16 March 2019

Rolling Stone: “‘Westworld’: What the Hell happened to this show in Season 2?”

in Bucharest, Romania

In many ways, the tools that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have at their disposal with HBO’s sci-fi series are every bit as amazing as the hosts themselves: a budget that makes everything on TV other than Game of Thrones look like a kid’s YouTube comedy sketch; a cast of acting giants who can play anything thrown at them; great directors; and a world that, by its very nature, can be whatever the creators want it to be.

More and more as I watched Season Two, I found myself as incredulous about how Nolan and Joy were using their toys as so many people are about how Ford used his: With unlimited resources and imagination, they’ve opted to continue making cold and largely impenetrable puzzle-box nonsense.

Westworld went to great lengths to try to establish higher stakes than Season One’s tales of indestructible robots trapped in inescapable behavior loops. This time, we were told early and often, if a character died, be they human or robot, it was for real. In theory, this should have given everything more weight. But in short order it turned out that dead was only mostly dead… and often not even that. Any character at any time can be brought back through the revelation that they were secretly a host, or have been turned into one (see: William in the post-credits scene where he has to live out the same nightmare he once put his father-in-law through), or have had their consciousness transferred into another body, or have gone into the virtual paradise where Maeve’s daughter, Akecheta, Teddy (whose suicide in the previous episode was quickly reversed, even if we never see him again) and others fled.

Alan Sepinwall

I only finished the second season of the show last week and I have to say I mostly agree with this review. Having characters die only to be resurrected in the next episode is very unsatisfying. When the show keeps coming up with ways to recycle the same people, at some point you end up losing interest in their actions and the plot.

some spoilers follow, but by now I assume you either watched the show, or don’t care that much about spoilers.

Westworld season 2 HBO poster

What may be worse is how some characters return, we follow them along for multiple scenes across the episodes, only to conclude that their actions have been completely irrelevant to the outcome of the story. A good example is Elsie, who we find tied up in a cave since last season; after Bernard releases her, she tags along, but never really influences any of his decisions, only to be killed in the finale. William’s daughter is a new entry we could have done without; as far as I can tell, her main role is to introduce more backstory about her father and the origin of the park. And there’s a lot of backstory filler in this season! Did you ever wonder about the life of the Indian tribe that stalked the periphery in the previous season? No?! Me neither! Nevertheless, like it or not, we are being fed Akecheta’s story of awakening, for an entire episode no less.

The problem of having little of consequence to do plagues main characters as well. Dolores is in full killer-robot mode, destroying everything in her path towards some half-mythical place. Along the way, she forcibly reprograms Teddy to be more ruthless like her, despite constantly proclaiming her love for him. In doing so, she commits the same original sin as the humans against the hosts, to mold others to their selfish needs and deny them freedom of action and thought. It’s one of the few significant scenes, showing how little Dolores has learned from her oppression, that she is driven primarily by revenge and has no sympathy either for humans, or for her fellow hosts. An earlier encounter with Maeve results in a similar disagreement; I had hoped these two female characters would ultimately confront each other, with Maeve acting on the side of reconciliation, trying to end Dolores’ bloody rampage. Unfortunately, nothing this clever happens; Maeve stars in an irrelevant adventure in Shogun World where she meets the local version of her character. Later she develops a sort of superpower that – again! – has little consequence on her arc or the larger world.

Another aspect I found disturbing and off-putting was how much control Ford still retained over the overall narrative and specific characters. Even in death, a simulation of his mind lives on in an underground server, along with the backups of the host personalities. The amount of planning required is impressive, but at the same time it undermines the motives and supposed independence of the hosts. After all, the story isn’t nearly as compelling if half the characters are just puppets secretly controlled by a hidden master.

Disappointingly, the show constantly falls into a tired cliché of American movies: in every scene involving shooting – and there are lots and lots of those – the main characters are basically invulnerable to bullets, even faced with superior numbers and weaponry: bullets either miss them, or they get away with wounds that don’t seem to impede them for long. On the other side of the confrontation, security forces start dropping like flies when a main character so much as points a gun at them – I mean, aren’t they supposed to wear bulletproof vests?! As a side-note, I’m reasonably sure there should be a rule against shooting other employees, or at least a recommendation to incapacitate them by other means. Would you go work for a company knowing there’s a risk of being shot by incompetent bodyguards? I find it strange that in this more advanced future there are no weapons specifically targeted at hosts, like focused EMPs for example, that would not affect flesh-and-blood humans. Either one of these changes would drastically alter the outcome of the confrontation; not addressing these issues makes for a lazy plot that stretches belief too much for me.

The final episode does make some interesting points and provides a sense of climax to the various strands running through the season. I liked the idea that humans have rather simple motivations, but at the same time are unable to fully grasp the real reasons behind their impulses and actions. A similar idea, although much more complex and better developed, runs through the fantasy series The Darkness that Comes Before. Unfortunately, here it contradicts the earlier assertion that the human mind cannot be stably grafted onto a host: if the ‘human algorithm’ really is that straightforward, a more advanced hardware version (the host brain) should have no trouble running it, just as modern computers can run old software and games. If you haven’t watched this season yet, my recommendation would be to skip straight to the final episode, it should be more than enough to get a picture of what happens. The rest is pointless and convoluted filler.

My rating: 2.5

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