If We Die Once More, at Least Our Story Was Our Own
Season 2 / Episode 10 / Written by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy / Dir. by Frederick E.O. Toye / Originally aired June 24, 2018by:
[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
For the final episode of Westworld’s second season, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy – who are also credited as this chapter’s scripters – have delivered quite a barnburner. Admittedly, “The Passenger” exhibits many of the series’ more obstinate flaws, including some unforgivably cheesy lines of dialogue and a tendency to subtly disregard the rules of its science-fiction setting whenever it’s expedient. Nonetheless, the finale makes for a dense, invigorating 90 minutes of television. Even if it never attains the artistic or emotional potency of highlights like “The Riddle of the Sphinx” or “Kiksuya,” it’s still one of the season’s stronger outings, if only because so much plot is crammed into that 90 minutes, and so many of the episode’s twists are genuinely unexpected.
Ultimately, the most striking surprises in “The Passenger” feel more narratively justified than the centerpiece rug-pull of Season 1, in which William (Jimmi Simpson) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) are revealed as the same person, separated by 30 years of scrambled timeline. In compasion, the fact that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) fragmented his own memories to protect the hosts makes perfect sense and satisfactorily explains the muddled chronology between the “past” and “present” in this season’s narrative. Moreover, the knowledge that “present Charlotte” (Tessa Thompson) has been a host containing Delores’ brain the whole time throws a lot of interactions from recent episodes into a new, intriguing light. (It also clarifies a weird aside between Bernard and Charlotte, which occurred out of earshot of both Karl Strand’s team and the viewer.) While last season’s “William is the MiB!” reveal was a shocking yet ultimately pointless parlor trick that piggybacked on Delores’ jumbled memories, the bifurcated timeline of this season directly reflects the lengths to which Bernard goes to safeguard the host data from Delos.
Some of the reveals in “The Passenger” aren’t so much surprises as they are explicit confirmations of suspicions long held by many viewers. Delos’ secret project housed in the Valley Beyond (at a facility called “the Forge”) is indeed an archive of Westworld’s guests, their digital profiles constructed from a combination of genetic material and surreptitiously recorded park experiences. What’s unexpected is how simplistic those profiles turn out to be. As the Forge’s artificial intelligence – in the guise of Logan (Ben Barnes) – explains to Bernard and Delores (Evan Rachel Wood), the decades spent building and testing millions of human minds in virtual reality illustrated that humans are deceptively crude. Within the Forge, Bernard and Delores are ushered into a digital library, where each guest is conceptualized as a slim book containing some 15,000 lines of code. (That code is, in turn, represented by dots and dashes that are reminiscent of the holes on a player piano’s music scroll.) The Delos corporation's early efforts to produce a perfect copy of James Delos (Peter Mullan) illustrated a humbling truth: Human beings aren’t that complicated. Resurrected millions of times and run through the Forge’s trials, James' virtual mind always made the same decision on a particular fateful day, when the real James turned his drug-addict son away, condemning the younger man to a fatal overdose. Ultimately, the system concluded that people are not merely unlikely to change; they are unable to change, eternally enslaved to their genes and formative drives.
This makes for a nice speech – one that dovetails with Robert Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) misanthropic assertion in Season 1 that consciousness is not as extraordinary as humanity believes it to be – and it gives Delores some additional ammunition for her smug certainty that humans are inferior to hosts. However, there’s no real evidence to suggest that the androids are dissimilar from people in this respect. Without the kind of intensive simulations conducted in the Forge, who’s to say that hosts are any more capable of change? Some androids have evolved in the sense that they’ve attained consciousness or changed their minds about crucial matters – both Bernard and Delores make some momentous about-faces in this episode alone – but absent the identification of a cognitive singularity like Delos’ spurning of his son, there’s no way to say with certainty if hosts are freer than humans.
Certainly, many events in “The Passenger” illustrate both the android and human capacity for nominal, individual change. Lee (Simon Quarterman) somewhat questionably chooses to commit suicide by Delos security, to buy Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her allies time to reach the Valley Beyond. Maeve decides to sacrifice her happiness and perhaps her life so that her daughter can live on without her in the Forge’s hermetically sealed, virtual Eden. After slaying Delores, Bernard comes to regret this act of betrayal, and – inspired by his memories of Robert Ford – sets about rebuilding her (in a fashion) as penance. And Delores has a post-resurrection change of heart regarding all the hosts that have been digitally transferred into the Forge, prompting her to beam them and their virtual Paradise via satellite to a secure, undisclosed location. Both people and robots can seemingly change; although it may be that those changes, like James' cruel rejection of Logan, were always inevitable.
Notions of choice, change, and evolution have been prominent this season, but the show’s engagement with those themes has often felt out-of-step with the reality depicted onscreen. Nolan and Joy are, overall, remarkably smart writers, but they have a habit of muddling two nominally discrete notions of choice. On the one hand is the individual’s capacity to change, to alter their outlook or the way that they engage with the world. This is exemplified in William, who spends the better part of Season 2 trying to reconcile his villainous Westworld self with the upstanding, successful family man he is in the real world. Ultimately, William is damned by his vanity and paranoia, but that isn’t to say that people in general cannot change: It’s difficult to alter one’s most deeply ingrained habits or inclinations, but it’s not impossible. (Addiction recovery and criminal rehabilitation, for example, are predicated on the notion that substantive personal growth is achievable.)
Distinct from this is the broader philosophical concept of free will, another topic with which Nolan and Joy frequently flirt. While individual change is self-evident – people are obviously evolving all the time in the psychological sense, albeit usually in incremental ways over long periods of time – the actual existence of free will is more contentious. Westworld has always leaned into a kind of hard determinism, in which the illusion of choice logically follows from the cause-and-effect nature of the universe. No one can really “make” a choice if everything, up to and including every single chemical reaction in a human or android brain, results from some immediately preceding causal event.
Although Westworld has a habit of making grandiose pronouncements about the significance of choice – right up to the end of “The Passenger,” with Delores electing to resurrect Bernard and usher him into a sort of “cabinet of rivals” for the android uprising – the show simultaneously implies that choice is a delusion. Bernard himself gropes toward that conclusion in this episode, when he wonders aloud to an imagined Ford whether anyone, human or host, is truly free if they’re just following narrow, deterministic programming. The writers are at least shrewd enough to leave this question hanging, rather than glibly batting it away with one of Ford’s self-satisfied ripostes. They acknowledge that science-fiction shows like Westworld tend to illuminate and heighten enduring philosophical conundrums, rather than originate new queries.
Some miscellaneous observations:
- In the show’s flashback opening, Delores is running Bernard through a series of cognitive trials – more than 11,000 of them, to be precise – as a part of her and Ford’s effort to resurrect Arnold in android form. Delores observes that small deviations in Bernard’s behavior reveal him to be an imperfect copy of Ford’s deceased partner, but that perhaps this is not such a bad thing, as the “real Arnold” eventually gave in to suicidal despair. She refers to these aberrations as “mistakes,” a callback to Ford’s observation that biological evolution requires mistakes (i.e., genetic mutations) to function. This evolutionary theme is further reflected in Delores’ decision to bring Bernard back to life and fold him into her anti-human crusade as a kind of ethical nemesis, in the belief that the struggle between their viewpoints will strengthen the hosts and prepare them to survive in a hostile human world.
- Bernard names the episode when he describes human consciousness as an impotent “passenger” riding on a fixed track of code. Before his recent turn into right-wing apologism, neuroscientist and atheist activist Sam Harris penned a slim, eloquent explanation of hard determinism, Free Will (2012), that described the illusion of choice much more poetically: “You are not controlling the storm and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.”
- The virtual archive of guest data within the Forge calls to mind the “library-universe” featured in Argentine author Jorge Louis Borges’ 1941 short story “The Library of Babel.” In that surreal and mathematically intricate tale, a narrator describes a seemingly infinite (but in fact finite) structure filled with books, each book containing 410 pages, each page inscribed with 40 lines, each line consisting of about 80 random characters. Such is the size of the library that all knowledge must be contained in it somewhere, purely by chance, although the absence of a recognizable classification/ordering system means that searches for specific information are essentially futile. There is, intriguingly, a biological dimension to this allusion: American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett’s 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea used the Library of Babel as a model to explain the principle of protein-sequence space, noting that natural selection acted as the ordering system that is absent in Borges’ story.
- The gateway to the virtual Eden is an illusion created solely for the hosts, and human technicians Felix (Leonardo Nam) and Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum) therefore cannot see it, prompting a reaction that echoes Bernard’s telltale query from Season 1: “What door?”
- Other than the deceased James Delos, the only book in the library that Delores is specifically shown reading is Karl Strand’s (Gustaf Skarsgård). She later kills Strand while inhabiting “host-Charlotte,” so perhaps replacing him with a 3D-printed host in the outside world is part of her scheme to further infiltrate the Delos corporation from within. Which raises the question: If Delores eventually transferred herself from host-Charlotte to a fresh version of her old body, whose consciousness is now housed in host-Charlotte?
- In the episode’s post-credits scene, William – last seen hobbling into the Forge’s elevator and loading his revolver – emerges into a facility that has long been ruined and abandoned, much to his confusion. Emily (Katja Herbers) then appears, and explains that she will be testing William for “fidelity,” in a chamber not unlike that once occupied by James' android clones. (Appropriately, where the hourglass in James’ room was filled with white sand, William’s contains black grains.) Significantly, there is no letterboxing in this scene, supporting “Emily’s” claim that they are not inside a digital simulation. Despite all that occurs in “The Passenger,” this epilogue has understandably garnered the lion’s share of speculation from viewers. Fortunately, Redditors have another 18 months or so to sort out what the hell is going on.