Debating Westworld season 2: Good or bad robots?
Westworld (TV series)
After a long break following the brain-blasting season 1 finale, Westworld returned this spring with new episodes (and new timelines). With the finale looming this Sunday, EW’s TV critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich discussed their reaction to the second season. One of them still likes Westworld. Both of them are ready for someone to open the damn Door.
DARREN: I should be buying everything Westworld is selling, Kristen. I love Westerns, videogames, symbolic narratives about how Silicon Valley is destroying the world, and Thandie Newton.
I was all the way in with season 1; I’m almost all the way out now. As we prepare for the season 2 finale, it strikes me how many characters have gotten stuck in endless loops, going nowhere fast. Maeve (Newton) wasted eons trying to find her daughter, and now she’s been lying half-conscious with an open shoulder wound for two episodes. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) started this season giving a speech about the Valley Beyond and her big plan to use what’s in the valley; she’s continued to giving that same speech, slooooowly making her way to her stated goal. I’m worried poor Teddy (James Marsden) shot himself out of boredom. And Jeffrey Wright, one of our great actors, has been reduced to desperately finger-swiping his futurePad. Sometimes brain juice seeps out of his ear, which sums up my reaction to every subplot about the Man in Black (Ed Harris). Meanwhile, Tessa Thompson — a zeitgeist if there ever was a zeitgeist — has spent nine episodes chasing a magic brain. Or, I guess it’s an encryption key. But basically it’s a magic brain.
I hold out hope that the finale will contain some show-altering revelations. But this season’s been a real disappointment — so much so that when Harris’ grouchy MIB held a gun to his head last week, I almost started chanting, “DO IT! DO IT!”
That seems unhealthy, Kristen, so I’m coming to you seeking clarity. How have you felt about this season? Are there good points I’m overlooking? Should I just be happy that HBO is paying a kamillion dollars for a show where characters argue about interpretive translations of Plutarch?
KRISTEN: Now this is a twist worthy of an intensely cryptic robot Western: Somehow I — a sci-fi dilettante who never really knew what was happening on Twin Peaks (version 1.0 or 2.0) — am enjoying Westworld season 2 more than EW’s resident geek-culture king? I wonder if our difference of opinion is down to how we watch this show — not, like, which screen we use, but what we’re searching for as viewers when we enter the park.
As I noted in my earlier review, I’m more of a passive Westworld fan — letting the story carry me through the episodes like I’m drifting down the lazy river at a hotel water park. Questions flit in and out of my mind — Hmmmm… what’s this “door” everyone keeps talking about? — but I don’t need them to be answered right away. It might have something to do with growing up watching daytime soaps, a storytelling format that routinely spreads one day of action across two weeks of episodes. And it helps that this season of Westworld is, in my opinion, a lot easier to follow given the slower pace. After the intense novelty of season 1, I’m invested enough in these characters to watch them march — or, in some cases, shuffle casually — toward their destinies.
Yes, Maeve spent most of the last nine episodes searching for her daughter, only to lose her again — likely for good — but I think that goes to the point of this season: The future always wins. Free will, destiny, luck, religion — all these are terms created to impart a sense of order on our existence, and it doesn’t matter if the “our” is human or host. Maeve thought breaking free from her Delos captors would allow her to change the end of her story. It didn’t. Dolores believes the same thing, though her plan of riding into the Valley Beyond with Teddy by her side has already failed. Bernard desperately wants to understand — himself, his world, his purpose — but that’s a luxury even those of us not in the midst of a horrific robot rebellion rarely achieve. Charlotte will do whatever it takes to get “the package” out of Westworld, but it seems increasingly unlikely that her control over the hosts at HQ will last.
Maybe the only man who will get what he wants is the Man in Black. In season 1, he was all about finding “the maze” (a storyline that is, in retrospect, totally irrelevant), and now he wants to find “the door” — presumably to the Forge, where the guest data/souls/reincarnation insurance is held. But what he really wants is for Westworld and everything it stands for to burn — and if I were exec producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, I’d use the season finale to light the match, and the third season letting the fire rage until it dies.
We know season 3 is coming, Darren, so what do you need to see in the finale to keep you on Westworld’s dystopian steam train to nowhere? (Review continues on next page)
DARREN: Don’t sell yourself short, Kristen, or me long! Nobody knows what was happening on any version of Twin Peaks. And your comparison of Westworld to a soap opera is right on. Now that you mention it, I think that vibe was what I liked about season 1. My brain was teased by all the science-fictional philosi-junk. But the real sizzle came from the characters, their chemistry, their eternal-feeling struggles.
The hosts were like meta-soap characters, actually, struggling to break out of narrative repetition: Is there more for Dolores than damsel-in-distressing, something beyond Maeve’s brassy bawdhouse farce, something for Hector and Teddy besides playing useful idiots who can’t dodge the guest’s bullets? Meanwhile, the humans got to test their own moral limits — and there was a feeling of constant discovery as young William (Jimmi Simpson) set out on a romantic journey that was secretly a fall into black-hat-ness. I loved watching Bernard chat with Dolores, even if I couldn’t tell you when he was Arnold and when Dolores was Wyatt. And I’ve embarrassingly never watched General Hospital, but I assume there are blandly hot male nurses and clever femme fatale doctors? That was the general vibe in every entanglement: saps and sinners. And does General Hospital have, like, a shady British chief of surgery who might be a murderer? That was Ford.
This season, that feeling of entrapment you’re describing is palpable, but it also feels like a shrinking of the show’s ambitions. The heat’s gone cold. Having established that all the hosts were awakening to fact that their memories were false, Westworld has now treated all their backstories as gospel, and given them no new story to explore. Dolores loves her father; Maeve loves her daughter; Teddy is sad because he can’t love Dolores anymore. These are all day-one ideas about these dynamics, repetition that’s as boring as the stuff Lee (Simon Quarterman) cooked up for his bland characters. And then some fan-favorite types have been brought back with literally nothing to do. Remember when Maeve just, like, ran into Felix (Leonardo Nam), and then he joined up on her Daughter Quest? I love Felix! Give this man a plot point!
On a deeper level, the ideas feel empty. We came into this year expecting a portrait of a revolution, characters who happen to be mostly played by non-white non-males staging their own brand of rage against the system. So it feels very telling that season 2 has spent so much time focusing on, like, the moral plight of the local rich white dudes. We had James Delos (Peter Mullan) seeking immortality, just like Peter Thiel. We had endless episodes focused on the Man in Black — and I love Ed Harris, but his character is a growly mess. And for no reason that I find sensible, they brought back Anthony Hopkins as a voice in everyone’s head. This was in the same episode where the Man in Black survived three gunshots — so Westworld has flunked the Game of Thrones test, conjuring up shocking “deaths” that never count the way they should.
So, what do I want from this season finale, Kristen? One one thing I will say in Westworld’s curious favor: My two favorite characters at this point are Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) and James Delos, who both had one showcase episode and only barely appeared otherwise. I consider it a weird success when a show makes me love the guest stars more than the leads. So this world is still interesting, it just feels like we’re focusing on the least interesting characters. Let’s move past Ford and the Man in Black. What does Dolores want for her future? How about Maeve? Aren’t their struggles similar yet different — and isn’t that contrast more interesting than, like, the next level of Ford’s game?
Your description of a theoretical third season sounds rather final to me, Kristen. Do you feel like this show is approaching an endgame? What, specifically, do you want from the finale? And since you dug this season more than me, are there standout moments or characters who sum up what made this year special for you?
KRISTEN: First, an answer to your General Hospital question: I think the most Ford-like character in Port Charles would be Mikkos Cassadine, the supervillain who once attempted world domination with a weather machine powered by a giant diamond called the Ice Princess. (Man, I miss 1980s soap operas.)
But yes, I do see Westworld heading toward an endgame, and for many of the valid reasons you point out. The cathartic slaughter of Ford and the Delos executives at the end of season 1 vaulted our various heroes into a reality characterized by the slow onset of option paralysis — and while it’s worked for me for the past nine episodes, it does seem like the writers only have a season’s worth of story left to tell. I wonder if a season 3 would be best served by putting the humans behind us altogether and, as you suggest, showing us how the story ends for the characters we care most about: Akecheta, Dolores, Maeve, and maybe some new, as-yet-discovered hosts making their way to the Valley Beyond, the Door, the emergency robot exit, whatever. My hope is that by the time Dolores makes it out, her blood lust against the species that created her will wane and she’ll end up… happy? Is that too much to ask?
So for the finale, let the Man In Black finally succumb to those bullet wounds. Send a helicopter to get Felix, Lee, Sylvester, and Elise, while Charlotte bleeds out on the lab floor (not a fan). And that lagoon full of dead hosts, the disaster Bernard says he caused? May it hold no one we love besides Teddy… who we now know was the architect of his own death. Let this season end with the Door open, much like the hatch in Lost’s “Exodus, Part 2.” If we have to wait another 16 months to find out what’s on the other side, so be it.
Darren’s grade: C
Kristen’s grade: B+
Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy's ambitious sci-fi thriller is based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name.