One of the many cycles in Westworld’s circuitous second season has been Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) one-upping each other’s agency in their shared blend of real-world personality and mechanical host. When it’s revealed that Dolores put Bernard through the same QA testing process to which William (Jimmi Simpson/Ed Harris) once sentenced the perpetually reincarnated James Delos (Peter Mullan), it’s a reminder to us that this season, and this show, is built upon the imperfect business of trial and error that comes with playing God.
“Phase Space” starts off with an error. Dolores, after bumping Teddy (James Marsden) up to maximum badassitude, is getting a case of the Frankensteins. It’s incredible that she fucked with life (or its approximation) so hard, but oops, now she has to live with her affront against nature (or the simulation of nature that’s going on here—whatever). Teddy’s change is immediate and decisive. No mercy, no kindness, and nothing more than an echo of Dolores. Not really what true love was built upon.
Her other absent love, her father (Louis Herthum), was recently recovered by Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) and Ashley the incompetent security guy (Luke Hemsworth). They’ve got the asset and Herthum really gets put through his pained paces as they secure him. Literally: I mean they nail gun him to a chair. Even Saw movies don’t push people that far. His gory fate pushes Delos closer to their salvation from Ford’s game.
The gore still going down in Shogun World has the opposite effect. Maeve (Thandie Newton, giving the season’s strongest performance), after slaughtering just a bushido bushel of samurai, reflects on what their victory means for the future of the hosts. Her accomplice, Akame (Rinko Kikuchi) the surgical geisha, is more consumed with grief, removing the slain Sakura’s heart. She deserved a more thoughtful end than getting run through as a plot point, and the show partially agrees—though it still leaves its Japanese hosts (and influences) behind after an episode and change. Aside from the tattooed archer and a pilfered katana, the only remnants of Shogun World will be in Maeve’s developed powers.
That Newton can be intimidating in English, Japanese, and an unspoken, telepathic cyber-language is testament to her unwavering gaze and the brave camera’s ability to hold it without balking. Even the moments that don’t seem like power plays are Maeve wielding apparent omnipotence. Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and the bad boy samurai are allowed to duel each other without interference, which is the biggest show of autonomy that Maeve can grant: an honorable fight between people that would rather die than be granted the aid of witchcraft. Why Musashi sided with folks with tiny hand cannons in a world of swords and bows seems a little hypocritical in the first place, but it seems the honor system in Shogun World is relatively flexible.
So, too, are the world’s caretakers, because the crew must hop down an execution block’s head disposal chute to another underground tunnel, which takes them to where Maeve left her daughter. While Lee (Simon Quarterman) has never really doubted the abilities of the hosts, it’s not hard to tell that watching Maeve’s continued struggle to find her daughter has increased his recognition of their sentience. He calls for human back-up, sure, but he does so knowing that he is calling in the death sentence of a living, thinking thing that he’s come to respect. He just wants to survive, the little weasel. But more than that, the writer’s involvement has always drawn connections to the production of Westworld and TV in general: the bones and dialogue of a story, the actors breathing life into them, and the directors pushing the ebb and flow of both to their whims. Watching the power exchange between all three in this park could only take place in TV, where the collaboration is most deeply felt.
This is also deeply felt when Maeve finally finds her daughter. But it’s not her daughter anymore. Because, as beautiful as these dreams of autonomy and home can be, they’re the daydreams of an actor fighting the wills of both writer and director. No matter the backstory she remembers, this is the narrative now. The story’s set against her and assuming every host is on her path to selfhood will create just as many enemies as friends. Which side her daughter falls on is going to be the most important thing to Maeve, even more important than the greater cause of the hosts, which is foreshadowed when she curses a Ghost Nation man asking her to accompany him.
But daughters have that impact on people. William and his daughter, Emily (Katja Herbers)— whom William thinks is a host at first, along with many conspiratorial internet fans—make their way together and represent a different dynamic adjacent to the show itself: the influence of an outsider on an obsessive. If you’re reading this recap, you’re likely all the way invested in Westworld. You likely have loved ones that fulfill the Emily role in your life, trying to get you to go outside and maybe water the damn plants every once in a while.
Herbers fits snugly into the cast. The Raj (introduced in “Virtù e Fortuna”), which was a favorite of Emily’s and a least favorite of her mother’s, gives the former ample opportunity to grate on her dad while catching him up to speed. She’s pissed at her dad and great at needling him, which the all-powerful and hyper-masculine Man in Black desperately needs to make him as uncool and complicated as he is at his core. Emily’s great at what William does and only takes pleasure in it when it comes with strings attached, which makes her the person best equipped to bring him out of his fantasy world. She cares about consequences. Of course she does; her whole childhood was without them in these fake worlds, and then her mom killed herself back on terra firma. It’s like losing your religion when you go to college: Emily was exposed, harshly, to the antithesis of her upbringing and it colored her life. Now she wants to spread the gospel to dear old dad. The only way to win this game is not to play.
The disparate and disjointed episode (which feels most like last season’s jerky plotting of any episode in Season Two so far) also advances Bernard and Elsie’s (Shannon Woodward) place in the game. The pair discuss some genuine Hackers nonsense that basically says that the hosts’ self-awareness is also happening in the source code running the park’s systems and operations. Bernard says that he should investigate, so of course that means he gets his brain taken out (without cyber-painkillers). It’s even more bizarre than it sounds, because when he jacks into The Matrix, all aboard! He’s back in a letterboxed Sweetwater. A Westworld within a Westworld. And this sub-park, this simulation of code that is behind the greater simulation of code, features a familiar face sitting in the saloon, pulling all the strings. Ford is alive in the program, pushing forth his will with every IF or WHILE statement. If ever there was a God in a machine, it would be this one.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.