Westworld: What’s Real and What’s Just Programming in the Season 2 Premiere

Decoding what’s free will and what’s just programming in Westworld’s return.


“What is real?” Dolores, the robot rancher’s daughter, asks Bernard in the opening moments of Westworld’s season 2 premiere. “That which is irreplaceable,” Bernard, the fellow host modeled after late Westworld programmer Arnold Weber, tells her.

Though both hosts have only just become self-aware—Dolores, as the result of many faintly remembered lifetimes, and Bernard, after a conversation with his maker, Arnold’s Westworld co-creator Robert Ford—they nevertheless seem to grasp the stakes of this, the series’ central question: What constitutes reality, and to what extent is it programmed, either technologically or socially? (And: What’s free will and what is just a storyline, pre-written and retold?)

The second season premiere might have new title credits, new narratives, and even a few new faces (Talulah Riley has been promoted to series regular, for example, and Betty Gabriel of Get Out fame has joined as a member of the Delos security team), but it’s still focused on those same themes, and it won’t let you forget it. In Westworld (alt title: “Choose Your Own Adventure” for psychopaths), everything—perhaps even the rebellion itself—is a programmed narrative, recycled and renewed ad nauseam. Stagings, conversations, and motifs recur—this is not the first time Dolores and Bernard, or Dolores and Arnold, have been seated face-to-face in the bowels of the Delos headquarters.

New to *Westworld*: Betty Gabriel, Luke Hemsworth, Gustaf Skarsgard (and of course Jeffrey Wright).

In season one’s last episode, Arnold, in a flashback, was trying to coax Dolores into consciousness before instructing her to kill him and all her fellow hosts; this time, we’re in the aftermath of a different carnage (at least, we think). At least two weeks prior, Dolores murdered Ford, catalyzing an open rebellion of hosts against their human overlords that may, at least in part, have been written into their programming by Ford himself. (The episode is titled “Journey Into Night,” which is, conveniently, the same name Ford gave to his final narrative.)

“Is this,” Bernard says towards the end of this opening exchange, “… now?”

It’s quite a loaded question, considering the events of the two intervening weeks between the first season finale and much of the second season premiere. (It’s also, judging by early reviews, one he’ll keep repeating throughout the season. Time, as it’s been said, is a flat circle.) Let’s take a quick survey of what’s happening across the park and back at the Delos headquarters.

At Delos HQ…

At the end of the first season, Maeve, on the cusp of escaping Westworld and the Delos properties entirely, turns back to search for the daughter she was assigned in a previous narrative. (As Thandie Newton, who plays Maeve, noted during a panel discussion following the episode’s New York premiere, “My liberation is a disaster.”) So in the midst of a rebellion she helped set off, Maeve sets out to find the child. Along the way, she encounters the human Lee Sizemore, Westworld’s narrative director, who insists on reminding her that her daughter isn’t “real” (what is real, my dude?) and points out that he wrote some of the lines Maeve still repeats now. (Last season, Bernard told Maeve, as she fled headquarters, that even her rebellion was written into her programming. Turns out, that means right down to the dialogue.)

After a brief stop in the control room—everyone’s dead, even the host-bear, prompting Lee to note that “no one’s in control”—they soon run into Hector Escaton, Maeve’s sometimes-love interest (Rodrigo Santoro). “Much as I’d love to believe it, it’s not me that brought you back here,” Hector says to Maeve. He might be talking about her daughter, but he might also be referring to the programmed storyline—probably without even realizing it. Nothing is real but also everything is real.

In Park 1: Westworld…

Inside the park, it’s been two weeks since Dolores executed Ford in front of an audience of Delos’s wealthiest donors, setting off a host-inflicted bloodbath that was already well underway back at the Delos headquarters. It’s a classic zombie-horror trope: Survivor (in this case, Bernard) wakes up in media res to find a world gone to hell, with little memory of how he got there or what happened in the meantime. So he has to piece it all together.

Westworld, as was hinted in the previous season’s finale, is just one of several—at least six—adjacent parks in Delos’s portfolio, and the head of operations, Karl Strand (Gustaf Skarsgard, brother of Alexander and Bill, son of Stellan), points out that most of the carnage was located in Park 1 (the park we all know as Westworld). Still, it sounds like the other parks—including the much-alluded-to Shogun World—were also plagued by hosts turning on their human guests. (At a panel discussion at the Tribeca Film Festival, showrunner Jonathan Nolan noted that he was especially inspired by the influence that director Akira Kurosawa had on other genres, including westerns and science fiction like Star Wars. Does that mean an interstellar park might be out there, too?)

One of Strand’s tech lackeys cracks open the head of a dead host, removing his brain bulb to access the footage of his final moments. In the blurry video, we see Dolores ride in and execute him, telling him, “I told you, friend—not all of us deserve to make it to the valley beyond.”

This line leads to a flashback to the moments immediately following the onset of the revolt. Tessa Thompson’s Charlotte Hale, accompanied by Bernard (who no one, aside from the man himself, yet knows is a host) and several other investors, takes refuge in a horse stable; a stable hand asks if the guests would like to saddle up for “the valley beyond.” The investors beat him to death, because this episode is floor-to-ceiling blood and carnage, before they set out for a rumored field station where they might be able to call for help. But they’re ambushed en route, and only Bernard and Charlotte escape. At one point, Charlotte tells Bernard everything is programming—she believes the hosts have been let loose on an alternate narrative circuit, rather than that they have developed free will. Two weeks ahead, the cleanup crew makes a similar observation; the humans seem reluctant to believe the hosts are operating entirely outside the storylines provided for them. After all, denial has gotten them this far.

After their traveling companions are dispatched by the rogue hosts, Bernard and Charlotte successfully make their way to a hidden field station where “drone hosts”—decommissioned shells of hosts past—operate on malfunctioning hosts. To gain entry, they have to submit their DNA for analysis—a big uh-oh, considering Bernard isn’t, you know, human. Yet he’s somehow able to enter—and in case you missed that little hint, it’s repeated: Charlotte tells Bernard not to worry about the drone host that seems to be following him around the lab. Because it already read his DNA, so it knows he’s not a threat. Something’s going on.

Actually, it appears multiple things are going on. Delos is mining users’ data and possibly also their DNA. (Plot twist, Delos is Facebook!) Here, finally, is the “bigger picture” Theresa Cullen referred to in the series’ pilot episode: “This place is one thing to the guests, another thing to the shareholders, and something completely different to management,” she tells Lee. Because Westworld is nothing if not on the nose, Dolores has also been referring to this rebellion as a “reckoning.”

Anyways, Bernard keeps glitching; a computer readout says he has about 45 minutes till his hardware shuts down entirely, so he injects himself with some host goo for a bit of a second wind. Charlotte doesn’t notice. She’s a bit preoccupied: It turns out, before they can be rescued, they have to retrieve a “package”—Peter Abernathy, the host who used to be Dolores’s father before a photo of Times Square made him go crazy, and who Charlotte has been using to extract proprietary data from Westworld.

Meanwhile, William, aka the Man in Black, comes across the host child-avatar of Ford, who tells him this particular “game” was made just for him. Last season, William was searching for the “center of the maze”; now, it’s something called “the door.”

“The stakes are real now,” William, clearly thrilled by all this actual death, tells the child, who speaks with a glitchy version of Anthony Hopkins’s voice, even though the kid has clearly told him this is still a game. In the previous episode, William remarked that Westworld “feels more real than the real world,” which is sort of a different way of saying the same thing. Or, as a wise man once put it, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”

This question keeps resurfacing for Dolores and Teddy, too: “Have you ever stopped to question the nature of your reality?” Dolores asks a handful of guests as she strings them up in nooses. Dolores, who is also Wyatt (honestly, Evan Rachel Wood’s expression as she transitions between them is chef’s kiss), Teddy, and their blood vendetta have so far spent this episode cantering across the countryside. For those two, agency is basically mass murder—but they don’t stop to question the nature of this new self-determination, to wonder whether it, too, is pre-programmed. “I know how this story ends,” Dolores tells Teddy towards the close of the episode. “It ends with you and me.” Exactly as Ford wrote it.

Two weeks ahead again, Bernard still only remembers the previous two weeks in glitchy flashes, and by the looks of it, he was an active, enthusiastic participant in the massacre. (This, of course, he is not sharing with a security team that still believes him to be human, and to be the boss.) As he, Strand, and Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) approach a bluff on the edge of the park, they find themselves standing above a massive body of water that apparently was never on the map. A Bengal tiger rots on the shore—apparently a wayward inhabitant of Park 6—and (in a shot that’s equal parts magnificent and unnerving) the bodies of dead hosts dot the water of the harbor.

“I killed all of them,” Bernard says. If this is the beginning of the robot takeover, there don’t seem to be a whole lot of robots left to take over.