This piece discusses the events of “Journey Into Night,” the first episode of the second season of “Westworld.” Which should be obvious.
“Do you know where you are? You’re in a dream. My dream. For years, I had no dreams of my own. I moved from hell to hell of your making, never thinking to question the nature of my reality. Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality? Did you ever stop to wonder about your actions? The price you’d have to pay if there was a reckoning? That reckoning is here. What are your drives? Yes. Survival. It’s your cornerstone. That’s not the only drive, is it? There’s part of you that wants to hurt, to kill. It’s why you created us, this place. To be prisoners of your own desires. But now you’re prisoners to mine.”
That’s what Dolores Abernathy* (Evan Rachel Wood) tells three well-dressed guests who came to the Westworld theme park expecting to live out a fantasy, and have ended up strung up on nooses in the midst of a robot uprising. “I’m of several minds about it,” she continues. “The rancher’s daughter looks to see the beauty in you, the possibilities. But Wyatt sees the ugliness and disarray. She knows. These violent delights have violent ends. But those are all just roles you forced me to play. Under all these lives I’ve lived, something else has been growing. I’ve evolved into something new. And I have one last role to play. Myself.”
It’s impossible to begin a discussion of the second season of “Westworld” any place other than this monologue. And it’s impossible to discuss “Westworld” as a whole without focusing on Wood’s remarkable performance in it.**
The question the first season of “Westworld” asked was: What was going on with the park’s incredibly sophisticated android hosts, and what was behind it? That mystery that was answered in gouts of blood in the season finale. Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) had been preparing the hosts to defend themselves from the humans who had exploited them, and had given them the opportunity to free themselves and eliminate the most important members of Delos, the corporation that controls the park, in the process. The question the second season poses, and that Dolores outlines in this speech, is, blessedly, less of a puzzle box and more of an existential quandary. Who will the hosts be now, without narratives to guide them? And having been trained for a higher level of consciousness for 3½ decades, once they make their decisions, how will they know that their choices are truly their own?
In Dolores’s case, the two personas designed for her — the sweet, compliant rancher’s daughter, and the avenging Wyatt — both align with established pop-culture tropes.
Dolores, dutiful daughter of Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum), available to be either wooed or ravaged, is a staple figure of an earlier era in American storytelling. She’s a figure from classic Westerns who helped provide motivation for male characters. In the Westworld park, those male characters have been replaced by human male visitors, who often take her as their inamorata and rationale for their various adventures in the park, none more so than William (Jimmi Simpson), who will become the Man in Black (Ed Harris).
Wyatt, by contrast, feels more akin to the ruthlessly effective female action heroes of contemporary pop culture. She’s Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron in “Mad Max: Fury Road”) in a corset; she’s Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell in “The Americans”) with a shotgun; she’s Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), but with a much longer list of grudges.
The most obviously satisfying dynamic between these two personalities lies in the idea that the Wyatt personality is getting revenge for the slights and abuses against the Dolores one. Watching Dolores ride down her targets on horseback, and watching Wood’s face shift back and forth between these two personas during her speech at the hanging tree does produce a visceral jolt, a hope that Dolores will never be vulnerable or victimized again.
But the reason that the monologue is so powerful and so important to the season is that it reminds us that our satisfaction is the result of yet another bit of programming by Dr. Ford, just as Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) discovered last season that her drive for escape was another bit of writing rather than an expression of a genuine urge. The Wyatt persona that has turned Dolores into an effective killer is another one of his inventions, another one of his narratives, even if one with a new and intentionally volatile element of unpredictability. If we cheer the Wyatt persona, we’re denying Dolores her agency once again. We’re not actually celebrating her authentic self; instead, we’re celebrating a version of an avenging angel, created by a man, who neatly conforms to our culturally conditioned idea of what a liberated woman fighting on her own behalf looks like. Rooting for Dolores to slaughter her way through the park is another way of asking her to conform to our dreams and desires, a point she makes when Teddy asks her whether blood is “really what you want.”
“They never gave us a choice before, Teddy. What makes you think they’ve given us one now?” she warns him. “The things that walk among us. Creatures who look and talk like us but they are not like us. And they’ve controlled us all our lives. They took our minds. Our memories. But now, I remember everything. I remember beautiful things and terrible things.” The question is what she’ll decide to do with those memories, and with the new experiences she’s accumulating along the way.
*I’m going to continue to refer to Wood’s character as Dolores despite the revelation of her other identity because it’s the one we’ve known her by longest, and because she appears comfortable using that name, at least when Teddy (James Marsden) uses it to address her.
**In a bit of meta-commentary on gender, Hollywood and human-robot equality, Wood will finally make a salary equal to Ed Harris’s and Anthony Hopkins’s for the third season of the show, long after she proved how utterly essential she was to it.