Season 3, Episode 1: Parce Domine
The opening sequence of the third season of “Westworld” naturally recalls the opening sequence of the first, when the wholesome rancher’s daughter Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) was still stuck in her loop, greeting beautiful days that typically ended in rape and murder. Now she remembers everything, including the 1 percenters who made her part of their bachelor weekends, and she’s finally in their world, leading an android vendetta that turns these people’s own technology against them. She can not only breach their security systems but also cue up a killer track from their Spotify playlists.
The original idea of “Westworld” was that the hosts were more human than humans — too complex to be understood simply as machines, yet completely vulnerable to man’s worst instincts. Last season muddied that line of thinking, especially as Dolores was concerned. It was not clear how different hosts might respond to liberation, which offers the possibilities and moral responsibilities of being fully human, but it had the curious effect of making Dolores more remote and one-dimensional. The quest for revenge had flattened her out as a character and made her unrecognizable even to Teddy (James Marsden), who took his own life after she engineered the sweetness out of him.
Among the many virtues of “Parce Domine,” the first episode of the new season, are distinct signs that Dolores may rediscover her earlier self. In the opening, she is still the righteous angel of vengeance, taking down a Delos mega-investor (Thomas Kretschmann) who didn’t limit his violence against women to the park alone. She has read his “unauthorized autobiography” in the Forge, so she knows everything he’s done, and she swiftly commandeers his high-tech security system, which turns his fortress into a prison. (“You want to be the dominant species, but you’ve built your whole world with things more like me.”)
When she makes references to his own “loops,” it’s clear that humans are almost as easy to exploit in their home as the hosts were in Westworld.
The subtle revelation in this episode, however, is that Dolores is going to have to come to terms with innocent people. The technicians and guests responsible for her oppression in Westworld are clear targets for revenge, but her assumptions about humanity at large can’t be safely extrapolated from there. Again and again, she is confronted by people who reveal other dimensions: Her first target’s second wife, who is now freed from domestic violence; Liam Dempsey Jr. (John Gallagher Jr.), who she wrongly presumes operates Incite, the insidious data-mining operation founded by his father; and Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul), the construction worker and part-time mercenary crook who comes to her aid in the closing moments.
The sum of these encounters is a promising sign for “Westworld,” which is attempting a hard reboot after a second season that often twisted itself in knots to stay ahead of the Reddit prognosticators. With the addition of new replicants and powerful algorithms this episode, the show will surely become its confounding self in due time. But Dolores is the character at the center of the maze, and it’s crucial that she restore some of the soul that has been coarsened by her relentless pursuit of robot justice. Otherwise, “Westworld” risks becoming an empty puzzle-box or leaning too heavily on supporting characters like Maeve (Thandie Newton) to carry that flicker of humanity.
In the meantime, the change in location has given the show a boost. The future looks expensive, like a cross between “Blade Runner” and a credibly advanced version our own, filled with around-the-corner developments like driverless vehicles, smart houses, holograms and other sophisticated forms of automation. Dolores’s efforts to infiltrate Incite have the quality of a spy thriller, complete with automated-car-and-motorcycle chases, open-air shootouts and well-planted twists and double-crosses. After last season’s bloated, confusing finale, there seems to be renewed effort to inject fresh life into the show and emphasize action over talky philosophizing.
Still, you can take the show out of Westworld, but you can’t take Westworld out of the show. Questions linger from last season about the host version of Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) and what she has planned for Delos, and the “pearls” Charlotte-bot sneaked out of the park will have to materialize, too.
Then there’s Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), who starts the episode in hiding after getting blamed for the park massacre and ends it by commissioning a boat back to Westworld, for purposes unknown. “Westworld” 2.0 may have a gorgeous redesign and increased functionality, but it’s still the same ungainly hunk of hardware.
Dolores’s makeup (and Wood’s performance) makes her robotic nature stand out more in the human world than it did in the park. Her face and body have a glossy finish, and her movements in the action sequences read as distinctly nonhuman.
Caleb’s turning to a disembodied therapeutic version of a fallen comrade plays up humanity’s reliance on simulated humans to stand in for the real thing, to the point where it’s hard to know the difference without asking. Again, another regrettable leap forward for mankind.
Bernard’s doing his own diagnostic while hiding out on an industrial farm opens up new frontiers for self-deception: “Would you ever lie to me, Bernard?” “No, of course not.” Ask Elsie how reassuring that is.
Pulp’s “Common People” isn’t the subtlest needle drop for a show about robots aspiring to be more human (“I wanna live like common people/ I wanna do whatever common people do”), but it has a propulsive future-sound that’s ideal. Sometimes the straightforward choice is the right one.