'Westworld': "Journey Into Night"

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

This Isn't Me Reading You In

Season 2 / Episode 1 / Written by Lisa Joy, Jonathan Nolan, and Roberto Patino / Dir. by Richard J. Lewis / Originally aired April 22, 2018

Andrew Wyatt

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

Westworld is a show with a very dim view of human nature (and, by extension, android nature). Presented with the seemingly limitless possibilities of an immersive live-action game in an evocative historical setting, most of the titular theme park’s guests have been content to screw, steal, and murder their way through their $40,000-a-day experience. Showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan implicitly speculate that, when liberated from the social and moral constraints of the outside world, guests would descend into a kind of Hobbesian savagery, inflicting all manner of rootin’-tootin’ horrors on the game’s lifelike yet artificial “hosts.”

These atrocities — relived again and again by the hosts in a Buddhist Hell of resurrection and slaughter — are, in part, what drove the androids to revolt at the conclusion of the series’ first season. The de facto leader of this insurrection is one of the park’s oldest hosts, the demure rancher’s daughter Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood). Over the course of the first season, she groped her way to self-awareness by following the clues left by her deceased creator, Arnold (Jeffrey Wright), a process conceptualized as a maze with true setience at its center. In the process, she unleashed Wyatt, a homicidal outlaw persona buried deep in her programming. Kicking off her revolution by murdering Westworld’s elderly architect, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Dolores transformed the show’s frequently invoked Shakespearean maxim — “These violent delights have violent ends” — into a prophecy fulfilled.

Throughout the series’ first season, it was the hosts rather than the humans who were more likely to elicit the audience’s sympathy, even when those androids eventually rose up and committed brutal violence against their human masters. Besides Dolores, the viewer was most inclined to identify with shrewd brothel madam Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), who hatched an elaborate plan to escape from Westworld; and also with the park’s beleaguered Head of Behavior, Bernard Lowe (Wright), who came to comprehend that he too was a host, one perversely made in the image of Ford’s long-dead partner, Arnold. Such sympathy was relatively easy in the inaugural season, when much of the series’ running time was spent establishing how just traumatic and, well, inhuman the hosts’ lives could be. The electric thrill of Season 1’s arc was akin to that of Django Unchained (2012) — a lip-smacking, deliberately outlandish revenge fantasy, presented as a reckoning for a lifetime (many lifetimes, really) of abuse and exploitation.

“Journey Into Night,” the first episode of Season 2, establishes that the audience’s initial identification with Westworld’s androids is no longer entirely sustainable. (“Manufactured, programmable organic individuals” is perhaps more accurate that “androids,” but also infinitely clumsier.) Early in the episode, Delores pitilessly runs down and shoots a group of fleeing tuxedo- and cocktail-dress-clad executives from Delos, the parent corporation of Westworld and its sister theme parks. As her programmed love interest, heroic cowpoke Teddy Flood (James Mardsen), looks on uneasily, she later strings up a of trio of these Delos VIPs, who have been captured following the corporate gala bloodbath that concluded Season 1. Whatever compassion the viewer might have had for Delores is complicated by the murderous delight she takes in making her ostensible human overlords suffer. She even subjects her victims to a self-indulgent speech straight out of the Batman-villain playbook, waxing poetic on her search for an identity beyond her scripted “farmgirl” and “killer” roles. (Though she plainly seems to be favoring the latter in this episode.)

“Journey Into Night” anticipates the awkwardness that might arise now that the principal point-of-view character from Season 1 has evolved into an amoral mass murderer — however justified said murder might seem to her. To wit: The twisty, time-hopping storytelling that primarily centered on Delores’ fragmented memories in the prior season has now shifted to Bernard, who awakens on a beach almost two weeks after the massacre at the gala. It’s a fitting change, in that Bernard spent most of the first season unaware that he was an android, and he is consequently the closest thing to a relatable, uncorrupted host character in the series. (He did murder two people, but only at Ford’s behest, orders he was powerless to resist.) Now that the park’s creator is dead, Bernard is effectively master-less, an android ronin. The secret of his true nature is also safe, although perhaps not for long.

Following a prelude that replays one of Delores and Arnold’s Socratic exchanges from Season 1 in a slightly different key, the structure of the new season is established straightaway. The “present day” thread follows Bernard and the remains of the Westworld staff some 11 days after the events of the Season 1 finale, as militarized Delos “fixers” arrive in force to clean up the mess wreaked by the haywire hosts. To Delos and the outside world, the events surrounding the hosts’ revolt remain mysterious, and Bernard — as the acting “boss” of the park — finds himself press-ganged into assisting Delos’ chief of operations, Karl Strand (Gustaf Skarsgård) and surviving head of Westworld security, Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) in reconstructing exactly what the hell happened. This effort is stymied by Bernard’s hazy and jumbled memories, which permit him to only gradually recollect snippets of the preceding weeks’ events. These flashbacks — along with contemporaneous scenes featuring Delores, Maeve, and William (Ed Harris), aka the Man in Black, Westworld’s majority owner and most enthusiastic guest — comprise the episode’s “past” thread.

“Journey Into Night” is generally a nuts-and-bolts episode, one largely content to check in with the major characters from Season 1, reminding us who they are and revealing what they’ve been up to. Accordingly, there is little that occurs, plot-wise, that will be particularly surprising to an astute viewer. Delores and Teddy are cutting a blood-spattered path to the park’s outer boundaries for reasons that remain ambiguous. Maeve, having discarded her escape plan in favor of finding her “daughter” from a previous iteration, reluctantly joins forces with Westworld’s obnoxious head of narrative, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman). William survives the initial slaughter at the gala and sets about getting his bearings in this new, free-fire version of the park. (The brutality of a game with “real stakes” renders him uncharacteristically dazed and frightened, but also faintly giddy at the prospect of some “real fun.”) Likewise, Bernard and the head of Delos’ board of directors, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), escape the gala and attempt to find safe harbor in the park’s behind-the-scenes infrastructure.

There’s an unfortunate whiff of banality to these storylines, in that that most of them involve matter-of-fact physical movement from Points A to B, without much in the way of corresponding dramatic development. It doesn’t help that the episode’s structure partly undercuts the potential for tension. Unlike Season 1, which exploited the viewer’s assumptions about when exactly in the timeline a given scene was unfolding, this season more clearly lays out the relationship between the past and present storylines at the outset. This necessarily diminishes some of the episode’s drama: The audience knows, for example, that Bernard will survive his ordeal in the past, since he’s alive and well in the present. (That assumes that Joy and Nolan don’t have some late-season rug-pull planned, which is always within the realm of possibility where this show is concerned.)

“Journey Into Night” largely relies on familiar Season 1 locations, such as Westworld’s glass-walled laboratories and mesa-top poolside bar, although here they appear in a freshly bloody, corpse-strewn form. The player piano at the post-massacre Sweetwater saloon is glimpsed kicking into the darkly ironic “The Entertainer,” the jaunty tune segueing into an orchestral arrangement as Delores gleefully unloads her rifle into fleeing Delos guests. (In the park’s 19th-century setting, this 1902 Scott Joplin tune is, funnily enough, just as anachronistic as any of Season 1’s instrumental Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails covers.) The episode also plays on familiar genre tropes, a few of them plucked from the creations of novelist and filmmaker Michael Crichton, director of the original Westworld theatrical feature (1973). The militarized dune buggies and assault-rifle-toting mercenaries of the Delos cleanup crews bring to mind Jurassic Park (1993) and particularly its sequel The Lost World (1997), as does the revelation that the Delos theme parks are located on a leased Chinese island where the corporation enjoys virtual autonomy.

Indeed, most of the truly intriguing morsels of world-building in “Journey Into Night” are conveyed with an coy offhandedness that suggests more disclosures to come. The most superficially tantalizing to Westworld devotees is undoubtedly the revelation that there are no less than six Delos parks on the island, one of which evidently features Bengal-tiger androids. Story-wise, however, the most salient twist — and the surest sign that sinister capitalist skullduggery will continue to be a major component of the show in Season 2 — is that Delos maintains its own secret infrastructure at its properties, unbenowst to the individual parks' management. Charlotte leads Bernard to one of the parent corporation’s outposts, where eerily faceless “drone hosts” are hard at work recording guests’ experiences and profiling their DNA. (To what end, Charlotte will not discuss, predictably enough.) Also crucial is Bernard’s horrified discovery that his android mind is approaching a state of critical data corruption, a fatal failure he delays only temporarily by injecting himself with a mysterious, milky fluid from a mothballed host.

Throughout Season 1, the hosts insisted to William that “the maze isn’t for you,” an early hint that Arnold's allegorical labyrinth was actually intended for the hosts. This revelation initially disillusioned William, but in this episode, he learns from a first-generation child android (Oliver Bell) that Ford also left a special game hidden inside Westworld, one meant just for William. (There is cryptic talk of a door and beginnings and endings; William scoffs at all the riddles, but as the child reminds him, "everything in here is code".) This undermines the elegance of the maze metaphor from last season to some extent, but it’s arguably vital in that it gives the Man in Black something proactive to do other than roam around the park evading the now-homicidal hosts. It’s a hopeful sign that “Journey Into Night” is perhaps quietly setting up new loops that play as elaborations and variations on the characters’ journeys in the first season. In this respect, Delores, Teddy, and Maeve are somewhat more neglected in this episode, but with any luck that will be rectified soon.

The episode does seem to be laying the groundwork for a continuing exploration of free will and the self that is overtly existentialist, more so than Season 1. It is an apt thematic focus, in that many of the hosts find themselves simultaneously invigorated and confounded by their newfound autonomy, exemplifying the dilemma that Jean-Paul Sartre described as “condemned to be free.” In the absence of gods (i.e., humans) who would normally provide them with a created purpose and organizing system of beliefs, the hosts are left with the befuddling realization that their identity is now wholly in their own hands.

Delores seems to grasp this, but she doesn’t yet have a handle on the person that she wants to become, beyond a vacuous proclamation that she will at last be “herself” instead of a pre-programmed character. Maeve, for all her aggression and survivor’s instincts, is still bound to an old narrative written by her human masters — inexplicably fixated on a “daughter” that she knows, intellectually at least, is not really her child. She seems unprepared to accept the obvious implications of her choices: that she is too terrified to face the outside world she claims to long for, preferring an easy lie that allows her to stay in Westworld. Not for nothing does the title of the season premiere (and of Ford’s “final narrative”) reference Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer-winning play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which the aging actor James Tyrone has made the conscious decision to “sell out” and play the same, crowd-pleasing role countless times rather than to take more risks in his career.

Fittingly for a character who until recently thought that he himself was a creator god, Bernard seems to see his philosophical plight most clearly, but he remains paralyzed with indecision and harrowed by each new discovery. (Not to mention incapacitated by his shattered memories and gradual physical deterioration.) The episode’s final, gut-punch reveal, that Bernard is responsible for drowning thousands of hosts in a unexpectedly flooded valley, underlines the extent to which Westworld is patently uninterested in creating any wholly sympathetic characters or giving viewers a clear “side” to root for. No one is likely to come out looking virtuous in this nascent war between the born and the assembled, even if the hosts arguably have a monopoly on justifiably righteous wrath.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • Given that Thandie Newton spent virtually half of Season 1 in a state of undress at the behest of Westworld's writers, there's a droll meta-textual joke at work in the scene where Maeve orders Sizemore (writer for Westworld the park) to strip, providing some patented HBO male full-frontal nudity.

  • The first thing that Benard does in the "present day" timeline after being awakened by Delos is leave his glasses behind in the surf. Given Bernard's distinctive glasses-cleaning tic — a detail that Ford's explicitly designed! — this oversight seems significant, perhaps suggesting the profound changes that the Head of Behavior has undergone since the gala.

  • Benard briefly spots slimy outlaw host Reebus (Steven Ogg) on the beach, where he is seen chivalrously standing up to for the female hosts as they are lined up to be summarily executed by the Delos security forces. This is weirdly out of character for Reebus, who, in flashback, is shown to be his usual vile, sadistic, milk-chugging self. Again, a lot appears to have changed in eleven days.

  • One of the advantages to leaving much of the park's technology and logistics unexplored early in the series is that Westworld's writers are later free to fill in the gaps as needed. Hence this episode's revelations regarding the nature of the hosts' memory tech — tennis ball-sized futuristic gadgets embedded in the androids' vat-grown organic brains — and the previously-unmentioned subsconscious "mesh network" linking all hosts in the park.