Westworld episode 2: Who is real, what’s a simulation, and why anything is possible

Westworld season 3 is playing out, to put it in screenplay terms, like an Act 3. There’s been no confirmation from HBO that this is the last season of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s sci-fi epic, but the paths of hosts Dolores, Bernard, Maeve, plus the corporate entities entangled in their awakening, are all coming to a head.

Unlike seasons 1 and 2, there seem to be fewer mysteries to solve, and more ethical dilemmas to confront. Is Dolores the hero or the villain of the story? Can Bernard keep his bicameral mind steady enough to prevent her apocalypse (if that’s something he should even do)? And now in episode 2, “The Winter Line,” a similar question lands on Maeve’s lap: does she need to be Dolores’ friend or foe in order to reunite with her daughter?

The big questions keep the action moving at a thriller’s pace. But this is Westworld, and Joy and Nolan are experts at making us look one way so we don’t see the sleight of hand at work in the other direction. Is there a big reveal waiting to happen in season 3?

“Reveal” might ultimately be the wrong word, but after episode 2, viewers may be wondering how the show is once again toying with perspective. Or to put it in another way, the show continues to pick at a key theme: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”

[Ed. note: this post contains major spoilers for Westworld season 3, episode 2. While HBO provided Polygon and other press with the first four episodes of the series, we only previewed episode 2, in order to keep spoilers for future episodes out of episodic coverage.]

Explaining the whole simulation thing in Westworld episode 2

maeve and hector in war world in westworld season 2

Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO

Joy and Nolan dedicate the full hour of episode 2 to catching up with Maeve, who is now trapped in War World. After reuniting with Hector, she realizes this is all just another loop she must break in order to find an escape route. Lee Sizemore, having somehow survived season 2, finds her in the Delos repair rooms, and directs her to The Forge, where all the memory cores have been stored. This is her chance to finally get her daughter back, Maeve thinks … until she doesn’t.

Halfway through the episode, a glitchy Sizemore helps Maeve realize that this new loop is bullshit. Her escape from Delos is bullshit. Everything is bullshit. Her experience, as she comes to understand, is a simulation conjured by an unknown force who wants to know what Maeve knows. But having a grasp on her un-reality gives Maeve the upper hand, and she escapes her digital prison through brutal drone force. She hacks the system, controls a drone in the real world, busts her core out of containment, and goes on a full assault against her captors. COVID-19 forced No Time to Die to relocate to November, but thankfully, the creators of Westworld gave us a mini James Bond movie in the form of Maeve infiltrating the layers of a digital reality. Give Thandie Newton an action franchise, you cowards.

Though gunned down during her escape, Maeve gets one more shot at existence, courtesy of a shadowy new antagonist named Serac. Played by French actor Vincent Cassel, the businessman admits that he suspected Maeve was behind a recent string of murders, and hoped fully simulating the reality of the Westworld park would get her to break. The plan obviously didn’t work, but it also didn’t matter! Serac is aware of Dolores, and now wants Maeve — rebuilt in the real world — to help him hunt down the renegade AI. She doesn’t comply, and Serac freezes her, flexing his power over her computer brain. She’s not used to that.

Maeve in the real world in a real white dress in Westworld season 3

Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO

Though the episode doesn’t offer much context, we do know what role Cassel’s character plays in the bigger picture of Westworld season 3. According to HBO.com, Serac (first name, Engerraund), is a “shadowy figure with vast resources,” and “one of the architects of Rehoboam,” the super intelligence created by Incite to algorithmically place every citizen of the planet on a optimized path. Dolores is currently hunting down Incite bigwigs. Serac wants Meave to put an end to it. Who knows what’s true or what’s not — when you have “shadowy” in your character description, there’s no telling what you’re actually up to.

The season 3 premiere introduced us to Liam Dempsey Jr. (John Gallagher Jr.), the son of Incite co-founder Liam Dempsey, who also invented Rehoboam. Perhaps Serac is another figurehead at the business, hoping to bump Junior out for nefarious purposes. As a dedicated viewer of Westworld, I feel like I can’t even say with authority if Serac is a real person or not. After two seasons of playing fast and loose with timelines and information-delivery, Joy and Nolan are hammering home the idea that whatever we think we’re seeing on screen at any given point could be a simulation — whether it’s a park, a person, or existence itself. The only thing I believe is that I don’t trust any of what I start to believe.

Who and what is real in Westworld?

Here’s what we know after episode 2:

  • Ashley Stubbs, having never been a real person, is aware of his host-ness, and now on Team Bernard
  • Lee Sizemore definitely died, but was recreated by Serac to fool Maeve
  • Meave’s core was retrieved by Incite, plugged into a simulation, then recreated as a host in the “real” world by Serac
  • Everyone has the ability to create new lookalike hosts and entirely new realities, so all bets are off.

After the season 3 premiere, I went long wondering if Aaron Paul’s Caleb was living in his own simulated reality — at least on the side. The ex-soldier and blue-collar worker dabbles in petty crime thanks to an app that seems straight out of a video game. Maybe a little too much like a video game. The premiere also has a character bluntly postulate the possibility that the real world is a simulation, in a conversation we’ve all had too many times with intoxicated pals. The scene was a signal that Joy and Nolan might be up to their old reality-bending tricks again. Episode 2 establishes that it’s extremely possible for any consciousnesses stored in cores to get plugged into a Matrix-esque universe. Incite wants us all to live in a utopia designed by AI, and now we know they have the capacity to build worlds whole cloth — who knows where that technology really ends in the confines of this narrative.

For now, Westworld has positioned itself as a new kind of Blade Runner, a Maeve-vs.-Dolores showdown that won’t end well for robot or human alike. But I’m still on the edge of my seat waiting for one more twist. Episode 2 once again played with the aspect ratio to indicate planes of existence. Episode 1 may have been having fun with costumes. Westworld is always hiding information in the margins, waiting patiently to speak the larger truth. Anything is possible now, even as the story winds down to a grand finale.

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