Humans are simple creatures. Despite their self-delusions about free will and personal identity, Westworld argues, they’re really just a core drive or two, guiding them to the same destination no matter how many times they’re given another chance. According to Logan – the form that the park’s secret system has taken to speak with Bernard and Dolores inside their virtual world – the problem with park founder James Delos‘ quest for digital immortality isn’t that humans are too complicated to copy. It’s that the copies were overcomplicated for humans who are just a 10,247-line algorithm short enough to flit in a slim hardcover book … and nothing more. “The best they can do,” says the un-Logan, “is live according to their code.”
If only Westworld had followed its own advice.
Tonight’s 90-minute season finale (“The Passenger”) is stuffed with enough timeframe shifts and shocking revelations to keep Reddit busy for ages. Dolores built Bernard! Charlotte kills Elsie! Dolores becomes Charlotte! Ford was all in Bernard’s imagination, at some point anyway! Maeve, Hector, Armistice, Clementine and Sizemore all die! (Unless they’re still alive or resurrectable, which on this show is entirely possible!) “The Valley Beyond” is a completely digital realm only robots can see, where Akecheta and Teddy can go be awesome in paradise forever! The Man in Black is not secretly a host! Then, after the closing credits, he is secretly a host! Bernard and Charlotte-Dolores get off the Island! (No, wait, wrong show!) Freaking Stubbs has been a robot all this time, which explains so much about why he’s both relatively nice and completely incompetent at his job!
But it’s hard to escape the sense that all this storytelling flim-flam has a core drive of its own: to obscure the show’s countless weaknesses and dilute its few undeniable strengths. On the latter side, take Evan Rachel Wood, an actor whose innate steely weirdness, in theory, makes her perfect for the part of a genocidal robot revolutionary. In practice, though, she’s weighed down by dialogue straight out of supervillain monologue mode (sample: “You want to destroy yourself, but I won’t give you that peace … not yet”). And her decisions, like keeping her arch-enemies Bernard and the Man in Black alive, make no sense – unless you’re a Westworld writer looking for reasons to keep the show’s stars employed. When Tessa Thompson starts woodenly impersonating Wood’s delivery after Dolores assumes Charlotte’s form, you can really see how little there there is beyond the original performance.
Indeed, whether as her actual human self or a robotic simulation thereof, Charlotte is a huge obstacle to taking this show seriously. Granted, almost no one can make lines like “Step on it – either we destroy them or they destroy us” work, but Thompson’s rote bad-guy sneer certainly isn’t up to the task. Just look at what the show has done with Ben Barnes: so one-dimensional and boring as the one-dimensional, boring Logan of Season One. Then the actor manages to come alive every time the writers have given him the chance to do so, whether playing crazy a few episodes ago, begging his father James for help when he hits rock bottom in a flashback, or ditching the asshole swagger entirely as the benevolent A.I. entity that Dolores and Bernard encounter.
Or take Thandie Newton: All the series ever requires Maeve to do is look tough or sad. Newton’s tremulous face and thoughtful physicality make it work. She rises to a challenge that bests even accomplished actors like Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris; one more scene of Bernard looking confused or the Man in Black doing that “well, don’t that beat all, someone up and shot me” schtick and our central processors will melt down.
The funny thing is that despite the length of the finale and the glacial pace of most of the preceding episodes, Westworld Season Two still feels like it just barely got started. Take away the shifting time frames and the occasional detour into Flashback Country, and what have you got? A road movie in which characters who either perpetrated or survived Season One’s climactic massacre all head to the Valley Beyond. A bunch of robotic redshirts and a few supporting players get killed. A few other supporting players make it through to a virtual-reality paradise while Bernard, Dolores and the Man in Black live on (in one form or another) in the real world to fight another day.
It’s not a bad narrative, necessarily. From The Warriors to the freaking Odyssey, plenty of good work concerns its characters’ quest to get from Point A to Point B without losing their lives or souls in the process. But the show’s parameters for the park are too vague to give their journey a sense of direction. All we know is that it’s really, really big. That, and there are strategically located bunkers and hideouts just a few minutes of screentime away from wherever the characters are at any given moment so they’re never in real danger of getting lost.
Meanwhile, the constant cross-cutting between storylines dilutes our investment in the physical journey of any one character or group, since we know we’ll be whisked away to some other place and time at any moment. There’s a reason the Akecheta episode hit as hard as it did, even aside from Zahn McClarnon’s performance: It rooted us in the experiences and perils of a single character for an entire episode, in a way that made us feel what was at stake – and that no amount of Dolores monologues could equal.
And we don’t even have a recognizable endpoint in mind to serve as an anchor, the equivalent of The Lord of the Rings‘ Mount Doom. “The Valley Beyond” is amorphous even by the show’s standards (at least Season One’s “Maze” implies a central location). It’s just a bunch of rocks in the middle of a Western landscape like countless others the characters have crossed, and even as a metaphysical concept it’s just a bog-standard promised land. To paraphrase Bernard’s imaginary Ford, you might as well have spent the season chasing the horizon.
Which is a bit like the experience of watching Westworld itself. There are enough individual elements at play – concepts, creature effects, a handful of strong performances – to make you believe it could all come together at some point. There’s a consistent leap of faith needed, a fingers-crossed hope that the show will Get Good the way many other dramas that suffered shaky starts eventually did. Yet all our pathways keep leading us to the same place: clichéd dialogue, meaningless twists, plodding pacing. And the good Westworld remains, as ever, its own Valley Beyond, maddeningly out of reach.
Previously: Deus Ex Machina