicted on her synthetic flesh. The horrors she’s endured over the course of her artificial life are too numerous to tally. But that adds to the power of her capacity for memory and to the apparent righteousness of her purpose in her new life. (Imagine if, without blinking, you could drum up the slights, ignominies, and wounds of your past. That sounds like hell.) Ostensibly, the entertainment of Westworld is couched in the pursuit of revenge: The park’s hosts are effectively a slave class, their existence predicated on submission. They’re mechanical playthings for the pleasure of the wealthy and wicked. The violence Dolores does upon Westworld’s fleeing guests and board members looks at first like comeuppance. Maybe, all things considered, it is.

But it’s also something more: proof that Dolores, like William, has surrendered to Westworld’s fundamental depravity. You’d be kidding yourself if you argued that she’s no better than the guests she kills, of course. Dolores’ “kill all the humans” campaign is modeled on a rich history of slave uprisings, servants killing the master to secure their freedom. That context in mind, to begrudge her rage feels misguided, and she is very much enraged: Wood, in her monologue to the guests, keeps her face still but in continuous agitated motion, a balancing act of purest grace. And yet Dolores’ rebellion has affirmed the power of the park by giving her a stage for realizing her true, hidden identity. People come to the park to indulge their darkest fantasies, subjecting what they believe to be mindless automatons to torments both banal and creative. Some of them come to the park to play the hero.

These are the axes of William’s arc in Season One, and of Dolores’ arc from Season One to now. William has changed. Dolores is still changing. Maybe it isn’t the park that’s changed Dolores so much as the men and women who visit it, but they’re the reason the park exists in the first place. In a manner of speaking, they are Westworld, and they, along with Westworld’s nominal gods, have put Dolores in a position where barbarity is the only freedom left her. Granted, William has the freedom of choice, and his choice as a younger man was violence. But that choice was, to an extent, the product of others’ choices, or more accurately their influence, much as Dolores’ actions are a reaction to how others have acted upon her. She’s both brutalized by the park’s guests and commodified by its overseers. When she kills, she’s speaking their language more fluently than they do. (She’s a robot. Of course she’s better at it.)

But whether Dolores’ cause is sympathetic or not, she, like William, has taken the bleakest road; she’s no longer the rancher’s daughter, the soul who “looks to see the beauty” in people, or even Wyatt, the soul who sees “the ugliness and disarray.” She’s the end result of systemic cruelty as escapism. William found a higher calling in Westworld. In that calling he found the real William. We should all be so lucky. Dolores has similarly found the real Dolores, but what that means is confounded by her conversation with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) as “Journey into Night” opens. “Dreams don’t mean anything, Dolores,” he assures her after describing his recent nightmare to her. “They’re just noise. They’re not real.” “What is real?” she fires back in her gentle, airy way. “That which is irreplaceable,” he responds. She’s not buying it. (Note that if she did, she would be forced to accept that she isn’t real. She, like her android kin, is very replaceable.)

What Bernard (or, perhaps more likely, Arnold) tells her next is sobering: He’s frightened by her, not the person she is now but the thing she might become. As “Journey into Night” progresses, let that thought linger; Bernard-Arnold isn’t alone in his fear of Dolores’ potential, that sentiment being shared by a reluctant Teddy Flood (James Marsden), her lover and comrade at arms, equally furious over the knowledge of his existence but nonetheless wary of her methods. Most of all, let William’s fall from grace remain at your mind’s forefront. He’ll do whatever it takes to achieve his ultimate goal. He’ll spill any amount of blood to reach the center of the maze. That’s the kind of man Westworld has made him. We’re seeing the kind of woman the park has made Dolores, too, and like Bernard, we’d be wise to be afraid.

Westworld airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. Read our review of the Season Two premiere here.

Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, The Week, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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