HBO may have lost its flagship series in “Game of Thrones,” but high-concept, big-budget shows are all the rage. The return of “Westworld” after nearly two years made it one of the most anticipated premieres of the Spring. It also means we’re back for a soft reboot, despite the return of many characters. The star-studded premiere, “Parce Domine” breaks out all the stops, but continues to stoke some philosophical debate. If FX’s “Devs” takes the crown for the most downright philosophical experience on television, “Westworld” feels like a heist film inside a Philosophy 101 class. Jonathon Nolan directs the return of the series, and he deftly mixes the more inviting premiere.
“Parce Domine” opens in the immediate aftermath of the massacre from Season 2. With dozens of board members and hosts dead on a beach, an investor in Delos tries to sell off his stock. The man yells at his wife, employees, and controls every aspect of his life, even what he dreams about it. However, he soon awakens in bondage and discovers Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) in his pool.
Dolores already stole all of his money but she requires documents about a company named Incite. To get that information, she forces him to confront his darkest secret: that he murdered his wife. After revealing that she’s “read the book” on him, based on the data collected from his visit to Westworld, she leaves. As he tries to kill her, he hits his head on the side of the pool, killing himself in the process.
We jump forward to three months after the events at Westworld. Caleb (Aaron Paul) attempts to reacclimate to society and his seemingly dead-end job. He works with a robot, who performs much of the manual labor of his position. He talks through his frustration with fellow vet Francis (Kid Cudi) and goes to limited therapy. Caleb also uses his tactical background in RICO (an app that’s essentially TaskRabbit Crime). In a club blasting “99 Luftballoons,” he meets fellow professionals Ash (Lena Waithe) and Giggles (Marshawn Lynch). The three pull off a job and agree to meet up in the future.
The host of Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) enters a boardroom at Delos. The company continues to scramble months after the massacre, but Charlotte tells the board to press forward. After all, the deaths make the parks a bonafide death threat, which should increase their reputation. She wants to make more hosts, but when the board pushes back, she reminds them that she has the votes to authorize. Her second vote comes from a proxy, which is being determined by an algorithm. Who is missing is never confirmed, but knowing Westworld, it will likely be William’s (Ed Harris) seat.
Dolores has embedded herself with the son of a tech giant. She’s going steady with Liam Dempsey Jr. (John Gallagher Jr.) who runs Incite. The company places humans in jobs (leading to part of Caleb’s disillusion) and developed a super AI named Rehoboam (itself a biblical illusion to King Soloman’s son). Dolores’ motives are clear, but it also invites scrutiny from those around Dempsey. His bodyguard Martin Connells (Tommy Flanagan) seems skeptical and another Incite representative (Pom Klementieff) tells Dempsey he’s responsible for a leak.
Bernard/Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) hides away from the world. He works on a farm with a newly shaved head and no one seems to recognize him. At night, he interrogates himself about his contact with Dolores. For Arnold, his Bernard side represents a danger to those around him. The Jekyll/Hyde dynamic adds intrigue to his story and should be an interesting thread to explore. The dichotomy comes into focus when two of Arnold’s co-workers recognize and attempt to blackmail him. When he turns on his Bernard side, he murders both of them. He then escapes on a boat, heading to Westworld of all places.
In Los Angeles, the storylines begin to converge. Dolores’ true background remains a secret, but Martin knows she’s been lying. Martin takes her down in front of Demsey and flies her away. Caleb works a job and brings materials to the team about to work on Dolores. He walks away and confronts Francis over the phone. After revealing that Francis died in the war and he’s been talking to an AI of his friend, he unsubscribes and heads back.
Meanwhile, Dolores handles herself. While playing possum, she sets up a distraction that causes Martin to get out of the car. He goes to investigate and she breaks out, killing five men in the process. She chases down Martin and shoots him in the back. As he attempts to escape, she questions him about who is running Rehoboam. Serac (Vincent Cassell) has taken over the AI. With the knowledge that she got what she came for, she reveals a host of Martin, who then kills the original. Host Martin leaves to take his place next to Dempsey and Dolores finishes off the remaining soldiers. However, she’s been wounded. Luckily, Caleb finds her.
After credits roll, we finally reconnect with our favorite host mother, Maeve (Thandie Newton). She wakes up in an unknown room with a nice hairdo and some new clothes. It is quickly apparent she’s been getting physical with some potential baddies, but she’s unsure why. She opens a window to reveal she’s still in the parks, but she’s not in Westworld any longer. Instead, a Nazi flag flies on a church, introducing us to at least the fourth park of the complex.
Thoughts on the Episode
For “Westworld,” the shift in tone will be noticeable. Treating the Season 3 premiere as an entryway for new viewers will be helpful but there’s still plenty of reason to be concerned. The lack of humor remains, leaving “Westworld” in an odd place. Despite numerous opportunities to poke fun at its overly-serious characters, “Westworld” always took the most dramatic path. Perhaps “Westworld” needs a “Leftovers” style overhaul, but for now, it appears that the show wishes to be a grounded, darker view of the future.
The star-studded premiere also gives us plenty of reason to be hopeful. Casting unconventional actors like Kid Cudi and Marshawn Lynch was exciting. It would have been incredible to see Paul, Waithe, and Lynch running heists all season. One can only dream. Having Waithe, Pom Klementieff, and Vincent Cassell looming in the shadows could be integral to the show’s success this year. My personal favorite addition comes with Flanagan, who became an emotional cog for “Sons of Anarchy” as the show flew off the rails.
The actress who really helped “Westworld” thrive felt sidelined this episode. Without Newton, it is easy to wonder how long “Westworld” could run. Newton delivered a powerhouse performance last season, and with her on board, we should be in for more fireworks. Leaving her out of the premiere was useful to help us understand the barrage of characters introduced, but perhaps there was a better use of the actress. Expect heavy usage of Newton moving forward because we know how important she was to the marketing leading up to Season 3.