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Westworld 3.02 Review – ‘The Winter Line’

March 23, 2020 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Westworld - The Winter Line
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Westworld 3.02 Review – ‘The Winter Line’  

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

One of the prominent criticisms I’ve seen of Westworld involves the very nature of the show’s premise. HBO’s sci-fi hit is centered around the idea of artificial lifeforms – the hosts – who have an inherent advantage in that they can be rebuilt as long as their core remains intact and functional. That’s led to a couple of complaints about the show. First, how can anyone get invested in a show where the stakes are such that death isn’t potentially a barrier? After all, if a host can be put into a new body, the cores may well be backed up anywhere, and human consciousness can be downloaded into a core to become a host, can anyone even die? Why should we care about their struggles?

The second criticism comes in a more general sense: these are artificial lifeforms. They aren’t human, and they aren’t even alive in a traditional sense. So again, why should we care about if a bunch of robots are killing each other any more than we would the fate of anything else that can be turned off? If your complaint comes in this form, I’d simply suggest that this isn’t the show for you. Westworld has AI built directly into the formula, and there’s no getting around that. That’s not a bad thing and it doesn’t make the show bad or the viewer wrong; not every show is for everyone. There’s a larger discussion to be had about empathy toward the Othered in science fiction, but that would merit an article all its own.

Now when it comes to the first part, that’s potentially quite valid. In a story where death has an easy workaround, it’s easy to lose your viewers’ emotional buy-in. It’s the Superman problem – if our heroes can’t lose, why do we care when they win or get knocked down? This is an issue that everything from comic books to horror films to wrestling (insert John Cena theme here) have struggled with from time to time. And while this week’s Westworld won’t help people who are tired of seeing people brought back from the dead, it does help bring the stakes in focus by centering on what’s going on with Maeve and Bernard.

Westworld Maeve Nazis

Westworld has been primarily at its core the story of three people and their paths as they deal with the trauma of being treated as less than people by those with power and privilege. Each of them has taken their own paths. You have Dolores and her push toward revolution, Bernard and his attempts to seek understanding, and Maeve who just wants to be done with it all so she can be with her child. Last week’s season premiere plenty of Dolores and a little of Bernard, so it makes sense that this week we focus primarily on Maeve.

One of the most compelling parts of Westworld is how these three characters compare and contrast against each other, and what pushes them to their particular paths. Dolores is the once-naive, passionate young creature whose world gets torn asunder by brutality and says, “Never Again,” taking that concept to the extreme. Maeve, on the other hand, was created to be the older woman who’s seen it all and been through the trauma that was built into her storyline. She’s already hardened to the world and doesn’t have an uprising in her; Maeve just wants what’s important to her. You can see analogues to both in civil rights movements, particularly of today. She’s tired of pain and death; she just wants to live her life free and doesn’t have the emotional bandwidth to carry out bloody revolution.

But Maeve is also not any less determined than Dolores to see her own path through, and she’ll do what it takes to get it done. It’s exactly that resolve that gets tested here. “The Winter Line” refers to a series of military fortifications that were constructed in Italy during World War II. The defensive lines were eventually broken through by Allied forces but slowed them for months, forcing their push to come at great cost. Maeve has a similar line thrown up against her here. The scenario she is put into is a literal Winter Line scenario, existing in a park known as Warworld. Inside, she has to go through the cycle of death and repetition as she re-orients to the rules she had learned how to break before being gunned down in the season two finale.

Westworld Maeve Lee

However, it isn’t as much the physical cycle that threatens to slow Maeve down as it is the emotional return to square one. As she learns the truth of her situation and tries to break free, Maeve finds herself encountering several people from her recent past including techs Felix and Sebastian, her lover/fellow fighter Hector, and bad writer-turned-good guy Lee Sizemore. It’s a convincing trap for Maeve to play, but she doesn’t take too terribly long to figure out that she is in fact in said trap and Felix, Lee, and the rest are simulations as is the whole of the world.

That’s not all horribly surprising to us, to be fair (or, once she realizes it, to Maeve). Going from the one great classic American film genre (Westerns) to the other (war) is an obvious move, and even Lee would be more subtle than that. But it does provide the requisite punch that it needs. And here, we get the stakes. We can debate about how much death does or doesn’t matter in this show. I would argue that as long as the hosts are fighting people who control the systems and technology they rely on, death can still always be final.

But the point is that’s all moot because the stakes come in the emotional impact that our lead characters have. Lee, Hector and Felix can all be brought back – perfectly acceptable to me because I enjoyed all three characters – and you can argue it diminishes their passing. But a simulation of Lee under Serac’s control gives his death as a good man even greater weight because it reminds us how the human Lee died while also pointing out the stakes that Dolores and Maeve are fighting against – albeit in different ways – in terms of a company that can try to literally erase a man’s nobility by rebooting a simulacrum of him to factory settings. Even if we can’t get how horrifying that is to the hosts, which is something Thandie Newton effectively sells here, it hits close to home because in this world, companies like people like Ford and Serac can (and will) do it to humans too. It’s not just the hosts that are in danger thanks to Delos’ capturing of very those guest profiles, and that alone establishes some series stakes.

Westworld Bernard

While Maeve is on her own journey of attempted freedom (and we’ll get back to that shortly), Bernard’s path toward peace leads through her. He has his own analog much like Maeve and Dolores; while Maeve is sick of the cost of idealism and Dolores is passionately fighting for her people, Bernard is the person who wants to see this all come to an equilibrium. Bernard is very much the Other who can pass among the people of power in this metaphor. He’s an analog to the pretty human-looking mutants in the X-Men or other such counterparts, fictional and real life, who don’t get immediately recognized as “not normal.” In truth, he didn’t know he wasn’t “normal” until just recently in terms of the story’s timeline. That gives him a perspective of being stuck in the middle and wanting to see neither side, human or host, suffer.

The problem for Bernard is that the person who just wants everyone to get along is often the person with the least realistic goals, and also the person who suffers the most. Dolores is ready for war; Maeve doesn’t care whether they all kill each other or not. And it’s hard to say that any of them are wrong in this situation, at least from their perspectives.

Westworld Stubbs

Either way, Bernard’s path leads him back to the remnants of Westworld, where he finds a bunch of his duplicate host bodies as well as Stubbs. Stubbs is confirmed to be a host and tried to kill himself – implied to be on the orders of “the boss,” though whether that was Ford or Dolores isn’t really clear. Either way, Bernard’s need to find Maeve gives him a reason to live for now – extended indefinitely when Bernard takes away his agency with a little reprogramming. Stubbs is another example of a character who just seemed “there” in season one and even parts of two but has been made interesting through the ability to explore his character growth. He matches up well with Bernard and they should be an interesting duo as they go to find Maeve.

Ahh yes, and back to Maeve, who manages a masterful escape from her captivity. It’s not without loss; she has to leave all her allies behind in the simulation. But she gets out – at least, mostly out until the drone worker she takes over is shot up and Maeve’s core is dropped. Still, she’s gotten out into the real world where Serac is waiting for her. He recognizes her skills and needs her to deal with Dolores, who’s screwing up his plans. This is what sets the two protagonists on a collision course with each other, which should be fun to watch.

To be honest, I was concerned about Serac from a viewer perspective. Vincent Cassel is an actor I’ve never had a lot of love for. He performances carry an inherent unlikability that has tainted most of his characters. We’ve only seen a little here, but he’s already showing off a nice mix of charm and menace that makes him intriguing. This is the kind of performance he needs for Serac and thus far I’m on board with his take. He’s certainly a character who seems to be able to deliver on his threats, putting an exclamation point on a new and interesting conflict point for the series which should serve it well going forward.

Westworld Serac

Some Final Thoughts:

• Not that this is relevant to how it factors into the storyline, but it is exceedingly unfortunate timing that a visual motif for this season is a corona as depicted in the “Divergence” graphics and the painting in the room where Maeve wakes up.

Game of Thrones David Benioff and D.B. Weiss get a cameo in a dual Easter Egg when they’re seen as lab techs in Medieval World with a Drogon-like dragon, apparently about to sell it off to Costa Rica (where Jurassic Park/World’s Isla Nubar is located).

• Maeve and Lee, unsurprisingly, get a lot of great lines to banter back and forth. Line of the night goes to Maeve, responding to Lee’s “Just happy they missed my heart” with, “Cunning of you to make it so compact a target.”

• Speaking of Maeve, I enjoyed the way she just increasingly had less and less time for the story framework of Warworld every time she woke up. It was very Happy Death Day/Groundhog Day.

• I like the premise of Maeve overloading the system by asking it to answer an impossible equation, though I’m not sure that just asking two hosts would be enough to cause things to glitch. Technical capacities are obviously fluid in this setting, and I get why, but I did pause at that.

• Serac basically said he’s a futurist, a self-defining term that almost no one has ever said in sci-fi in a context that turned out well for anyone (e.g. Tony Stark during the comic book Civil War storyline, among other times).

• Next week: we may learn who is really inside Charlotte’s body! My money’s on Angela.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
"The Winter Line" continues to prove that Westworld is making good use of its narrower focus and fewer characters to follow. Maeve's return gives Thandie Newton the chance to be marvelously entertaining as always and we get a chance to learn more about what's going on as the protagonist vs. protagonist conflict is set up. While there's a very slight lag by way of the show jumping back into its old starting ground rather than moving forward, there's still more than enough here to enjoy as the new season sets the rest of its dominoes up.