Westworld is back, in all its maddening complexity. After only one season, the show has become notorious for the deep-cut references and clever Easter eggs hidden within cryptic dialogue, mysterious symbols, and a carefully curated soundtrack. As the long-awaited Season 2 premiere revealed on Sunday night, the show’s intelligent music choices are far more than saloon-style covers of our favorite pop songs.
Warning: Spoilers for Westworld Season 2 ahead.
Season 2 dives headfirst into the chaos sparked at the end of the first season. Westworld is a battleground strewn with dead bodies, most of them belonging to human visitors desperately trying to escape the park. In one epic montage, everyone’s favorite bloodthirsty host — horseback-ridin’, gun-totin’ commando Dolores — shoots down all the straggling tuxedoed humans left over from Ford’s botched narrative-revealing party. The bloody montage begins with a close-up of the Mariposa saloon’s ubiquitous player piano, which starts playing a familiar ragtime tune: “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin.
You’ve heard this song before, though you’re probably not sure where. You have almost definitely heard it blaring through the speakers of ice cream trucks, in the background of many early video games, played on the saxophone by Phyllis Diller in Episode 118 of The Muppet Show, or in the soundtrack to the 1973 Oscar-winning heist film The Sting, which first brought the 116-year-old song to prominence.
For all its contemporary popularity, “The Entertainer” is a very old song, written by Scott Joplin, one of the earliest classically trained African-American pianists. Joplin, who copyrighted the song in 1902, is widely considered the “King of Ragtime,” a musical genre characterized by its syncopated or “ragged” off-beat rhythm that makes up the aural backbone of much of Westworld’s soundtrack. While most of the songs used in the series simply borrow Joplin’s sound, it’s not the first time his music has been featured directly. His song “Pineapple Rag” was used in the fourth episode of season one, “Dissonance Theory.”
During the peak of ragtime’s popularity, between the mid-1890s and the late 1910s, it was played in bars and Old West saloons, which became common after the Pioneer Inn and Tavern Law was passed by Congress in 1832. After it was copyrighted, it was soon sold as piano rolls that could be fed into player pianos, like the one we see in the Mariposa. While it enjoyed success during its time, “The Entertainer” only began its rise to ubiquity after it was featured in The Sting, when then-unknown arranger Marvin Hamlisch used it and other Joplin compositions to evoke the atmosphere of Depression-era America.
Ragtime, to modern ears, sounds goofy and light-hearted, its bouncing piano melodies musical shorthand for a simpler time. That’s what makes “The Entertainer” such a perfectly anachronistic choice for Dolores’s brutal shooting spree: While the song evokes simple scenes of saloons and horses and old pianos, it’s juxtaposed with the uprising of terrifyingly advanced hosts who want to kill all the technologically irresponsible humans — all while dressed in costumes belonging to the ragtime era.
Then there’s the song’s title, a nod to the hosts’ subversion of the Delos Corporation’s original mission to create robots for human entertainment. Dolores, once a sexual and emotional plaything for Old William, aka the Man in Black, looks like she’s having the time of her newly self-aware life as she guns down helpless humans while straddling a steed, as if to say: Who’s the entertainer now, bitch?
Westworld airs Sunday nights on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.