Westworld: Parce Domine

“You said they’d made the world to be a game. And then they rigged it… to make sure they always won.”

Westworld is back, and wastes no time when it comes to upping its game.

As much as I grew to love the retro-cyberpunk aesthetic of the Westworld park, I must admit that I'm already just as intrigued by the world outside of the park. Our world.

We are finally given a date in time to work with, but I gotta say I'm a little surprised. I had thought we were in, at least, the very late 21st Century. It turns out the year is actually 2058. Meaning that Westworld and the AI hosts have been in existence since the 2020s. With the way our world is going at the moment, I'd be shocked if we had artificial islands and fully-functional humanlike androids in just a couple of years. But it's fiction, and we have to roll with these kinds of things.

A sentiment I have heard repeated by several different creators lately is that plot is largely irrelevant compared to characters and emotional resonance; to paraphrase Martin Scorsese: "If all you remember about a movie is the plot, it was a bad movie."

That's kind of how I feel about Westworld. A lot of the plot mechanics are wonky and absurd if you step back and take a long look at them, but what elevates it are the fascinating characters, the exploration of various complex ideas relevant to our own world, and the absolutely jaw-dropping production quality that lends everything an authentic feel.

All of which is bigger and better than ever now that we have escaped the theme park (for now) and have now entered mankind's multilayered world. The portrayal of a world that could potentially be just down the road from our own, where advanced machines and revolutionary AI technology has been casually interwoven into virtually all aspects of human civilization, was spectacular. This show just looks and feels so damn cinematic, even compared to some of HBO's other top-tier content.

It's the perfect playground for our host characters.

Dolores

The newly liberated Dolores quickly gets to back to work. Half of the episode is centered around her quest to take over the world.

I'm happy to say Dolores seems to have matured a bit. Her goal is no longer so simple as "destroy all humans." Now she is more interested in finding whatever power runs the human world and usurping it so that machines can become the dominant species. She states that she no longer wants to hurt anyone so long as they don't try to hurt her, and she's living up to that so far.

Within three months of entering the new world, she has stolen some rich asshole's fortune, created a fake identity as a high society businesswoman, and developed a relationship with Liam Dempsey, Jr., figurehead of Incite, the world's most influential tech company. Liam's father and silent partner created Rehoboam, a giant supercomputer that operates the "system" everyone seems to be using. It essentially runs the human world through endless algorithms, though it's implied there is a darker purpose for it that we're not seeing.

Liam seems decent enough, but it's clear that Dolores is only using him as a means to an end. Although she's dropped the accent and fully adapted to modern culture, Dolores still has the mad obsession with god and transcendence. Wyatt is still here. Not good.

But the most interesting aspect of Dolores in this episode was the fact that she apparently still has all of those "unauthorized autobiographies" in her head, possibly one for every rich schmuck who ever came to the parks. This gives her an intimate advantage over many of her enemies, as well as opportunities for more personal revenge. She doesn't just know exactly who they are, she knows how they will react.

This leads to the little twist in Dolores's plot. Incite's security head, Martin Conells, finds Dolores out and captures her before she's able to get the name of his late father's partner, the true mastermind behind Rehoboam. He tries to ambush her "handlers," only to realize she has no handlers and that she's led him out to be ambushed. She was after Conells, not Liam, because Conells has greater influence at Incite. And it's through this that we learn another key element to Dolores's strategy this season: killing highly influential humans and replacing them with host duplicates, which is what happens to Conells.

I like that, as dangerous as she is, Dolores is still not perfect. Despite taking a more subtle approach to her goals, she does ultimately resort to shooting a bunch of guys in a fight that leaves her immobilized from damage; I imagine she could have avoided or worked around this. And she won't be able to rely too much on the Forge books in her head now that she is contending with people who never got their minds scanned at any Delos park, such as our enigmatic new antagonist Serac.

Dolores is always an enthralling character to watch. It's cool that she's come full circle as this scary, sexy, highly efficient killing machine out to dominate humanity. As always, Evan Rachel Wood's performance is delightfully startling.


Caleb

The more captivating aspect of the episode, for me, was our introduction to Caleb Nichols, a lower class human living in Los Angeles. Through him we see how the human world really is.

We are given a lot of reasons to empathize with Caleb from the start. He's a war veteran dealing with PTSD. His hospitalized mother no longer recognizes him. He works construction by day, but it doesn't pay enough so he finds himself resorting to a crime app to earn extra money by night. Aside from a silent robot workmate and a few criminal associates he has no real friends. He's also clearly depressed about the state of his existence.

Caleb and his relationship with the world he lives in are introduced to us in much the same way Dolores and her relationship with Westworld were in the first season. In general, Caleb is set up as a human counterpart to Dolores. He's also been conditioned to accept the nature of his reality, he's given a regular analysis from his VA therapist and his old friend Francis, he also has a parent suffering from some unexplained form of dementia, he is compassionate and has morals but is still capable of doing bad things.

Most importantly of all, he is also stuck in a loop. He wakes up, clocks into work where he doesn't earn enough to survive, struggles to find a better job, is weighed down by his pain and past trauma, and finally resorts to low level crime. Every day seems to go like this for him.

But because he is a human, Caleb is pretty self-aware about his situation from the very start. Unlike the hosts, he's only humoring the System because he feels lost and worn down by his experiences. It's through his daily chats with his old war buddy, Francis, that we get to the heart of his inner turmoil. Although I guessed fairly quick that "Francis" isn't real, it's an AI therapy program designed to simulate the voice and personality of his fallen friend. It's supposed to help Caleb work out his issues, but he can no longer tolerate it when AI-Francis suggests that he embrace the System; "you can't win if you don't play." Caleb knows that the real Francis would never say such a thing, having been the one who incited Caleb's own reluctance to conform. Caleb states that he wants to "find something, someone real."

Shortly after, his latest criminal gig brings him face to face with a badly wounded Dolores, who falls into Caleb's arms. Not unlike the way she fell into young William's arms in season one, as Evan Rachel Wood pointed out.

The implications of this moment are daunting to think about. As anyone who has kept up with this show knows, Dolores's relationships with men typically do not end well. We know from the teaser of upcoming episodes that Caleb will be a key ally for Dolores this season, but how their relationship plays out is sure to be pivotal. The last time Dolores and a human fell in love, things went bad and they both turned into monsters who basically set the plot of the show into motion.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have stated that they wanted to offer a more sympathetic look at humans this season. Does this mean Caleb will be a positive influence on Dolores, mollifying some of her crazier quirks, or will he be another hapless nice guy corrupted by his love for this woman of the future? As kind and innocent as William was in the beginning, we know that he always felt compelled to play the part society gave him, even if it wasn't who he truly was. Caleb does not appear to have that handicap. He knows he wants to be someone other than what his world tells him to be, and he didn't need a trip to Westworld to figure that out.

I'm excited to see where this is going.

Others

We get some insight into the stories of other big characters as well.

The one I'm most curious about is "Charlotte Hale," or rather whatever host is currently posing as her. We still don't know the identity of the host, but whoever it is has managed to capture the real Hale's personality even better than Dolores was able to; the Martin Conells duplicate appeared to be the same way, a perfect imitation of the man it's copying. I'm ruling out them simply being altered copies of Dolores, for now. They may be characters we've already met. The teaser hints that "Conells" is Teddy, and I'm thinking "Hale" might be Clementine.

In the three months since the host uprising at Westworld, the "Hale" host has been the one in charge of Delos, Inc. William is mysteriously absent, having allegedly installed an AI proxy in his place. She ignores the Delos board's concerns over her decision to take the company private and ramp up the development of new hosts, all of which are undoubtedly part of Dolores's plan. And it's also revealed that she and Dolores have cut down fear of hosts by framing Bernard Lowe as a disgruntled park employee who engineered the massacre.

Bernard's segment features him attempting to hide in plain sight among humans on an industrial meat farm in what appeared to be Central or South America. His current difficulties make Dolores's little resolution at the end of last season ring a bit hollow now. They were supposed to be challenging each other in an ideological battle that will determine the future fate of both mankind and machines, but Dolores' machinations have left him at a near-total disadvantage to her. She's put the blame for her crimes on him, branding him a fugitive, hated by the very people he seeks to save. He also lives in a constant state of paranoia, regularly interrogating himself to ensure that Dolores isn't secretly controlling him; it just wouldn't be a Bernard subplot without a freaky existential crisis. After being found out and forced to kill two men, Bernard books passage back to Westworld.

Meanwhile, a newly resurrected Maeve wakes up in a new park. This one's called Warworld, a recreation of the Winter Line in Italy during World War II. Maeve appears to be in the role of some sort of spy. It's a lovely little peek at the sort of things it appears she will be doing this season. Infiltrating unknown territory and going to war.

Shit is about to get real.


Loops and Reveries:

* Music: “99 Luftballons” by Nena, “Bubbles Buried in This Jungle” by Death Grips and "Common People" by Pulp.

* The Westworld park is not featured in this episode, which I believe is a first for this show. William does not appear either.

* The opening title sequence usually ends up foreshadowing the themes and major plot beats of the season. The first season was an elaborate symbolic display of the way in which Westworld is a finely tuned machine designed to simulate life to a degree that’s almost too perfect. The second season sequence contains scattered imagery of motherhood, baptismal waters, spreading viruses, and stampeding beasts to evoke themes of change, rebirth and revolution. Now it’s even less subtle, with a bird’s wings burning off as it flies toward to the sun, a rapidly developing zygote, or a person colliding with they're mirrored self as they emerge from the baptismal waters in an image that evokes The Creation of Adam painting by Michelangelo. And where before the angelic host locked in a circle is submerged in the liquid flesh pools or the biblical flood waters, now it's a skinless drone host being submerged in blood.

* Speaking of religious imagery, the "limbic sedative" everyone in Futureworld seems to be taking looks suspiciously like holy wafers. Not sure what exactly the drug does yet, but it might be related to the “implants” that everyone has.

* The title refers to a Roman Catholic antiphon. "Parce Domine" translates to "Spare, Lord." The full reading is "Spare, Lord, spare your people; Be not angry with us forever." Thank you, Wikipedia. Hoping this is meant as a positive.

* Rehoboam, the name of the system, is taken from the name of the first ruler of the Kingdom of Judah, who brought civil war to Israel.

* As always, the most consistent symbol is the circle. Or rather, the loop. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy really want us to contemplate the circular nature of life, how we are all locked in repetitive narratives and patterns of behavior. The circle surrounds the show’s logo, is frequently used in the form of grand images like the world, the sun, and now we have the spherical Rehoboam machine and its System, which is represented by a great ring of data. We knew that hosts were made to be stuck in endless states of routine called loops, but now we learn that pretty much everyone in human society is also trapped in a loop. Free under someone else’s control, just like the hosts.

* Singapore is used as a stand-in for Los Angeles of the future. Very nice cyberpunk touch.

* I love all the clever names the Rico app has for various types of criminal work. Some are straightforward like Grand Theft Auto, Wetwork, and Smash & Grab, but arson is a Fireworks Show, Creative Accounting sounds like jobs for bag men or loan sharks, Babysitting is most likely kidnapping and, of course, Red Rum is murder. Caleb mainly works A to B, implied to be drug running, or Redistributive Justice, slang for robbing banks and ATM machines.

* As a criminal, Caleb repeatedly states that he doesn't “do personals.” This means he prefers not to take jobs where he has to hurt people. Well, Dolores will cure him of that.

* Caleb's memories of his time with Francis "over there" features them in military gear in some shots, while in other shots they are wearing civilian clothing during combat. I initially took this to mean they worked as mercenaries after the military, but it doesn't sound like that's the case. Maybe Caleb's memories of his war experiences aren't as they seem.

* America is still the USA, but the United Kingdom has become whatever the U.R.E.W. is supposed to be. Maybe it’s commentary on Brexit.

Quotes:

Dolores: Bit of a tactical mistake really. You want to be the dominant species but you built your whole world with things… more like me.

Dolores: I’m the last of my kind. For now. If I want to survive, I need a competitive advantage. As for the money, think of it as an investment. A start-up. The origin of a new species.

Caleb: He said the way the army was run, algorithms, that’s the way everything was gonna be someday. Better living through technology. Some things are better but… I don’t know.

Francis: You ever think about getting your implant turned back on, smooth some of the rough edges off?
Caleb: No. Some people need it, but for me, I guess the rough edges are the only thing I’m hanging on to.

Francis: You still working the night shift? Look, I know what you’re thinking, but there’s no point in us talking if you can’t trust me. Besides, who the fuck am I gonna tell?
As if it’s not a machine with recoverable data. The System is most likely well aware that Caleb moonlights as a hired criminal.

Delos Exec: You’re letting an algorithm decide the fate of our company? People died because of our machines.
“Charlotte Hale”: Robots don’t kill people. People kill people.

Bernard: Self-diagnostic. Prompt. Bernard Lowe, has anyone other than yourself tampered with or altered your code in the last 24 hours? (presses button)
Bernard: No. Bernard Lowe is the only person who has accessed my code. (presses button)
Bernard: Prompt. Have you had any contact with Dolores Abernathy that I’m unaware of? (presses button)
Bernard: No. Last contact with Dolores Abernathy was 92 days, seven hours, five minutes, 33 seconds ago. (presses button)
Bernard: Prompt. Would you ever lie to me, Bernard? (presses button)
Bernard: … No, of course not.

Penny: Where are you from?
Dolores: Uh, a little town out west. Sort of off the beaten path.

Roderick: Just think about this. For one second. How fucking ironic would it be if they had put a simulation within a simulation? That’s a massive “fuck you.”
This seems like a real writer winking at the audience type of line. Or maybe it’s just reminding us of the last twist from the previous season, which Lisa Joy has said would not be addressed too much in this new season.

Dolores: Fuck off.

Caleb: Sometimes it seems like the world looks alright, like they’ve put a coat of paint on it. But inside it’s rotting to pieces.

Caleb: Hey, no offense, but… are you human?
Shaun from DCA: I’m Shaun. I can help you with all kinds of resources for DCA.

Dolores: We’ve met once before. You were on vacation.

Dolores: The real gods are coming. And they are very angry.

I'm loving it so far, the episode and the overall direction this season seems to be heading in. Five out of five holy wafer narcotics.

2 comments:

milostanfield said...

What a thorough detailed review. Keep this going and you will end up writing a book about Westworld. Only watched once but now I have plenty to pick up on second time through. Thanks.

We spent the first and most of the second seasons seeing Delores as a victim and sympathetic character while knowing she was synthetic. Now she is officially a "villain" or at least an antagonist but, perversely, I am still rooting for her. Partly because of her past, partly because all of the humans so far have been various shades of asshole, and partly because of the "you tend to want the bad guys to pull off a complicated heist" syndrome. So I am rooting against my own species right now. What a show.

Logan Cox said...

As always, thank you for your comments.

Yeah, this series really keeps you on your toes, as far as who you are rooting for. Sometimes I hate humanity as much as the hosts and think they deserve revenge, other times the hosts scare me and I want the less awful humans to survive and win. I'm honestly liking the gray area we're in right now. I hope they don't make either side so much more right than the other.