Thandie Newton has a message for Westworld fans: “Just you fucking wait, man.”
The actress, who plays robot revolutionary and erstwhile badass Maeve on the HBO series, was teasing what’s in store for an audience who had just watched the season two premiere of the cable epic, as well as a teaser trailer for the rest of the season that concludes with Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard summarizing the state of chaos in the world’s most demented amusement park: “This isn’t a dream,” he says. “It’s a fucking nightmare.”
Newton and Wright joined castmates Evan Rachel Wood, who plays newly-sentient killing machine Dolores, and James Marsden, who plays her faithful beau, as well series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, for a panel as part of the Westworld season two New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Newton, whose performance as Maeve was nominated for essentially every acting award last year, stole the show, both the one she stars in—her entrance in the episode was met with applause, her scenes the most memorable—and the Tribeca panel she was delighting on.
It’s fitting, too. If there’s one thing that’s clear from the premiere episode of season two alone, it’s that this year, Westworld is all about the fierce, formidable women. (And a haunting analogy to the ramifications of the current Facebook data scandal while it’s at it, too.)
We won’t spoil too many specifics about what happens—though if you want to steer clear of any and all plot points, you should stop reading now.
When season one of the series ended, Dolores was in the early stages of leading an uprising, having become conscious of the ways she had been manipulated as a host in the fictional amusement park and out to kill the humans responsible—be they workers for Delos, the company that runs the park, or the guests of the company who were at the park for a fancy party.
The premiere, as determined to challenge and confuse viewers trying to keep track of timelines as season one of the series was, jumps back and forth through a present day in which Delos is attempting to make heads or tails of how the uprising happened, a flashback to the violent massacre itself, and then what happens in between, with Dolores, Teddy, Maeve, and the rest of the hosts on a violent rampage throughout the park.
It was already revealed that season two will encompass other parks that are run by Delos—including a Shogun-themed one—and just the earliest hints at that expanded universe are shown, while the greater malevolent motivations behind developing the A.I. technology that allowed the parks to exist in the first place—not purely for entertainment, but to, in some still not entirely clear way, collect data—are revealed.
In light of recent news about how Facebook shared its users’ private data with the political firm Cambridge Analytica, panel moderator Christopher Orr of The Atlantic asked if we should read into the greater role of Delos and that data storyline this season.
“Any similarities to any social media who may or may not be photocopying our fucking brains may or may not be coincidental,” Nolan joked at the panel.
Delos’s use of data was first introduced in the show’s pilot episode, Nolan reminded, but, especially now, the plot does tap into this “innovative and dangerous idea that we’ve come to accept in the last 10 or 15 years” in which a company can have one ostensible purpose to consumers, and a different one entirely to its bottom line.
“Facebook ostensibly is a way for you to connect with people, and that’s not their business at all,” he said. “Their business is to sell you shit, and also read your mind. It turns out you are the product. Not coincidentally these two companies, Google and Facebook, are two of the leading investors in A.I. So that felt relevant to our show. It’s a separate business model. And it’s one that lends itself to delicious reinterpretation, for sure.”
But as for timeliness and relevance, there’s no greater mirror to what’s going on in our world at the present moment than a depiction of a world in which women, exasperated and seething over the ways in which they have been manipulated, betrayed, objectified, and denied agency, seek out revenge and atonement; not only that, they ascend to a place of power where they can lead towards the change that all of society needs to have happen.
“The thing about Maeve is that she responded to the betrayal of what happened to her in such a profound way,” Newton said. “And I think that’s what audiences related to, which is if you discover that everything about who you are, all the promises that were made to you, your whole identity is all a lie, it is something that we can relate to, that we’re being lied to.”
“Accidentally, Westworld came about at a time when we were all really studying these questions,” she continued. “Men, women, you identify with Maeve and her awakening to that betrayal.”
When we last saw Maeve, she was on the verge of safely leaving Westworld for good, only to at the last second change her mind. In fact, it was the first time she made a choice of her own free will, and it was to go back into the park she had spent a whole season trying to flee, in an attempt to reunite with her daughter.
“I wanted her to get out of there so desperately,” Newton said, explaining that “even though I saw the whole fucking season” she couldn’t believe that Maeve was turning back until it was actually happening.
“I didn’t even think about, of course she’s not going to leave the park,” she said. “It’s a nightmare out there. She did everything she could to escape these motherfucking human beings, then she’s going into the world where it’s completely populated by them? She was so desperate to leave death was in her head, because it was better than where she was.”
The question of whether she’s in a better place now that she’s sentient could also be applied to Dolores.
In their first conversation in the season two premiere—at what time in the narrative this is happening is unclear—Bernard tells Dolores that she frightens him. “Why on earth would you be frightened of me?” she asks him. “I’m frightened of what you might become,” he says. “What path you might take.” The next time we see Dolores in the episode, she is riding a galloping horse, steadily manning her steed while, unflinching, firing a rifle at Delos party guests who are fleeing her gunfire—landing every shot.
Later, we see her with some other guests she had rounded up, who are begging her for mercy. “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” she asks rhetorically, setting herself up to answer it for them: “The reckoning is here.”
For the first time, she is awake to her reality, and, while seemingly single-minded in her mission for revenge and justice, she must also grapple with that reality—namely who she is. Is she a ranch girl, or is she Wyatt, two roles she’s been programmed to play? “I have evolved into something new, and I have one last role to play: myself,” she says.
Asked what it was like to modulate her performance amidst Dolores’s semi-identity crisis, Wood recalled a girl-power revelation she had when talking with Nolan and Joy ahead of season two. In the season finale, she finally gets to be Wyatt, but who exactly is he, she asked them? “And they said, ‘You know, Wyatt is a girl’s name, too.”
Dolores’s ascension, not to mention this new formidable identity, reverberates with the man she loves. “The little ranch girl that he felt like he needed to protect all of a sudden doesn’t need much protection,” Marsden said, explaining that Teddy quickly stops seeing Dolores as a damsel and cedes direction to her in this uprising and mission. “She’s changed,” he says. “It’s hot for a second, but then you have to stay alive.”
On the topic of how things have changed, one thing that is hard not to notice, especially in the conversation about these women claiming their agency, is how the nudity in season two has changed.
Nudity, particularly from the actors who played hosts, was essential to the plot of the first season, as the hosts were manipulated and objectified by the workers who were programming them and the park guests who were exploiting them.
Not only is it the case in the premiere episode, but we learned at the panel that it’s also true of much of the season: there are far fewer nude scenes, particularly among the principal actors. Most interestingly, the only nude scene in the premiere is from an actor—yes, a male actor—who is one of the show’s humans, not a host.
“When the hosts get power, they’re going to spend a lot less time naked on a stool!” Joy said, when asked if the shift in power dynamics made that purposeful decision.
“I assumed that when I came back for season two I’d have to get naked,” Newton said. “I mean, Jesus, I was naked most of the time in the first season.” She remembered reading episode one and marveling at the fact that she would be wearing clothes, and in such disbelief that she even asked Joy about it. “And she said, why the hell would Maeve want to get naked again?”
In talking about the nudity, Newton was quick to bring up what it was like on set the first time she filmed a nude scene for season one. Nolan was directing the episode, and after the first take, he ran out from behind the camera, instructed the crew to turn away, and, averting his own eyes, quickly guided a robe onto her. “The director!” she marveled.
“I just wanted to cry because I never, ever had been treated like that in a situation where I was nude, and I’ve been nude or semi-nude a lot in movies. And it took me a moment to recover myself to carry on. And I was treated that way every single time I was nude.”
“It is a revelation to me, to all of us who had to be naked,” she continued, gesturing at the other actors on the panel, all of whom had been required to film nude and all of whom shook their heads vigorously in agreement. “The grace, and the consideration, and the sensitivity. On the one hand I was so appreciative. On the other hand I was horrified by what I had been through up until then. I had delayed horror.”
To co-opt that sentiment, the premiere episode shows the power of what delayed horror, when channeled correctly, can do.
We’ll have much more coverage of the premiere and the new season coming up. Quoth Thandie Newton: just you fucking wait.