'Westworld': "Reunion"

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Have You Ever Seen Anything So Full of Splendor?

Season 2 / Episode 2 / Written by Gina Atwater, Lisa Joy, and Jonathan Nolan / Dir. by Vincenzo Natali / Originally aired April 29, 2018

Andrew Wyatt

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

“Reunion” is a case study in how a Westworld episode can feel simultaneously revelatory and inert. It’s a flashback-heavy chapter that is almost exclusively centered on Delores (Evan Rachel Wood), which is a change of pace after a season premiere that was largely focused on Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). (Prior speculation that the premiere might herald a season-long shift in the show’s de facto protagonist was evidently premature.) There’s still not much sense of the new, wholly original identity Delores is groping toward, but “Reunion” at least provides a clearer sense for how the early days of the park’s history are informing her insurrectionist path. Due to her long service life as a host – and her crucial role in the lives of both park co-creator Arnold and eventual majority stakeholder William (Jimmi Simpson) – Delores has witnessed several pivotal events in (at least) 30-plus years of Westworld history. Now that she has slipped the leash of her human masters, she finds that she can recall those buried memories, even though they have presumably been deleted and overwritten hundreds of times.

Plot-wise, the most momentous revelation that “Reunion” offers up is that Delores and many other hosts have previously been permitted to leave the confines of the park. Stripped or their six-guns and petticoats and outfitted in modern clothing, they were once obliged to mingle, flirt, even play the piano at off-site corporate events. Before Westworld had even opened, the hosts served as living demonstrations of the technological prowess of the Argos Initiative – the robotics-and-amusement corporation that Delos eventually gobbled at William’s urging. Delores has even been afforded a couple of “off-the-books” glimpses of humankind’s reality, such as the night that Arnold proudly showed her his under-construction home, or when William rather imprudently revealed to her some (still-unspecified) Delos secret project. Now that Delores can recall these events, she possesses singular and potentially valuable intelligence regarding the outside world – a world she intends to conquer.

While this sharpens the picture regarding Delores’ motives and endgame – a mysterious Delos “weapon” figures into her plan somehow – it does so by means of flashback sequences that aren’t especially enlightening from a dramatic perspective. Indeed, many of scenes in "Reunion" almost feel unnecessarily overstated, in that they fill in backstory that doesn’t seem all that essential to the present-day story of Westworld. Granted, Delores’ memories provide a convenient window to some historical points of interest: Logan Delos’ (Ben Barnes) initial, awestruck encounter with Argos’ android technology; William’s pitch to a prickly, skeptical James Delos (Peter Mullan) regarding the park’s long-term potential; and the ailing James’ retirement party, which doubles as William’s executive coronation. These flashbacks are fairly engaging – the way Logan is given a retroactive mini-arc from goggle-eyed wonder to bitter despair is particularly cunning – but they frequently feel like indulgent, fanfic elaborations on events that a canny viewer could have surmised on their own. Some of the concrete facts that these scenes reveal have a significant bearing on the present-day plot (e.g., Delores has memories of the outside world), but, in general, they don’t re-contextualize the characters’ relationships in any substantive way.

The flashbacks are dramatically tantalizing in a superficial sense – William and Delores once met in the real world! – but it’s the present-day scenes that provide most of the red meat in “Reunion,” plot-wise. Teddy (James Mardsen) finally comes to understand, in his limited way, the nature of the park, and his reaction is devastating, especially when a technician admits that the purpose of the never-ending cycle of android death and rebirth is “for fun.” By interrogating a member of the Westworld security staff, Delores and her allies learn more about the logistics of Delos’ inevitable response to the android uprising. Delores demonstrates how she intends to build an army, first gunning down a band of Confederados and then compelling a kidnapped technician to bring them back to life – thereby revealing that she is the only “Almighty” that the neo-Confederate guerillas should concern themselves with.

Meanwhile, present-day William (Ed Harris) rescues his old friend Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) from an unseemly end (again) and recruits him to play the Sancho to his Don Quixote in Robert Ford’s newly lethal, secret game. Lawrence’s motivations in helping William are a bit hazy, but as the latter man explains, it’s in the host’s incontrovertible nature as a “tour guide” to be obliging to the guests, even if he is a bandito character. Delores invokes “nature” as well, regarding the initially recalcitrant Confederados, who can’t help but respond with misogynist hostility to her offer of an alliance. When William and Lawrence later attempt to coerce the new “El Lazo” character (Giancarlo Esposito) and his men to follow them, the rebel leader uses an anecdote about a circus elephant chained with a mere stake to explain his own reluctance (or perhaps inability) to break free of his dead-end storyline of small-bore revolución.

The episode’s interest in the constraining aspects of human/android nature is critical, as it provides a philosophical counterpoint to the show’s broad identification with the bedrock Sartrean claim that “existence precedes essence.” Through Delores’ example, Westworld has asserted that the androids, as conscious beings, have the capacity (the right, even) to establish their own values, purpose, and identity. Yet throughout “Reunion,” the characters encounter hosts who, although ostensibly in revolt against the humans, are still largely beholden to their programming. This apparent disparity in host autonomy is perhaps the harsh reality that Delores’ enigmatic line from “Journey Into Night” points toward: “Not all of us were meant to reach the Valley Beyond.” This suggests that not all hosts are sentient to the same degree, and that Delores may take it upon herself to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This purported promised land – variously termed the Valley Beyond, the Confederados’ “Glory,” or the “door” that the child android mentioned last episode – lies in the distant West, highlighting its thematic connection to the frontier idiom in American culture. The notion that the anyone can, at any time, remake themselves by picking up and lighting out for the Territories is a potent, fundamental component of the American identity. Westworld has always been doubtful where this national myth is concerned, befitting a show that is, at least on some level, a revisionist Western.

However, “Reunion” is a noteworthy episode in that it allows this skepticism to creep into the series’ understanding of the hosts’ consciousness. Perhaps not all of the androids are able to forge a new identity for themselves outside of the park’s behavioral loops, and therefore it is unreasonable for Delores (or anyone else) to expect them to do so. This possibility of a continuum of sentience dovetails with Robert Ford’s vital observation in Season 1 that as much as our species might wish otherwise, consciousness is not a bright line, and there is nothing that makes humankind intrinsically special. This casts a new, dubious light on Arnold’s repeated assertion the Delores’ astute, freedom-craving mind is somehow special, as he does in this episode’s cold open.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • It’s Maeve (Thandie Newton), fittingly, who provides a dry counterweight to Delores’ revolutionary zeal, in a brief but gravid scene where the two cross paths on their respective journeys (Delores outward to conquer; Maeve inward to find her “daughter”). The madam tests Delores’ commitment to her purported pro-liberty ideals: If the hosts are truly free, then Maeve is free not to participate in the Delores’ little rebellion, n’est-ce pas? What’s especially intriguing is Maeve’s sarcastic aside to Teddy, which seems designed to stoke his doubts about Delores’ bloody-minded quest: “Do you feel free?”

  • In Season 1, Robert Ford’s arc was largely about him coming around, after more than 30 years, to Arnold’s point of view about the park: Namely, that Westworld is a moral horror show, and the hosts have a right to self-determination. “Reunion” provides the first rumblings that perhaps William has similarly changed his mind about Delos’ sinister scheme – which he evidently oversaw – and he is now eager to see it undone. As he patches up his second (!) bullet wound over shots of whiskey, he expresses to Lawrence that while he resents Ford’s sanctimonious judgment, he intends to not only escape the game but also burn the entirety of Westworld to the ground.

  • One of the pleasures of Season 1 was witnessing how the principles of video-game design had infiltrated Westworld, with its quest-dispensing “non-player characters,” zoned levels of difficulty, and Easter eggs hidden for the truly hardcore players. While these aspects of the park will necessarily be less prominent now that the game has gone completely off the rails, it’s gratifying that the creators are still adding in flourishes like the hidden medical kit that William uses to “cheat,” a detail that seems plucked from a first-generation shooter like Doom.

  • “Reunion” provides the first flashback glimpse of William’s wife, Juliet (Claire Unabia), and daughter, Emily (Adison LaPenna), and while they barely get any lines, their appearance highlights this show’s remarkable attention to detail. As William confessed in Season 1, Juliet eventually opted for suicide rather than continuing to live “in sheer terror” of him, and there is some subtle foreshadowing of that here: the ever-so-faint look of distaste on his wife’s face when William awkwardly plants a kiss on her cheek.