Westworld's Season 2 Premiere Was a Subtle Salute to Video Game Side Quests
"Cheap thrills, surprises? It's not enough."
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.