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Westworld season 2, episode 1 recap: Journey into Night

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Westworld’s second season begins with a satisfyingly set table

Westworld season two, episode one John P. Johnson/HBO

Terms of service agreements always seem like the work of the devil.

Facebook can say that users consented to having their data used certain ways by agreeing to its terms of service, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg clearly knows that they wouldn’t have done so if the question were asked in straightforward language instead of being hidden in the fine text. We agree to a bunch of stuff legally through terms of service agreements, but we’re rarely aware of what we’re agreeing to. We also probably wouldn’t be comfortable with much of it if we were asked in any other context.

[Warning: The following will contain spoilers for Westworld season 2, episode 1.]

And that gap between what you think you’re signing up for and how a company’s business model uses your participation has never been more important to discuss. For instance, Westworld is a park where you pay a large amount of money to have sex with — or kill — some robots. That’s what people think they’re paying for, and Delos, the company behind the park, seems to be in a pretty straightforward wish-fulfillment business.

But it turns out the park is just a means to an end. The real value of these parks lies in the intellectual property that fuels them, and the vast collection of DNA the company now controls.

Yep, you give up your right to your own genetics if you want to go bang a sex robot in the wild west. It’s right there in the terms of service.

“The terms state that once you enter Westword, the company ‘controls the rights to and remains the sole owner of, in perpetuity: all skin cells, bodily fluids, secretions, excretions, hair samples, saliva, sweat, blood, and any other bodily functions not listed here,’” Slate reported back in 2016. “What’s more, it reserves the right to ‘use this property in any way, shape, or form in which the entity sees fit.’ If I ran Delos, I’d have some tough questions for the company’s creepiest lawyer about how this clause ended up here.”

The first episode of Westworlds second season addresses those questions directly. Those clauses are there because Delos wanted your DNA, and executives knew that you’d give it up if they provided the right fantasy. Not even the park employees were aware of this aspect of the park, as Bernard seems shocked when he watches the drone hosts swab the genitals of one of the characters brought in from the park. Gotta get that DNA somehow.

John P. Johnson/HBO

“We’re not broken: you are,” the text on the updated Westworld site states. “Any pieces you leave behind belong to us now. All of us are here for you.”

This is an interesting place to take the ideas and themes of the first season, especially since the non-linear nature of the first story seems to have been ditched for a much more standard structure. While five episodes have been made available to critics, my thoughts above and the recap below were written after having watched only the first episode.

Where do we begin?

The season picks up right where the story left off in season one, with the hosts hunting down the human survivors of the massacre, and the park employees struggling to regain control of the park. Many of the characters from the first season are dead, and new characters are introduced to take their place. Some park workers know that Bernard is a host, but most of them are either unaware or are pretending to believe he’s human. Bernard visits a bunker with Delos bigwig Charlotte Hale that checks his DNA when he touches the handle. His status as a host can’t be that much of a secret.

Speaking of Charlotte Hale: The character who most seemed to be the plotting villain of last season is now on the run and looking for a specific host named Peter Abernathy, Dolores’ father, for Delos before they will extract her. She has more information than anyone else about the situation, as shown by her knowledge of the hidden bunkers staffed by the creepy, skinless drone hosts, but she’s not in control.

Also, which Peter Abernathy? Dolores’ father was played by two hosts in the first season. Hmmm.

Meanwhile, William, aka the Man in Black, seems pretty content to have finally gotten what he wants out of the park. He’s in a game with no rules, where the stakes are life and death. No single person seems to be in control anymore, although there are hints that the designers of the park aren’t quite done with him yet, even in death.

“Congratulations,” one of the hosts tells him. “This game is meant for you.”

Finally, a major resort is willing to pander to the needs of an old, super-rich white guy. Took ‘em long enough.

Meanwhile, Dolores also seems to be pretty happy with her new role as a sort of omnipotent death goddess. She can apparently see the past, the present and the future all at once, which is a pretty good trick if you want to stay one step ahead of everyone else.

The second season’s premiere episode does a good job of following up with everyone while laying the groundwork for the new, larger story. Hosts are leaking out from the other parks, as evidenced by a tiger that washes up on the beach of Westworld’s shores. The governments of other countries can get to the park, as shown by the soldiers who seem to be asking for answers about the ongoing crisis in the episode’s early scenes, but Delos has legal authority over what happens there. That seems significant; the park itself may not be as closed off as we had assumed. At what point is that contract with other governments voided in the face of massive levels of violence?

Maeve is still around as well, only she’s operating in the park’s offices while dressed as a human. It’s the best place to put a character known for her smarts and ability to manipulate a situation. It’s what she was coded for, as she points out. The hosts are basically Terminators once they’re out of the park; machines that know how to infiltrate into human society to kill their targets. Maeve isn’t interested in assassination, but her ability to blend in seamlessly can take the story into some interesting directions. Westworld might have become a show where every scene is a Turing test, if it wasn’t already.

One of the most interesting things I found this episode was the sense that this season didn’t need to exist at all. The first season felt like a version of Lost where all the mysteries actually paid off, and the vast network of conspiracies all came together in a satisfying and self-contained way at the end of the season.

I’m happy to have more Westworld, especially if it keeps the quality up, but it doesn’t seem necessary at all. The questions from the first season were mostly answered within that season. The thematic questions had satisfying resolutions. This season needs to set up new questions and new themes to make itself feel vital, and I’m not sure the first episode pulls this off very well. I’m very curious about whether the show is going to be able to justify its own existence outside of “the first season did very well so we’re doing more.” The world is going to have to begin expanding quickly, or newer questions are going to need to be asked.

The episode ends with a shocking image — it appears as a large number hosts have killed themselves — and Bernard blames himself. We also find out that Bernard is on a timer; he’s not doing well, and he may not have a way to keep himself running in the long term.

This is a good way to begin the series, and there already mysteries to be explored, but Westworld now feels like more of a straightforward science fiction show with really impressive production values. Which, all-in-all, is not a very bad thing to be at all.

Odds and ends

  • “What is real?” “That which is irreplaceable.”
  • The “brains” of the hosts are hidden within the head, under the biological brain that must just be there for show. Something needs to splatter against the wall when you shoot one, after all.
  • Maeve is very good with a machine gun.
  • Bernard notes that they’re tracking what the guests do, not just collecting DNA. Those kinds of habits are probably worth a lot of money to everyone from advertisers to academics who study human behavior. But mostly advertisers.
  • The system now sees everyone in the park as hosts, which is why the guns are now lethal.
  • “It’s in my code to prize my needs over the needs of others.” Maeve stumbled onto a rationalization for narcissism!
  • The opening scene very much looks like something out of Band of Brothers. The battle is over, the enemy soldiers are being executed. The generals are here to decide what to do next.
  • Speculation about what the baby from the new opening credits means can begin below in the comments.