There’s a reason films like Fight Club and The Usual Suspects don’t have sequels or that the second season of a show like Mr. Robot never quite recreated the verve or energy of the first: once a show plays that one card, the Unreliable Narrator, it no longer holds a viewer’s attention in quite the same way. It’s a classic fool me once, shame on you, fool me…. you can’t get fooled again, is what I’m saying. Such is the problem with season two of Westworld, a show that I adored enough to renew my HBO Now subscription for but barely made it through to the end. This problem was apparent even in the first season but because of it’s perfectly constructed denouement it was easy enough to forgive. While that season was confusing, it had an endgame in mind and Dolores was the linchpin of the whole thing (even if the whole “Wyatt” misdirection felt a little bit forced and unnecessary). This year, however, any good will that may have been generated is spent. To wit, it’s difficult to get invested in a show that may be openly and consistently lying to your face in every scene. No dark corner or dramatic twist has any suspense or gravity to it when any turn might easily, and sometimes within minutes, be completely undone.
This is not to suggest that there is any decline in quality in Westworld, if anything it’s even more challenging, even more bold, and jaw-droppingly beautiful, and these are all good things. It’s a once-in-a-generation kind of show that is this willing to hold their audience to a high standard, to expect them to keep up with multiple overlapping timelines, philosophical musings on the nature of reality, the concept of identity and self, determinism versus free will, it’s all a lot to get through on a Sunday evening, while preparing for the work week and I admire Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan for what they have created. But much like the Hosts that have gone rampaging through the park to exact their revenge, their creation has may have escaped them in this new season. Complexity is good but complexity without depth (i.e. real stakes, where characters die and actually stay dead) fails to be what television sets out to be in the first place: entertaining.
In the first season Dolores was experiencing events as they occurred to her over the course of thirty odd years all at the same time, so the past and the future, to her, overlapped and as the viewer we experienced this confusion and eventual comprehension alongside the character and it was a thrilling, compelling experience, unlike anything else on television. But this year, with Dolores now firmly in Kill-Bot mode, Bernard is at the center of our time jumping narrative and we follow his experience in the park in two different time-frames and while at first this is kind of neat it shortly becomes just confusing and, even worse, entirely unnecessary to the narrative. And this is where that lack of trust in the narration kicks in. Without trust, there is no investment, and without an investment, as the viewer, I found my attention drifting about 80 percent of the time.
To be clear, again, this is in no way bad television and the twists and turns definitely kept people tuned in every week for good reason but if I can, again, fault the season and probably HBO in general, because this is something they do that has rapidly become a trope, and that’s back-load the season to such a degree that it’s no longer a necessity to follow a show week to week. There is so much in the finale “Passenger” to unpack that even the online discussions on places like A.V. Club or Screenrant become so impenetrable that I have yet to finish a single one on just that episode. There’s no conceivable reason why any of the four or five revelations that occur in the finale could not have been metered out through the rest of the episodes and there needn’t be this orgiastic riot of action and violence and M. Night moments shunted into the final 90 minutes of a 12 hour film. Except, perhaps, to create a groundswell in it’s audience, to get everybody talking about what’s going to happen next, which is most likely the motivation and reason behind Bernard’s disjointed narrative. HBO has gotten very good at making must-watch, event television, even if it comes at the expense of logical plot development and resolution.
So 80 percent of this season I was partially checked out, despite my best efforts but I use that specific number for a reason. Of the ten episodes this season, two of them, and really only the two, were absolutely riveting, brilliant television that demonstrates the power of this fully armed and operational battle-station. “The Riddle of the Sphinx” could live in the same world and exist alongside the best episodes of Black Mirror, it’s a fantastic blend of science fiction and horror that finally reveals the darker possibilities that the park represents while also letting one of my all-time favorite character actors, Peter Mullen, completely off the chain.
The other episode, and potentially the best episode of the entire series at this point, is “Kiksuya” which centers on what has been up until this point barely a tertiary character and shows in 59 minutes of television how much raw potential and talent Westworld, as a subject and a Universe, has to offer. How they created, to me, one of the most compelling story arcs thus far in such a short amount of time, to the point that I was openly weeping all over my dog’s head by episode’s end, I’ll never know, but it reminded me how much this world has to offer and how good it can be when the narrative isn’t trying so hard to impress.
Final thoughts on this season. Fundamentally, it became difficult to know who we were supposed to be rooting for as an audience. Maybe that was an intentional effort by the showrunners and while moral ambiguity can be an interesting subject to explore, there still needs to be a clear protagonist. Dolores, while bad-ass as all get out, kind of lost me with the torture and murder of the park guests. Sure, some of them may have been monsters like the Man in Black, but… all of them? Probably not. And Maeve is easy to root for but at a certain point she sort of became Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation where, for every obstacle, she just so happens to develop a new skill, kind of like a Deus ex Machina. No irony intended, there. And Bernard. If I were to create a Westworld drinking game where I had to drink every time he made a confused face I would be throwing up on my dog by the time the credits rolled on the first episode.
So somehow, the finale “Passenger” felt a lot like the ending of a Christopher Nolan film, with it’s voice-over and montage of images and music and inferred futures for the surviving characters and despite all my complaints it was successful in achieving what it set out to do. However, it also felt like a series finale, as opposed to a season ending. Where last year I was on the edge of my seat, hungry and curious for more, I don’t know what to expect in a third season. I don’t know what I want from a third. Except obviously more Akecheta.