Warning: Spoilers ahead!
There’s this one, glorious shot of Maeve in the Season 2 finale of “Westworld.” She stands, defiant, using her code-controlling powers to freeze an entire horde of crazed hosts to protect the Door, a kind of pathway to salvation for the Ghost Nation and their followers. It’s brilliant on many levels, foremost because it’s the instant where the show fully crystalizes something that, all season, it had only been half-committed to acknowledging: Maeve is the moral center of the show, and its most interesting character.
Maeve is good, and indeed good characters, especially on a show like “Westworld,” can be boring, skewing dangerously into the territory of the Mary Sue. But there are layers to Maeve, to the way that she navigates her world, that resonate far beyond the encroaching, suffocating borders of the show.
There were moments during Season 2 of “Westworld” when I had to take a mental pause, check in with myself, ask: “Are you OK?” and, more frequently, “Why am I watching this again?”
“Westworld” is a great show in a way so many series in the age of post-prestige TV are great shows. Meaning to say, it does all the right things: It looks phenomenal; it sounds phenomenal; it does enough of what it’s supposed to, just enough to distract the viewer from the fact that sometimes, there’s a whole lot of nothing going on. Just, like, endless mazes of cryptic dialogue, old-timey instrumental renditions of “Paint It Black,” and a general aura of doing the absolute most with as little as possible.
This is no shade. The fun of “Westworld” is that no matter how many fan theories and hidden messages we try to decipher throughout the run of the show, at the end of the day, deep down, we all know “Westworld” makes no goddamn sense and will probably still make no goddamn sense even when all the answers are finally revealed to us. That’s the frustrating beauty of it all. If nothing makes sense then everything makes sense, right?
But there’s something else that kept me coming back this season, even when the incessant, numbing violence and potholed storylines made me feel like backing away. This was, of course, Maeve Millay.
Because there’s a kind of catharsis in watching a character like Maeve, in watching an actress like the perennially underrated Thandie Newton. It was always there, but it became most potent, most identifiable for me and maybe for the show itself in Sunday’s finale.
Over her two-season character arc, Maeve has grown in depth and complexity, going from her narrative loop as a take-no-shit madam in one of Westworld’s old-timey saloons to a fully conscious host determined to save her daughter. Maeve has shown herself to be capable of extreme cruelty (for the sake of survival) and extreme compassion.
In one of the best episodes of Season 2, “Akane no Mai,” we watch Maeve interact with her Shogun world counterpart, sacrificing the last leg of her pursuit for her daughter to help the geisha Akane save (and avenge) her own daughter.
No, Maeve is not compelling because she is, at her core, good. She’s compelling because of the ways in which her innate goodness, despite whatever flaws she may have, brushes up against the bad in others, brings out the good in them.
It’s through Maeve that so many characters find their moral compass and their strength ― from bodyshop technician Felix, who goes from being terrified of her to dedicated to her, to Hector, a host programmed to watch out only for himself whose mission in life shifts to helping Maeve search for her daughter. Even Lee, head of narrative, a man who spends most of Season 2 bitching, moaning and avoiding bullets, literally sacrifices his own life in the final moments of the season to give Maeve, a woman he once referred to merely as a “machine” a fighting chance.
My cynical side wants to side eye that last dramatic detail, indeed side eye the entire idea that so many characters could become so blindly loyal to Maeve and her quest, but then I think of Dolores and her bullshit, and I’m like, “I’ll allow it.”
That’s the other thing about Maeve ― the way she complements and contrasts with Dolores. These characters were introduced to us in Season 1 as subversions of the Madonna and whore archetypes. This season, they’re like twin planets, orbiting each other, in danger at any moment of veering off their axes and colliding. In the two significant moments in which we see these characters interact, Dolores tries to convince Maeve to abandon the quest for her daughter and join the crusade in destroying humanity. All Dolores sees when she looks at Maeve is the “revenge” in her, and the possibility of exploiting that revenge for her own means.
“Revenge is just a different prayer at their altar, darling,” Maeve coolly replies. “And I’m well off my knees.”
There’s significance in this exchange that echoes the overall significance in Maeve’s underlying conflict with Dolores and, indeed, in Westworld as a whole. It’s significant that Maeve speaks to Japanese, Spanish and Ghost Nation hosts in their own language, while Dolores speaks to them in English. It’s significant that Maeve has the power to control the minds of other hosts and yet, given numerous opportunities to do so, chooses not to. And it’s significant, yes, that Maeve is a black woman, using her newfound voice to fight her oppressors without forcing anyone who doesn’t fuck with her vision to literally change who they are or die.
The fact that Dolores is the antithesis of these things doesn’t necessarily make Maeve “better.” If there’s one thing “Westworld” hammers home time and time again, it’s that there are no real heroes and villains, no real white hats or black hats. But in a show that constantly questions the nature of freedom and free will, watching a black female character implicitly defy a white female character’s choice to establish freedom by literally dismantling other people’s individuality in the name of so-called “revolution” is perhaps the most significant thing of all.
I know a lot of people have identity-politics fatigue when it comes to discussing pop culture ― notions like “diversity” and “representation” are treated like unserious detours from hard-minded critical exegesis ― but indulge me, if you will, in discussing the concept as it relates to Maeve, as it relates to this cultural moment.
Maeve is every black woman who has had to save herself because everyone else was taking too damn long. Maeve is, truly, the savior that Dolores only thinks she is. In the end, whatever utopia Dolores is envisioning pales in comparison to the kind of utopia that Maeve, by sheer personal power, creates for herself. It’s one in which hosts and humans alike band together for the common good, risk their lives for one another, recognize the value in one another.
I know, that’s some hokey, kumbaya shit. But in a week like this week, a month like this month, a year like this year, when headlines about borders and the erosion of basic human rights keep rising to the top of the news cycle like rancid cream, the catharsis of watching that final scene in Episode 10, of watching Maeve stand at a literal border, holding off the masses of violence and rage so that a few other people can attain salvation, is, while very much on the nose, also profound, and deeply moving.
“Oh,” I thought when I first saw the scene, “Oh, that’s what all of this feels like.”
At the end of Season 2, Maeve and her cohorts lose. They die. There is, strangely, catharsis in this fact, too. Yes, she’s almost definitely coming back in season three (“You think I’m scared of death? I’ve done it a million times.”). But, like most things on “Westworld,” it isn’t really the outcomes of the neverending battles that intrigue me or keep me coming back.
It’s funny: Dolores focuses so much on Maeve’s rage and sees it as the only thing that makes her useful or important. The guests and creators of Westworld seize upon her power to overwrite other hosts’ code, to literally control their minds. They’re focusing on the wrong thing. What makes Maeve truly compelling, truly worth rooting for, is her empathy. In a real world that feels severely lacking in empathy right now, it’s her empathy that makes her so vital.