4.5 out of 5 stars

Most will agree that “Les Écorchés” (French for “the flayed”, also referring to a style of artwork depicting skinless human bodies) was one of season 2’s best hours, almost behaving like a finale at times. We had lots of action, a few surprises, and that rarest of things: unambiguous answers to important questions. Plus a few more questions, of course, and things weren’t spelled out to us… because who wants to be just told the ending of the story?

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In the present day, we got an early surprise with Strand (Gustaf Skarsgård) taking Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) to the lab where Bernard was ordered to kill Theresa Cullen by Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) promptly found a secret area behind a bloodstained wall, and inside were several versions of Bernard covered in transparent sheets. Uh-oh.

Bernard’s true nature as a host was one of season 1’s biggest reveals (although not a surprise to those who expected such a twist to happen, to someone), and now the characters of Westworld are on the same page. And, unfortunately for Bernard, this means Charlotte’s free to torture him for information about Dolores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) attack on the Mesa, by fiddling with his settings so he feels like he’s being waterboarded. If you have built a healthy hatred for Charlotte since she was introduced, this episode will add to that.

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To see a world in a grain of sand / And a heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour.—Robert Ford.

And so we entered Bernard’s memories of recent events, which was a nice way to ease us into more flashbacks without confusing us. Believe it or not, I still know casual viewers of Westworld who aren’t entirely clear on when flashbacks are happening, as there isn’t much to distinguish “now” with “a few week’s ago”.

Anyway, the story picked up in the Cradle from last week, with Bernard having connected his control unit “brain” to the park’s backup system while Elsie (Shannon Woodward) wait for him to reactivate the facility’s systems from within.

Inside this virtual simulation of Sweetwater, Bernard was instead reacquainted by his deceased creator, Robert Ford, whose consciousness has been uploaded into the servers. As we sort of knew already, Delos have perfected how to digitise a human mind and store it somewhere, but they’re not yet able to upload the “code” back into a physical robot body. All that happens is the digital brains corrupt after a month, leading to the inevitable dementia poor James Delos couldn’t escape from.

It was great to have Anthony Hopkins back on the show. He plays the part of Robert Ford very well and brings a certain amount of prestige to bare. It also helps that we’re more aware of what his motivations are now, but it was nice to eventually be reminded that his endgame is still cloudy (certainly in terms of what his “game” is), and his methods are unorthodox. The first season finale seemed to confirm that Ford was, ultimately, a good man trying to give his automaton creations freedom… and while that’s true, his morals are very grey in terms of how he goes about things.

We also got confirmation of what the six parks are for: the hosts are the ‘control’ because of their static ‘loops’, and the human guests are the ‘variables’ because of their free will. Delos haven’t been making billions sending rich businessmen to go play cowboy, they’re been analysing all the guests’s responses to stimuli and hope to create digital minds using the collected data. And after his partner Arnold died, Ford used Dolores to test the “fidelity” of his replica version, Bernard, as she was the person who spent the most time with him in secret. It’s also mentioned that Ford harvested some of Arnold’s wife’s memories, but I’m not sure if that means her consciousness is also floating around in a Delos server somewhere.

In a dark twist, repositioning Ford in a more villainous light again, he then states that Bernard won’t survive unless he loses his free will. And so Bernard is awakened back inside the Cradle, having succeeded in clearing the disruption to the park’s systems, but we later realise Ford’s consciousness has hitched a ride inside Bernard’s control unit. Ford now appears to Bernard as a “ghost”, often in reflections, guiding him around and talking to him, but he also has the worrying ability to assume control of Bernard and make him do things against his will. Their toxic relationship has been reasserted, with Ford again manipulating Bernard for his own ends… and poor Bernard is forced to do terrible things like gunning down Delos employees. He also turns off all the security systems to aide Dolores’ plan.

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One fire burns out another’s burning / One pain is lessened by another’s anguish.—Abernathy.

Later, the Cradle itself was destroyed by Dolores’ comrade Angela (Tallulah Riley), using a grenade she removes from the belt of a mercenary sent to stop her. Her parting line “welcome to Westworld” a nod to Angela’s older role as the first host the guests meet, introducing them to the park.

It seems like a counterintuitive move to destroy the Cradle, but Dolores ordered it because she views the existence of a backup as just another “chain” their creators use to control them. I’m not entirely convinced by her argument - as surely it’s just an advantage if they take control of the Cradle, so if they “die” trying to liberate other hosts they can just return to the fight? A similar thing was of great benefit to Cylons in the Battlestar Galactica remake, with their ‘Resurrection Ships’. Shouldn’t you embrace the advantages you have over mankind? But whatever the thinking, the Cradle’s loss means hosts and humans are fighting on a more even playing field. Hosts can take a lot more physical damage (although the Man in Black might disagree these days!), but whoever dies… they now stay dead.

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After the locomotive crashed into the Mesa, this allowed Dolores and Teddy (James Marsden) to enter the more sensitive areas of the parks in an effort to find her kidnapped father, Peter Abernathy (Louis Hertham). They find him rather easily, considering they’re just a bunch of 19th-century gunslingers versus highly-trained modern-day tactical teams with bulletproof vests. Not sure I can accept how well the hosts outsmart the humans on the show, who have vastly superior weapons and training. Even allowing for them tinkering with their skillsets, perhaps, you’d think it would be more of a challenge for the hosts than it seems.

Charlotte’s forced to reveal to Stubbs that Abernathy’s disintegrating mind contains an ‘encryption key’, but not what precisely what it opens, before Dolores arrives and almost exacts some ‘eye for an eye’ vengeance on Charlotte by opening her skull with a handheld rotary saw. We don’t get to see such a bloodthirsty, Hannibal-esque sequence, of course, as Charlotte isn’t suffering any head wounds in the present day. But for those who have come to really dislike Charlotte, seeing her genuinely scared when the power dynamic was reversed in the presence of Dolores was… very satisfying.

Inevitably, Charlotte and Stubbs manages to escape Dolores as Teddy leads an attack on Coughlin’s (Timothy V. Murphy) armed security, and during the violence there was a very touching scene when Abernathy has a moment of of clarity and was able to say farewell to his beloved daughter as his program degraded for good. It was a beautiful bit of acting from Evan Rachel Wood in particular, and it’ll be interesting to see exactly what her father’s “key” opens now Dolores has retrieved it after his death. Common sense says it’s the ‘Door’ season 2’s been named after.

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She’s not like the rest. We need her!—Lee Sizemore.

Maeve’s storyline took some unexpected turns in “Les Écorchés”, as her original narrative return by coincidence with the Ghost Nation attacking the homestead she again takes refuge in with her daughter. And, history repeating itself, the Man in Black (Ed Harris) arrived on the scene… only this time he’s not interested in running Maeve through with a blade, although she doesn’t know that.

But in a sequence that demonstrates how much she’s grown since her days as a cowering mother, Maeve shoots and badly injures the MIB before fleeing and using her ‘technomancy’ to control the hosts that accompanied the MIB. It also became known that Maeve’s ability doesn’t affect “awakened” hosts, because Lawrence (Clifton Collins, Jr.) wasn’t able to be mind-controlled. To turn him against the MIB, Maeve instead had to use good old-fashioned persuasion, reminding him of the countless times the MIB behaved despicably around his family in previous loops of his own narrative.

It worked, too, with the MIB receiving another volley of lead from his sidekick, until a couple of Delos buggies arrived to mow down Lawrence and Maeve. And during the chaos, Maeve had to watch in horror as her daughter was again taken by Akecheta and his Indian tribe. It seemed a bit ridiculous the MIB survived everything thrown his way during this episode, and I was convinced he was going to get medical help from the Delos team because he’s effectively their boss, but that didn’t happen. One assumes the MIB will have to do more than just patch himself up next week, however.

Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) prevented Maeve being killed by signalling her importance to the personnel in the buggies, and it’s true she’s developed an ability to remotely control hosts that will be very useful to backwards-engineer. But I think it’s also likely he’s developed a modicum of affection for Sweetwater’s brothel madam, which will come into play later.

For now, Maeve was shipped back to the Mesa and unceremonious left in a vehicle bay to bleed out, where her path crossed again with Dolores making her escape after her father’s death. It seems these two woman are fated to have short but emotional moments, and here Dolores offered to put injured Maeve out of her misery, which was declined. But not before Maeve observed Teddy’s sudden ruthlessness, correctly surmising Dolores has altered his programming to suit her needs, then making a valid point that Dolores’ talk of freedom is therefore very hypocritical. She’s perhaps more like Ford, whereas Maeve is analogous to Arnold? Regardless, it seems more than likely these two characters are being positioned as antagonists; both desiring the same thing for their kind, but going about it in very different ways.

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Finally, as we left the “flashbacks” of Bernard’s memories about what recently happened, he reveals that Abernathy’s control unit is currently located in the Valley Beyond, where they first found him. Of course, now we know that Ford’s in control of everything Bernard says and does, so his sudden helpfulness might not be a sign of torture getting results… but Ford leading them all into a trap.

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In Summation:

It’s a given that episodes full of action and explanations are well-received in Westworld, and “Les Écorchés” certainly delivered both in spades, but without demystifying things completely. We still don’t know if The Door refers to something in the Valley Beyond, or even if’s a literal place. There are even theories flying around that Dolores’ vengeance is a scripted narrative by Ford, meaning he’s manipulating everything in order to get what he wants. And who knows if Maeve’s strange abilities aren’t part of his plan, too. There’s a chance this entire mutiny isn’t genuine, but just something that feels real because it creates enough chaos for Ford to move between. And are there signs that Bernard is strong enough to rebel against whatever control Ford has over him, as he was discovered in the present day clutching a photo of his son Charlie (well, Arnold’s son technically). Are his memories, his love, for his son more powerful than Ford and the key to him regaining his free will?

So, when you stop to think about it, Westworld actually has a lot of mystery left in the details of things. And if we’re contemplating the longterm future of the show, which is a big hit for HBO, one has to wonder if the writers can squeeze out more than another season of Westworld. Whatever the mysterious “Door” is, or means, it’s going to have to open up the story quite considerably…