The following sentence got us through a whole bunch of LOST reviews back in the day: Since Westworld doesn’t see fit to tell a linear story, we’re gonna stop worrying about whether this review has any flow to it and just offer up our disjointed thoughts on the second season.
We like to think we have a pretty good track record when it comes to hot shows with great premises in their second seasons and whether or not they’re building on what was established in the first season or whether they’re swallowing their own tail in an ourobouros of narrative wankery. Put another way, we have a knack for telling when a show’s about to go up its own ass. And yet, after patiently sitting through an entire second season of Westworld, waiting for it to reveal the most basic and fundamental plot advancements in some sort of context that makes sense, we’re still not sure if this show has done good work this season – or just gone up its own ass. Part of that comes down to a lingering frustration that only grew in the hours after the finale aired, but part of it also comes down to the fact that when the show wants to pull out grand, jaw-dropping moments such as Maeve controlling a herd of robotic bison to slaughter her captors, very few on TV can do it better.
We don’t think it was a coincidence that the two best episodes of the season, were “Akane No Mai,” in which Maeve and her band of travelers discover Shogun World ,and “Kiksuya,” which revealed that a mostly un-regarded side character had a rich and at times beautiful inner life and emotional history. Neither of these episodes dealt much with forwarding the plot, trying to establish new mysteries or explaining old ones. They were simply well-told capsule stories that fit within a larger narrative without pretending that they were there to move the narrative forward. We wouldn’t want a Westworld series that served as an anthology to tell the stories of the people who live in it, but it says something about all the twists, turns and convolutions that the best episodes were not only straightforward and only tangentially connected to the larger narrative, but they were largely performed in other languages.
We also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best episodes and storylines of season 2 all happened far away from Dolores, who went from being a fascinating portrait of emerging consciousness in season one, to a monotonously whisper-talking villain given to dull speeches and grandstanding in season two. But the problem isn’t necessarily with the focus on certain characters or that the side stories tend to be more interesting than the main one. The problem, stated over and over again by so many critics that we feel a little embarrassed re-stating it, is that Westworld is a very basic story dressed up in some fairly irritating narrative tricks devised to make it seem more complex than it is.
It’s a story about a robot uprising. It’s Jurassic Park with the dinos switched out for androids. It’s The Terminator with horses and six-shooters. There is nothing revolutionary or new about the basic plot here, especially since it’s based on a 40-year-old movie of the same name; itself more of a curiosity in film history than a classic sci-fi just begging to be enriched and expanded upon. All of the attempts to obscure basic plot points and even character identification are revealed to be just that: attempts to obscure and nothing else. They don’t make the basic story any more complex. They just make the telling of that story more complicated and obtuse than it needs to be. Worse, it weakens the story. The reveal that Charlotte Hale was actually Dolores in a new body might have landed better if we didn’t spend the next few minutes attempting to figure out when it happened. Which leads us to the next problem in this tale: the obsession with identity and memory.
Obviously, both of those concepts make fine and appropriate themes to explore in a story dealing with emerging consciousness, but again: these ideas are dressed up in ways that obscure the ability to truly explore them. It’s a story about emerging A.I. in robots, but now it’s also a story about A.I. existing in a virtual world, and also a story about human consciousness being turned into uploadable files to secure a form of immortality, and also a story in which people’s memories can be strolled through like a landscape. Each one of those concepts could fuel an entire series, but to have all of them duking it out in the same story leaves little room to truly explore them and instead of marveling at what’s going on, the audience is left to spend most of its time just trying to figure it out. We spent hours and hours of time with Ed Harris’ William, exploring every bit of his life and memories, only to be left with one conclusion at the end of it all: That he’s just a miserable dick. Worse, he’s boring.
And speaking of boring, what they did to Jeffrey Wright, one of the greatest actors of his generation, is downright criminal. Ten hours of him blinking in confusion is not only an egregious waste of talent, it’s also fatally dull. It’s kind of hard to care about protagonists who only make whisper-threats or blink a lot.
The basic premise of the story – that millions of people would happily pay top dollar for sexcations with undertones of psychopathy is akin to that of The Walking Dead: that people in the face of a disaster will automatically devolve to the levels of animals almost instantaneously. Nothing wrong with a little misanthropy in your apocalyptic fiction – you might even argue that it’s a necessity for the genre – but these takes strike us as childlike and petulant in tone. Yes, people suck. Yes, they’re selfish and inconsistent. But the idea that we’re all just half a day away from acting like total psychos just doesn’t scan. After awhile, it becomes a bit irritating to be at the mercy of show runners and writers who seem to be stuck in a depressive episode, turning a fun and engaging adventure into a thesis on consciousness and human cruelty with almost no emotional payoffs.
If we had to really pin it down, we’d say the show is still on track to tell the story the creators want to tell in the manner they want to tell it. In other words, Westworld was pretty much designed to go up its own ass – and there’s no reason to believe the third season will be any less obtuse or hard to understand. It’s a very annoying feature, not a bug. There’s just enough story and just enough characters of interest to keep us going through the next season, but if it continues in this vein (and there’s really no reason it shouldn’t, from the creators’ point of view), then it will remain a viewing experience that alternates between moments of high art, moments of grand adventure, and a whole lot of moments where people stand around blinking and whispering, to no effect.