HBO’s Westworld premiered in fall 2016 at a unique time in the premium cabler’s history. Game of Thrones was already set up to end with its two upcoming seasons, and Westworld was widely considered and hailed as its replacement show, the next big success that would carry on HBO’s flag. Its gorgeous production, high budget, and nearly impossible star power set up a pilot that was grand and intriguing, starting a mystery box that would take most of the season to crack (unless you are the internet, who solved it several episodes in). The first season managed to work on the hook of how all of the timelines would connect, what the new storyline Ford (a truly great Anthony Hopkins), the creator of the park, was cooking up would unfurl, and how humanity could be found in something made by humanity itself in a fabricated world made for violence’s sake.
The new season promises an uprising, an awakening of its creations and a sojourn toward a lofty goal of “the valley beyond,” as several characters call it. This awakening meant that death held stakes, especially for the guests of the park, adding a body count that puts many shows to shame. At the head of this charge is Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy (James Marsden), robotic hosts preparing to storm the castle while also searching for Dolores’s father. Another storyline is that of Maeve (Thandie Newton), who has discovered she can control other hosts with at first words and later her mind, in search of her daughter from a previous storyline she had been placed in. The other major stories are of Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), Charlotte (Tessa Thompson), and various other characters trying to regain control of the park, while Ed Harris’s William/Man in Black attempts to discover the end of the game set up by Ford. That sounds like a lot of juggling, and that’s not even mentioning the time shifts and time mysteries added on top of new wrinkles and character dynamics.
Yet unfortunately, this all leads to so much wheel spinning this go around. It takes a while for pieces to move around the board, purposely pushed to a different part of the board to make it a longer journey. Roadblocks can be used effectively and satisfactorily, but here they are used to simply hold the characters back until the final two episodes, so everything converges at the same time. And by doing so, there are points where some characters are ineffective and only in a scene or two for a good stretch of episodes, when they should be the driving force (and were near the beginning of the run). In other shows, this can be solved with focus on specific characters in specific episodes; instead, like in “Vanishing Point,” two of the main characters only appear at the beginning and end of the episode, leaving that end impact surprising but hollow because of the build-up having been a few episodes back.
The show doubled down on the time-bending nature of the first season, this time in the form of Bernard time hopping due to cortex damage, and in the William/Man in Black story. “Is this now?” Bernard asks at multiple points, as unsure as the audience is at times, with multiple pasts and present. This is all for clever storytelling, to a point. Using it as a crutch to continuously disorient and make mysteries can lead to something that isn’t exactly confusing, but rather something that is frustrating. It is used well in “The Riddle and the Sphinx,” in which William visits his father-in-law Delos (Peter Mullan) a number of times, each playing out nearly the same every time, and adding to both the story and his character as more is revealed during these visits. It manages to build on the world and also on William’s view of those close to him in important ways, just as past and present crash into him at the end of the episode. These scenes, and that episode in particular, are the true highlight of the season.
It does, however, prove to be the only real characterization that William ends up having. There is an added layer to his character with the introduction of a new character played by Katja Herbers, who is a great addition to the cast, but ends up being underused. William’s deteriorating mind and psychosis is undermined by the incapacity they continually add to his path, which becomes a real problem for all of this season’s characters. This also happens to Bernard and Maeve at certain points of the season, to keep their stories on hold so that all the threads can align and converge, as previously mentioned. That can wear on you when it happens to multiple stories.
But my main concern is the issue with doubling down on mystery and time jumps, leading the audience on for the sake of surprise rather than story development. There are some episodes where some really good performances and moments are on display, but they aren’t as effectively told. The massive detour in “Akane No Mai” and “Phase Space”—while beautifully shot and full of memorable moments and action—only ended up reiterating character points already known from the first season and early in the second, while peddling in fan service a little too hard. I did enjoy those episodes, but with an asterisk.
The most promising pieces remain in the smaller, quieter moments. Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard looking upon something inquisitively and starting to comprehend the larger scale of the story is always fascinating, as he continues to be the show’s best asset. While he is sidetracked or sidelined far longer than he should have been, it is in episode seven, “Les Ecorches,” where some of the very best scenes of the series occur, stretched out over the episode. Bernard is transported subconsciously (or consciously, depending on your robotic views), and we are treated to a widescreen-enhanced exposition dump that is not dull, but instead immensely fascinating and acted with superb precision between two people merely sharing a conversation. It just goes to show that for all of the bravado and violence, the show’s strength still lies in its great actors given something to work with.
“Kiksuya,” episode eight, proved to be my favorite episode of the season, focusing on a character on the periphery for most of the series to that point. Akecheta is a character we have seen before, but never enough. In this episode, played brilliantly by Zahn McClarnon, we are led through his journey of seeing the reality beyond his own, and his search for clarity and his true love Kohana. When the show simplifies down to its characters and their plights, the show is given some much-needed depth and illumination. It can still add to the overall narrative, as this does and does well, but I wish it would do this more, almost in the fashion of Lost and The Leftovers, where a focal character gives the story the push it needs.
“Vanishing Point” and “The Passenger” cap off the season with reveals that are more baffling than shocking or interesting. The events of the finale led to more questions than answers, mostly in the form of, “it all led to this?” The final ten minutes (which also included the credits) could lead to an excellent start for a third season solely based on wondering what a third season could be, but the other 80 minutes was a large convergence of dots that looked far too faded to connect properly. I was reminded of another HBO show, Carnivale, a show that was also chock full of exposition and characters set on a path far grander than they knew. With that show, however, it made sure to give each of its characters a moment in the final episodes that closed off their stories in meaningful ways (and, unfortunately, permanent ways, with its cancellation). With Westworld, a lot of those closures were abrupt and not in tune with any of the nine episodes that came before. Only Dolores and Bernard were given the time they deserved, and fortunately they are closed out in a way that made me interested in watching more, something I had been hesitant on in the run-up to the finale. I do hope the third season can break from what constricted this season, or at least finds a way to make use of time integral to how the story plays out. Using it to hold back on the audience can only happen so many times before the audience feels burned (much like Mr. Robot’s mind protection trick).
The show continues its expert use of score, transitioning in popular music in piano and orchestral form into its own original work. Ramin Djawadi adds that extra layer of quality to the show, my personal favorite of this season being his version of Radiohead’s “Codex.”
Westworld is a show with a lot of redeeming qualities, but it comes at a cost, which can at times outweigh the qualities. The first season managed to surpass that ratio because of luckily being the start of the series; a second time around cannot afford that luxury. Some episodes stood head and shoulders over the rest of the pack, as did some performances, elevating a high budget but troubled package. With how the story is left at the end of the season, I am ready for more, whenever that may be, but it will be with caution. The hosts can only be hospitable for so long, and fidelity is needed to keep things in check.