It’s customary, when writing about a television show, to issue a spoiler alert before cluing readers in to what has happened recently. In this case, I’ll just ask you to trust me that if I give away any key elements of the plot, it must be inadvertent, since after weeks of watching Season 2 of “Westworld,” I still have no idea what’s going on.
Which really sums up the problem with the show: All the elements that combined to make for a fascinating, if flawed, first season have in their second iteration dragged viewers into an incoherent, nearly unwatchable mess.
“Westworld” has always required a certain amount of good nature on the part of the viewer, who must refrain from delving too far into what my husband dubbed “horse physics” after an episode of “Game of Thrones” sent me into a lengthy rant about the unrealistic piles of human and equine corpses. Why do bullets “kill” hosts, with spectacular sprays of blood and damage to the bodies, but never harm a human? Where is this park, which appears to be the size of the state of Arizona, located? How does the AI work?
But in the end, it’s easy to wink at these things, because c’mon, I’m trying to watch a show. And Season 1 offered plenty to keep the viewer absorbed. It was structurally novel, containing multiple timelines — as we eventually realized — that resolved into a stunning climax. Along the way, there were little puzzles and Easter eggs for the audience to worry over on social media, a fine assortment of dramatic plot twists and some gorgeous visuals. The characters of the robots were, perhaps, a trifle thin, but then, what do you expect? They’re robots. Their flat emotional affect set the tone of this alien world and formed the subdued background against which their slow awakening stood out in sharp relief.
Unfortunately, all the things that worked about Season 1 are breaking Season 2. The show’s writers have once again chosen to use multiple timelines, but since we now know the gimmick, it’s drained of suspense. And since we know the gimmick, the writers seem to have lazily assumed that they didn’t need to do the fine craftwork they did in Season 1, making three timelines feel like a seamlessly coherent whole. We spend more time asking, “Wait, what timeline are we in?” than sinking into the drama.
As the hosts have started shooting the guests, the horse physics have also become bothersome. Apparently, the guns have been shooting real bullets all along, yet the park owners never worried about bullets passing through their robots and hitting paying guests, or ricochets from missed shots. Which might seem minor, except that it’s a symptom of a much broader problem: a seriously underimagined world.
For example: The corporation that owns the park refuses to stage a rescue mission until a top-secret piece of proprietary data, stored inside one of the hosts, is evacuated by employees inside. Apparently, corporations in this world don’t worry about any liability they incur by leaving a large number of people to die in a facility they operate. Are we in a future world where there are no longer any governments, just massive corporations? But then why aren’t they worried about retaliation from other corporate giants? And if one company owns everything, surely there are cheaper ways to keep its subjects busy (or, as we recently learned, to run cognitive experiments on them) than to build a vast amusement park where they can explore their worst impulses?
Perhaps this is quibbling. But the reason I am reduced to this quibbling is the weakness at the heart of the show, the one that renders all the other problems unforgivable: the blandness of the robots. With Anthony Hopkins killed off at the end of Season 1, the robots are the show’s main characters, and certainly the most interesting ones. Only they’re not really very interesting at all.
The robots had very little in the way of complex human emotion in Season 1, so the “Westworld” writers had an almost blank canvas to work with for the second season. What they did with that canvas resembles what toddlers do on walls when you forget to put the crayons out of their reach. None of the robots have anything like a coherent character, goals or motivations. It is difficult to remember what any particular character is trying to do in any particular scene, and it is impossible to care.
The exception is Bernard, the park employee who turned out, at the end of last season, to be a robot created by the park’s founder. Unfortunately, Bernard does the most timeline-hopping of anyone, which makes it hard to get absorbed in his story, either. At any given moment, his motivations are apt to be opaque, depending on history that still lies in our future.
The result is a show that has all the ingredients for great television except the one that matters. It’s still visually brilliant. It still offers a plethora of puzzles and deep philosophical questions about human nature. Its complicated plot structure earns my deepest kudos as a writer, at least for the attempt if not the execution. What “Westworld” doesn’t offer me is a reason to keep watching characters I don’t care about jumping mechanically through a series of frenetic plot devices toward an ending that can, at this point, come only as a welcome relief.