“I don’t want to play Cowboys and Indians anymore,” Dolores tells Bernard midway through Season Two’s swan song (“The Passenger”). This is just the latest instance of someone on Westworld being dismissive, if not outright incredulous, that Robert Ford and Arnold’s miraculous artificial intelligence technology has been put to such a silly use as entertainment at an adult theme park.
In many ways, the tools that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have at their disposal with HBO’s sci-fi series are every bit as amazing as the hosts themselves: a budget that makes everything on TV other than Game of Thrones look like a kid’s YouTube comedy sketch; a cast of acting giants who can play anything thrown at them; great directors; and a world that, by its very nature, can be whatever the creators want it to be.
More and more as I watched Season Two, I found myself as incredulous about how Nolan and Joy were using their toys as so many people are about how Ford used his: With unlimited resources and imagination, they’ve opted to continue making cold and largely impenetrable puzzle-box nonsense.
“Is this now?” became the refrain of this season, as Bernard’s artificial brain became unstuck in time. “Why is any of this happening?” would feel even more appropriate.
I probably enjoyed this season more than the first, if only because there were three episodes – “The Riddle of the Sphinx” (Jim Delos discovers eternal life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be), “Akane no Mai” (Maeve’s adventures in Shogun World) and “Kiksuya” (Akecheta realizes that the world is wrong) – that worked in isolation, where the show’s freshman year was largely a collection of interesting moments in search of a unifying point. But overall, it felt more wearying because it’s clear now that Nolan and Joy are most excited about the least interesting aspects of their own story, and about telling that story in the most counter-productive way. You could look at Season One’s finale – where Ford inspired Dolores to lead a robot uprising against their cruel human oppressors – as a signal that the real story was going to begin, or at least be told in a better way. But the approach has only been more opaque and frustrating than before.
Of the three aforementioned episodes, “Akane no Mai” mostly puts the show’s larger questions about consciousness and control on pause to tell a rip-roaring adventure story (and the closest thing Westworld can get to a pure procedural hour), while the other two are spotlights on characters who appeared fleetingly in the rest of the season (albeit played spectacularly by Peter Mullan and Zahn McClarnon). Westworld is best at the things that it tends to try the least often, i.e. basic episodic storytelling rather than focusing only on the season as a whole.
And the things it opts to do the most are a mix of missed opportunities and odd choices. The Delos and Akecheta spotlights really leaned into the emotional cost of this technology for humans and hosts alike. Yet at the same time, Westworld has Jeffrey Wright, one of the best actors alive – and with Bernard, he’s playing a man who has only just learned that he’s a robot. This should be a gourmet meal for someone with the Wright’s gifts. Instead, he spent half of these episodes looking confused about various malfunction and chronological irregularities and the other half frustrated that other people can control him now. Right man, right circumstance, utterly wasted execution.
Season One also fell into the trap of valuing surprise over story, resting much of the year on a twist (Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris were playing the same character in different eras) that viewers sniffed out almost instantly. This season was simultaneously less cute and more. The issue with Bernard being out of sequence was introduced upfront (he first asked, “Is this now?” a few minutes into the sophomore run), and almost everyone’s agenda was played relatively straight. But too much of the blurring of timelines seemed designed to elicit headscratching for its own sake, since the only payoff of note to come in the finale – that Bernard was ultimately less confused than he seemed, and had outwitted the humans by placing Dolores’ mind into a robot copy of Charlotte Hale – wasn’t nearly worth the bother.
But very little of it is. Westworld went to great lengths to try to establish higher stakes than Season One’s tales of indestructible robots trapped in inescapable behavior loops. This time, we were told early and often, if a character died, be they human or robot, it was for real. In theory, this should have given everything more weight. But in short order it turned out that dead was only mostly dead … and often not even that. Any character at any time can be brought back through the revelation that they were secretly a host, or have been turned into one (see: William in the post-credits scene where he has to live out the same nightmare he once put his father-in-law through), or have had their consciousness transferred into another body, or have gone into the virtual paradise where Maeve’s daughter, Akecheta, Teddy (whose suicide in the previous episode was quickly reversed, even if we never see him again) and others fled.
And the finale attempted to outdo Game of Thrones in its body count, seemingly killing off every regular character at one point or another besides Dolores-as-Charlotte and (hilariously, given how little he ever gets to do) Stubbs. But many of those deaths were undone – or, in the case of Felix and Sylvester being assigned to dispose of Maeve’s body, put on the road to being undone. Dolores even built a new Evan Rachel Wood-shaped body for herself, though it’s unclear whether she’s also still piloting the Charlotte-bot or has downloaded another one of her friends (or her father?) into it.
Much of this is part of the argument that Nolan and Joy are trying to make about the cyclical, pre-programmed nature of human life and the follies of trying to extend or transform that life, but it makes the show way too dramatically inert way too much of the time. Somehow, the finale death that hit hardest was that of frustrated screenwriter Lee Sizemore, a relatively minor figure who completed his hero turn by sacrificing himself so Hector and the other hosts could escape Delos gunmen, reciting one of his own monologues for once. Sizemore’s arc ran counter to what the digital avatar of Logan insisted to Bernard about humanity’s inability to grow and change; not coincidentally, it was one of the more satisfying aspects of a season where too many characters were on unswerving courses that were less about who they were than whatever philosophical point they represented about the nature of being.
And without people worth caring about, whether born or built in a lab, all the technical wizardry on display and debates about reality and time and existence don’t amount to enough to make it worth trying to sort through the show’s narrative shenanigans. You can probably make a linear timeline of all of this season’s events if you put your mind to it. Maybe in the process you can explain, for instance, why everyone in the premiere was so surprised to see all the dead hosts in the valley when a bunch of Delos employees watched them seemingly walk over the cliff in the finale. But what’s the point? The game is not worth the candle, even if Season Three promises to spend much more time in the real world as Dolores, Bernard and the Charlotte-bot begin their quest to topple humanity.
“You haven’t understood at all,” Dolores complains to Bernard midway through the finale. I understand just enough of what’s going on to know Westworld is no longer a place I need to visit.