Westworld

Westworld's Season 2 Premiere Was a Subtle Salute to Video Game Side Quests

"Cheap thrills, surprises? It's not enough."

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Dolores
Screenshot via HBO

The long-awaited robot revolution was in full swing during Westworld's mostly fascinating, occasionally frustrating second season premiere last night.

Viewers were forced to think long and hard about which side—robots or humans—we're even cheering for, though the story's self-awareness subverts the notion that these sides matter much. From the comfort of our couches, Westworld the HBO prestige drama is for us what Westworld the amusement park is for its guests: entertainment. It's a violent, titillating distraction, and nothing more.

And yet Westworld's deceased mastermind, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), believes that such stories might disguise a greater truth. "Something deeper, something hidden, perhaps," he says in the first season finale, shortly before sacrificing himself so that his greatest creation, Dolores (Rachel Evan Wood), can achieve full sentience.

Here at the start of season two, Dolores isn't exactly the hero. Her crusade to punish humankind for her mistreatment may be perfectly justified, and the way she turns the tables on her tormenters is hugely satisfying. ("Doesn't look like anything to me," she says to a trio of humans begging for their lives, deliberately deploying the line her programming forced her to utter every time she encountered something incomprehensible.) And yet it's hard to feel particularly invested in her mission—partly because it's straightforward vengeance, and partly because so much of her previous behavior has been scripted that we hardly know the real Dolores, if there even is such a thing.

Arguably the closest thing viewers have to a protagonist is Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). Bernard occupies a sort of middle ground between the warring factions: he's a robot who has only recently been made aware of his status, and unlike other hosts, he was designed in the likeness of a specific human, Ford's long-dead partner, Arnold. Bernard seems like he wants to keep the humans and the robots from killing each other—but most of all, he wants to protect his secret.

Consider the following question: what is Westworld about? Throughout much for the first season, the answer was relatively straightforward: It was a show about a futuristic park that contained humanoid robots as attractions. The hidden purpose of these attractions might have been to remind man of his hubris, much like the genetically engineered dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (another intellectual property of Michael Crichton, who directed the original 1973 Westworld film). But now Westworld is less Jurassic Park and more Terminator, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Matrix, or the Dune prequels, or Portal, or any other science fiction story involving intelligent machines rising up against their human creators.

As the leader of the robot revolution, Dolores is thus the most important character within the central story arc—or "narrative," as Ford would put it. Indeed, Ford christened this his "Journey into Night" narrative, which happens to be the name of the premiere episode. The villains of Dolores's arc appear to be the corporate honchos at Delos, the company that owns the park and is apparently content to let everyone die as long as it can obtain some important piece of information embedded within Peter Abernathy, the robot who played Dolores's father. Bernard is caught somewhere in the middle of this conflict.

But because Westworld is an amazingly self-aware show, and because I had just recently re-watched the first season, I found myself drawn to several of the side plots, or side quests. A side quest, most video game fans will know, is an optional adventure the characters can undertake in lieu of continuing the main story. Don't feel like advancing the plot yet? Why not help the sad girl track down her missing chickens, or aid the mysterious mask merchant in peddling his wares, or help an old witch procure the necessary ingredients for an important potion? (These are all side quests from the 1998 Nintendo 64 video game The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.)

In "Chestnut," the second episode of the first season, Ford reprimands narrative designer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), stressing that the gratuitously violent main storylines aren't the most important thing about the park.

"Cheap thrills, surprises? It's not enough," says Ford. "It's not about giving the guests what you think they want. Titillation. Horror. Elation. They're parlor tricks. The guests don't return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties. The details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before. Something they fall in love with."

With that in mind, it's no surprise the only person in the park who appears to be having any real fun is William, the Man in Black (Ed Harris). He's on the mother of all side quests: an effort to uncover Ford's last little gem. The quest is something nobody else knows about, or has even discovered.

The same goes for Maeve, who is trying to locate a specific person inside the park: the child she thinks is her daughter. Maeve is the character most obviously undertaking a detour. Instead of opting to escape Westworld, she remained behind to complete what seems like a very tedious sidequest. Sizemore is along for the ride, though not by choice.

I think it says something about the value of side quests that Maeve and William's storylines are arguably the most interesting part of the premiere. Dolores vs. Delos is a bit harder to grapple with—and given how many times the show has deliberately tried to mislead viewers, there's little guarantee that the stakes are what they seem. For all we know, Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) is a robot, too.

But I would argue that William's obsession with completing the park director's last task, and Maeve's desperate quest to find her daughter, are great examples of the kind of subtleties that Ford described. Perhaps we'll find the true "deeper meaning" there—and not in the sea with all the dead bodies.

NEXT: In New York, Blight Is Whatever Officials Say It Is

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  1. Here at the start of season two, Dolores isn’t exactly the hero. Her crusade to punish humankind for her mistreatment may be perfectly justified, and the way she turns her the tables on her tormenters is hugely satisfying.

    I AM SPARTACUS!

    Yep, seen it all before.

    Yawn.

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  2. Honestly, the side quests are the things that actually end up mattering most of the time.

  3. “But now Westworld is less Jurassic Park and more Terminator,”

    Yeah – just like Terminator – well except for the part where Skynet took over all the missile defense systems and instigated a thermonuclear exchange that wiped out most of the human population.

    Also none of the Terminator variants were anywhere near as fragile as Westworld robots. They can’t be disabled by merely shooting them with common firearms.

    1. Let’s hope it’s more Battlestar Galactica from the philosophy perspective (sort of the opposite of The Matrix).

    2. Or more like the ending of the original movie, except that the bots are motivated less by faulty programming and more by being pissed off at being sentient and how that came about.

      Which seems to track with the setiments of a significant portion of secular thinking.

      1. “…pissed off at being sentient…seems to track with…secular thinking”

        Deep thoughts there, MR.

        This is why I read the comments.

  4. The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties. The details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before. Something they fall in love with.

    This viewer comes back for the subtleties, the hidden details that HBO offers with Westworld: All the tits and dicks.

    1. You like both tits and dicks?

      1. Fist spent a lot of time in Thailand.

        1. Cheap thrills and surprises indeed.

  5. I’m happy for you to have something you’re enthusiastic about, but I don’t get HBO so my interest only goes so far.

    But there is that bit at the bottom: a forthcoming book about campus activism in the age of Trump – is this really “the age of Trump”? The shitification of “higher education” has been going on a long time, bleeding over into the larger culture and shitifying that as well. I suspect the “activism” would be the same regardless of which white male Republican Nazi KKK literal Hitler Satan were in the White House. Trump may be a slap in the face or even a punch in the nose to these people, what’s needed is some executions and some cleansing fire. When they’re foaming-at-the-mouth off the deep end with their hatred of Western Civilization (and of humanity in general), there’s no amount of argument that’s going to reach them. These people seriously hate your guts, they seriously want you dead, they seriously believe they’re on a holy mission to rid the planet of you, your ideas, your values, your institutions, every single little trace of your existence. Trump didn’t cause that, he’s just an obstacle to their ambition and a reminder that there’s some opposition to it and it drives them insane to think they haven’t yet re-made the world in their image.

    1. I don’t really see how anything has changed on colleges because of Trump. As you point out, campus activists are bat shit crazy and have been for a long time. Maybe putting “in the age of Trump” is a way to generate sales. But, any claims that Trump has in any way influenced what is going on on campuses or worse is responsible for it are absurd.

    2. It is always “the age of…” don’t you know? The impact of the imperial presence leaves traces everywhere; it is utterly inescapable.

  6. Someone had a rough weekend and is late with the morning roundup.

    1. Spitball Spaghettihead probably didn’t get orders from George Soros and the Coalition of Evil yet. You know how hard it is to produce when you haven’t been given your marching orders.

  7. Robby, were you supposed to do the Roundup this morning?

  8. ” . . .shortly before sacrificing himself so that his greatest creation, . . .”

    Thanks a lot! How about a Spoiler Alert for those of us who wait for these shows to run for 6 seasons and then binge watch them in the space of a couple weeks?*

    *luckily for you, in four years I’ll have no memory of this spoiler

  9. IN the original 70s movie, there was supposed to be a Medieval World and a Rome World as well as West World. Those worlds were mentioned but never shown. I wish they had done one of those worlds rather than just remaking West World. Rome World would have been a lot more fun I think.

    1. I believe the 70s movie had some scenes in the Rome and Medieval parts of the park. The 1st season of the series only hinted at those as planned expansions.

      1. Yep, IIRC in the original movie one of the first scenes where a human gets killed by a robot was in the Medieval setting – some poor fat dude and the black knight, and there was a mass slaughter scene around a pool in the Rome setting.

    2. Rome World would have been a lot more fun I think.

      Especially if it’s set during the reign of Caligula.

    3. The Western is the most universally known genre. It’s a good place to start world building. We also know that there is a Park Six, and some kind of Samurai park. They might be the same, but we don’t know yet. Be patient. World building is part of quality science-fiction. These guys are doing a great job so far. Personally, I’d like to see more of what the outside world is like.

    4. They did show a bit about the Samurai World last season and made an allusion to a third park in last night’s episode. I don’t know how much they’ll actually show of those, though. Might just be easter eggs.

      You should check out the HBO show Rome if you haven’t seen it. It’s only 2 seasons, but I enjoyed it. Seems like it’s a semi-historical political drama, but it’s all the accurate little details that made it so interesting to me. My highschool Latin teacher recommended it, and he’s a total Greece/Rome nerd.

      1. Shogun World makes perfect sense. It dovetails nicely with Westworld. Japanese samurai movies since Akira have shared a lot of tropes with Western films. The same themes of heroism, justice in a lawless world, betrayal and revenge, keep popping up. All the scenery changes, but they are at the core very much the same genre.

      2. HBO’s Rome was awesome, and you can really see John Milius’ fingerprints all over the dialogue. But it was a victim of it’s own excess. Apparently never getting enough of an audience to justify it’s high production costs.

        Was funny to see so many cast members showing up in GoT.

        1. The first season of Rome is one of the most well-done narrative arcs I’ve seen, given the episode limitations. We know that the events took place over several years, but the narrative never feels rushed.

          Season 2 really suffered in that regard, but I heard that the battle of Phillipi was originally supposed to be the end of that season, and when the producers found out the series wouldn’t get renewed they had to reconfigure everything to show the rise of Augustus in full. Showing Augustus as a complete sociopath was an interesting character choice.

    5. Looks like in the season two previews they’re going to show Samurai World.

  10. Where is ENB? Did Nick and Matt get jealous of her popularity and cancel roundup?

  11. the 1998 Nintendo 64 video game The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.

    You’re one of those people who basically only play Nintendo games, aren’t you?

  12. I enjoyed the first season, but after binge watching in preparation for the second season some really terrible inconsistencies became apparent. Sadly I’m starting to believe that Westworld is only playing at having depth or substance.

    So, having Robby write the review is rather ironic, no?

    1. What made the movie so intriguing was the same premise that Crichton revisited in Jurassic Park–the collapse of complex systems. It was a counterpoint to the post-WW2 consensus that technological improvements are only ever beneficial to humankind and that efficiency would make them easy to manage.

      The series touches on it, but it’s really more existential and surreal in tone and so a lot of the original message is lost.

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  14. It isn’t like Terminator mainly because of its turgid pacing, with long sequences of mumbo-jumbo jibberish laid out as DEEP THOUGHTS ON MANKIND. Or something. Kind of liked the 1st season, but this is boring af.

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