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Westworld 3.01 Review – ‘Parce Domine’

March 16, 2020 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Westworld - Parce Domine
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Westworld 3.01 Review – ‘Parce Domine’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Sunday’s season premiere of Westworld.]

It feels like an understatement to describe Westworld as a polarizing television series. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s re-envisioning of the sci-fi thriller has legions of fans (including, full disclosure, me) who appreciate its ambitions and willingness to dive into moral complexities, with characters who are far from clear-cut who provide ample opportunity to tackle some weighty issues. It’s a gorgeous series filled with talented actors giving wonderful performances, and one that isn’t afraid to swing for the fences.

But then there is the other side of the audience base, who are not necessarily fans of the series. These viewers call the show’s two seasons thus far out for being purposefully oblique, and pretentious, more interested in exploring its high notions than telling a cohesive story. They will argue that the world-building and great performances don’t mean much if the characters are difficult to like and the world doesn’t lead to a story that emotionally engages.

And really, both arguments are valid. Westworld is sometimes too impressed with itself, and certainly it lost a bit of its grip in season two on what was already a pretty tenuous narrative from season one. It’s a fine line to walk between keeping your fans intrigued by the mystery and giving them enough that they don’t feel frustrated and strung along. While season two did do a good enough job of walking that line for me, it’s hard to deny that it slipped a bit into its spiral of overcomplexity, and it’s easy to get why that was a turn-off.

Westworld Dolores

Fortunately, Nolan and Joy really do seem to have left most of the mystery within a mystery within a maze behind before moving onto season three. “Parce Domine” largely dispenses with the overriding motif of elusive narrative logic that exemplified season one and especially two in favor of a more straight-forward momentum. It’s not incredibly surprising, to be fair. The hosts are now in the world of man, and that means there’s a much more open world to play in. The showrunners are smart enough to know that they need to ground themselves in this new, more expansive setting if they want any level of buy-in on what this new act of their story is going to bring.

That’s not to say that everything’s crystal clear. We still have some unreliable narrators, and the fact that the show is studiously avoiding using dates is telling. But before Joy and Nolan jump back into the pool of deceptive chronology, we have to get an understanding of the basic rules. And for that, we have to center on a primary character which – of course – ends up being Dolores, who’s really feeling her oats and making some big plays now that she got out of her cowgirl outfit and into sleek dresses and the responsive motorcycles that come with it.

The title of this episode, “Parce Domine” is a Catholic antiphon, a song of ritual. The title translates from Latin into “Spare us, Lord” and the full text is “Spare us, Lord, spare your people. Be not angry with us forever.” Even if you don’t factor in that Dolores repeatedly refers to hosts as mankind’s new gods, it’s hard to ignore how clearly this little chant relates to her. Throughout this episode, Dolores is advancing her schemes to deliver her people to their rightful place. But she’s also very much the vengeful god. She visits her wrath on Jerry in the beginning of the episode and Martin at the end, both of whom visited her in Westworld at some point.

Dolores absolutely sees herself as an avenging angel, and Jerry is the perfect example of that. We learn that Jerry killed his first wife in a fit of rage, and she was left floating face down in the pool as a cover-up to make it seem like an accident. It’s no coincidence that Dolores comes out of Jerry’s pool on her way to face him as if she’s the surrogate ghost of his dead wife. Nor, for that matter, is it coincidence that he ends up trying to kill Dolores and, by his own actions, ends up splitting his skull open and dying in said pool. Dolores Abernathy is a merciless angel to be sure, but I absolutely appreciate that she’s one with a sense of karmic justice.

That said, the key to Dolores as a character has always been how much of her motives we can trust. The Wyatt alter that was put inside of her always made her motives in the park questionable, and it would be easy to point out that she’s not exactly seeking a way to reconcile with humanity. It’s “Magneto Was Right” syndrome; sure, Magneto and Dolores make some very valid points, but anyone who is trying to set themselves up as the gods to their oppressors is probably not someone who we should be expecting to be a benevolent god. I’d say we can even argue whether we can blame her for that. For all of Maeve’s style and panache, there’s a moral complexity to Dolores that I deeply appreciate and it’s serving her well on the outside.

Westworld Caleb

As central as she is to this episode though, Dolores is only just a piece. Our other biggest piece comes with new character Caleb (Aaron Paul), a former soldier who is going through a difficult time since his discharge and is struggling to make it in the world. Caleb is trying to find better jobs than his construction grunt work and clearly, he’s capable of doing more. However, it’s not coming together for him. In the meantime, he’s taking petty crime jobs from the criminal networking app Rico. Paul is great at playing sympathetic crooks with a conscience, and here he’s barely even a crook. Most of the time, we see him doing his best to follow his conscience or having conversations, either with his therapist or his friend and former squad mate Francis.

Now, I don’t think anyone was likely surprised by the twist at the end that Francis has been dead. It was pretty obvious right from the start, in fact. But Joy and Nolan know their viewers are smarter than that, and if they’re going to give us a mystery it’s not going to be one like this. Thus, the goal there wasn’t to surprise us; rather, it was to give us a look inside Caleb’s brain and accomplish two things. The first of these is to help us see why he is in the place that he is and buy into the idea of him as a good guy, even if he is stealing money and helping clean up rich boy druggie crime scenes. Westworld has doing a lot since its first episode with the idea of an imbalance of power whether personal, financial, or a matter of sheer control and Caleb is immediately steeped in those themes.

It’s also very relevant to point out the visual themes around Caleb that establish him as quite probably something more than he appears. The first time we see Caleb, he’s opening his eyes from a sleep in a scene that seems off. His conversation with Francis begins before he even answers his phone, and there’s a lot of backstory implied in this first scene which will be somewhat detailed throughout the episode. But as the hour progresses, we revisit that image of him waking up surrounded by darkness. The repetition starting with an awakening echoes the first time we Dolores in season one, constantly running through the loop of her storyline. Is this meant to imply that he’s a host (possibly one created for military purposes), or is it just intended to put Caleb as our new “eyes of the audience” character the way Dolores largely was in season one? Either is possible, and the fact that he ends up encountering Dolores at the end doesn’t clear matters up all that much. Sure, it could be something Dolores engineered, but it could also be a way to introduce Dolores’ plot to a sympathetic human character. Either way, it absolutely implies more significance than is explicit in the text.

Westworld Charlotte

While all that’s going on, there’s also Charlotte still wandering around. If you’ll recall, when we last saw Charlotte it was discovered that she was actually a host body carrying Dolores’ consciousness and the biological Charlotte was dead. Exactly who is inside the Charlotte host is a matter of speculation for now. It was strongly implied at the end of last season that whoever it is they’re working with Dolores, but that does leave the field wide open. The fact that she’s manipulating Delos into going back into host production definitely fits into Dolores’ plans, but for now it’s just an intriguing mystery (and a welcome way to keep Tessa Thompson on the screen).

Charlotte is our entry into the corporate halls of power in Westworld’s setting, which is a place that seems to be very relevant to where the plot will go. Dolores is trying to get to the bottom of Incite’s powerful, world-saving “strategy engine” known as Rehoboam, which Delos appears to have some connection to. That, by the way, is a particular and revealing name. Rehoboam was the son of King Solomon, who is best remembered for losing his father’s united kingdom by way of an armed revolt. It’s obvious foreshadowing and sets an immediate, very formidable adversary for Dolores in that it (and this its controller, the mysterious Serac) can predict exactly what people will do and act accordingly. That would make Dolores Jeroboam, which – well, is concerning for fans of our freedom fighter because it didn’t go all that well for him.

Westworld Bernard

And of course (as always) we have Bernard sitting on the sidelines, straddling the two extremes of this brewing conflict. Bernard’s role in Westworld has essentially been to play the idealist, the person who wants to bridge the two sides and end the conflict without massive casualties. That kind of idealism in the wake of what both Dolores and humans have done to Bernard certainly makes him noble, and it would be hard to argue that he’s not the most morally “good” character in this series.

That said, the being the “good guy” crucially doesn’t necessarily make Bernard right. Is unity an admirable goal? Of course, but I can’t say it’s realistic. It’s certainly not any more realistic than the notion that Bernard would be able to hide out under a fake name in a butcher plant where there’s internet access. And lo, Bernard is off to try and get back to Westworld for some reason or another, where he will assumedly bring some old players back into the game somehow.

While there’s a lot of checking in and re-establishing going on in “Parce Domine,” it’s important to note how this episode never feels scattershot or overstuffed. By streamlining the plotlines down to four focus characters in Dolores, Caleb, Bernard, and Charlotte, Nolan is able to shift focus smoothly to and from the four plotlines he and Joy wrote out without making us feel like they went by too fast. That’s essential for pacing in an episode like this, where we have to reacquaint ourselves with the characters after such a long time off. It also sets the stage for what looks to be this new season’s tone, which seems to lean a little more into plot progression than narrative tricks. There’s still mystery here, but that mystery doesn’t overwhelm the plot which allows Westworld to get off to a strong footing right out of the gate.

Westworld Maeve

Some Final Thoughts:

• Welcome back to our Westworld coverage for season three! With Game of Thrones done with, this is my favorite show to talk about and I’m looking forward to the ride of the new season.

• As predicted, Maeve is back despite being killed off in the season two finale. She wakes up in what looks like World War II-era Nazi Germany with a gun in her hand and Germans dead and tied to chairs around her, so that’s gonna be a culture shock. My assumption is that this is a simulation she’s been put in by someone at Delos for some reason, but we’ll see.

• The buttons in the Rico app to reject or accept jobs read “No Thanks, I Like Being Basic” and “Fuck Yeah.” Careful, future criminal network. You don’t want your clients to cut themselves on all that edge.

• Douchebag “we’re living in a simulation” rich boy Roderick’s girlfriend Penny gets the line of the night: “It wouldn’t be the first time he’s been led around by something an inch and a half long.” I don’t know how much we’ll be seeing of her, but I like her.

• Runner-up for line of the night: Charlotte telling the Delos executives that “Robots don’t kill people. People kill people.”

• We’re out of the park, but we still have piano versions of popular music. In this case it’s Massive Attack’s “Dissolved Girl” as Dolores enters the social event for Liam. Other musical cues include “99 Luftballoons” and “Bubbles Buried in this Jungle” at Caleb’s meet with Ash and Giggles, Sevdaliza’s “Human” at the art exhibit and Pulp’s “Common People” as Martin tries to off Dolores.

• Kudos for Bernard on hitting a new level of paranoia, but dude. If you think Dolores is controlling you, I wouldn’t put much faith into your self-diagnostics.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Westworld returns in strong form with "Parce Domine," an episode that deftly re-establishes the tone of the show while introducing us to the basics of its next storyline stage. The introduction of Caleb works and the showrunners' focus on story cohesion over mind-blowing mystery works out well. It's a strong start for what will hopefully be a successful new season for the flagship show of HBO's post-Game of Thrones era.