On paper, it's a can't-miss proposition. The penultimate episode of an HBO genre thriller, shot by Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad veteran Michelle MacLaren, arguably the finest director working in television today? History teaches us this should be some amazing, jaw-dropping, first-rate TV. So what is it about Westworld's second-to-last installment of the season – "The Well-Tempered Clavier" – that inspires more "huh?" than awe.
Before you even suggest it, let's set aside the fact that the evening's biggest "secrets" were anything but. Yes, online theorists sussed out long ago that Bernard Lowe, the bespectacled behavioral scientist near the apex of the park's power structure, was not only a robot, but also a replica of Arnold, Dr. Robert Ford's late, legendary partner. (A few anagrammatic manipulations of the letters in his name gets you "Arnold Weber"; five will get you 10 that that's the scientist's surname in the end.) And while it's not as directly confirmed, the episode's editing – not to mention the gruesome robot massacre he perpetrates after being separated from his beloved Dolores – sure as hell implies that soft-hearted young William grows up to be the murderous Man in Black. We can now be almost certain that the show has followed (at least) two separate timelines, one in the present and one in the past.
But predictability needn't necessarily equal inferiority where storytelling is concerned. Mr. Robot's second season, for example, purposely telegraphed its central twist, which was more about establishing an emotional tone than fooling the viewer. Granted, Westworld feels more like deception was indeed its goal all along. Even so, its failure to successfully deceive could be overcome by tight writing, engaging performances, exciting set pieces, and the like. It's true that this episode blows it in some of these departments as well: The script is littered with advertising-style clichés like "What happens here stays here" and borrowed sci-fi aphorisms like Planet of the Apes' "You may not like what you find"; William's transformation from milquetoast to maniac is comically unconvincing; his frenemy Logan is as two-dimensional a villain as a low-tier pro-wrestling heel, etc. On the other hand, Maeve's ever-escalating self-awareness as a "living" being is marvelously convincing, with the look on her face as she realizes Bernard is a fellow 'bot being a particular highlight, and Ford's sadistic sangfroid makes him a fantastic bad guy. That could well be enough to sustain the show, at least as an entertainment proposition.
So it's not the content that's to blame for the episode's shortcomings,, but the delivery mechanism. From start to finish, the hour's events move in fits and starts, with the herky-jerky rhythm of a malfunctioning host. How else could it work, when nearly all its focal-point characters are constantly moving in and out of awareness? Teddy wakes up from being shot with an arrow, then is promptly killed again. The Man in Black watches all of this smugly, until he gets knocked out; the next morning he realizes he's about to get hanged from a tree courtesy of a noose and a skittish horse. He narrowly escapes, but only to have his narrative stopped in its tracks once again by a visit from Charlotte Hale, one of his fellow members of the park's board of directors. Logan torments his estranged brother-in-law-to-be and Dolores until the latter escapes and the former pretends to forgive him. Cue the smirking asshole waking up the next morning with all his robotic Confederado comrades massacred and the born-again-hard William firmly in charge.
The self-aware hosts go through even more fake-outs and double-backs. Dolores shifts back and forth between locations, time periods, and states of consciousness so frequently that it's impossible to keep track of – deliberately so, but that doesn't prevent it from undercutting the emotional impact of her discovery that she murdered her maker. And poor Bernard splits his time between getting switched on and off by Maeve and Ford on the one hand, and being jolted in and out of his robotic consciousness. Many of said memories involve killing other characters, like Theresa and Elsie, just to add to the staccato storyline. Sometimes he's not Bernard at all, but Arnold ... or at least Dolores's deep-rooted memory of him. His Doctor-ordered suicide at the end of the episode comes as sweet relief after the mindfucks he's been through. When the storyline that suffers the fewest interruptions of this sort (i.e. Maeve's rebellious arc) involves our heroine breaking down a fellow robot's mind before deliberately burning them both to death en flagrante delecto, you know things have gotten way too complicated.
Add it all up and it's like watching a version of The Usual Suspects in which both Chazz Palmintieri and Kevin Spacey's characters are constantly getting hit in the head with a baseball bat. (And are then forced to try and pick up the story where they left off hours later.) There's just no way for it to sustain momentum, tension, or suspense – let alone make its plot twists and shocking revelations work properly – when every character is so busy just trying to stay sentient and upright.
Ironically, this screw-up makes next week's season finale's path through the proverbial Maze a pretty straightforward one. Assuming whatever revelations it has to offer are as easy to see coming as this week's were, all it really has to do is, y'know, not suck in every other way imaginable. It simply needs to give us a a clean, crescendo-ing sense of danger and drama; dialogue that's lively, funny, creepy on its own without resort to shopworn science-fiction boilerplate; and acting that's as fun to watch as what Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood have been delivering, with less of their more one-note compatriots. After all, even a mediocre gaming experience can be redeemed by a killer ending.
Previously: Tech Revolution