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Out of all the questions Westworld could have, might have, and didn’t answer in “The Passenger,” its second season finale, the one I was most shocked to see answered was: Why did Tessa Thompson sign-on to appear in Westworld? Turns out, it was because, after a season and a half of standing around and scowling a lot, Charlotte Hale was going to be killed and resurrected as a host with Dolores’s programming and help lead the host uprising. Or, at least I think that’s what Charlotte is going to do in season three. She may have rebuilt a Dolores body and Charlotte’s host body might now house another consciousness. Creating clear-cut and compelling story beats is not Westworld‘s strong suit- something that I’m finally coming to terms with after hoping for more over the past two seasons.
That’s the biggest thing Westworld revealed to me over this second season: The show cares more about creating its winding mythos and dabbling in silly philosophical debates than it does about character development and story arcs. I had come into season two (after being largely disappointed with season one relying almost solely on puzzle box storytelling and a smirking Anthony Hopkins) hoping Westworld would treat its past as a prequel of sorts; a jumping off point to start telling a real story with real characters in earnest. But I should have known better. After all, one of the recurring refrains throughout the series has been questioning what makes something real. Westworld isn’t in the business of telling “real” stories. It’s in the business of sending us down various rabbit holes, playing with timelines, and seeing what sticks (and what Reddit can solve faster than the show reveals it).
And that’s fine. Not every show is going to be Breaking Bad or The Americans. There’s plenty out there for people who want to have compelling emotionally resonate stories and twisty, action packed storytelling together (might I suggest either of the two shows mentioned in the previous sentence, as well as BBC America’s deliciously delightful Killing Eve?). But what saddens me the most about Westworld opting for style ahead of substance is that Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have so much at their fingertips to play with – an insanely large budget, brilliant directors, a cast filled with actors at the top of their game – and their focus continues to be on pedaling cracker jack philosophy while trying to head fake the audience (which, I suspect, worked in the case of the Charlotte twist, but clearly failed with William). Hell, they even managed to put together three excellent, character-focused episodes this season that showed Westworld could be so much more than it currently is (“The Riddle of the Sphinx,” “Akane no Mai,” and “Kiksuya,” which were, unsurprisingly, my favorite moments of the season- and series). That’s what really grinds my gears: Joy and Nolan have shown how smart and character driven the series can be, yet they’re actively taking an opposite path.
Each time the story hinted at the massive cost this technology has forced those involved with it to pay (be it Jim Delos losing it all and then failing to be resurrected, William following the same path as his father-in-law, or the hosts taking their trip into the world of consciousness only to realize how ugly their creators are), the show has walked back from the precipice of asking the hard questions. Our taste of Shogun World came with deep questions about agency and control (along with some truly excellent fight sequences) that the series touched on and then punted. The spotlight on Jim Delos introduced us to the park’s underground project of creating host versions of the dead, complete with their memories and personality profiles (along with the reveal that the park has been taking detailed profiles of all guests and storing the code). And while that plot point came up again in the William post-credit scene in the finale, nothing really came of it beyond showing us just how depressing it is to try and rebuild a person once they are gone. Finally, the Akecheta episode highlighted how each host perceived his or her life – that these characters lived out sweeping epics, filled with love and loss, as they slowly made their way into consciousness (along with serving as a great showcase for the always excellent Zahn McClarnon). It was such a great episode that it made me actively angry to see the series go back to its old ways immediately following it.
And I suppose that’s Westworld‘s greatest twist of all: It can dispense with the style and delve into something of substance at a moment’s notice. Which is what will likely keep people like me coming back for more. The dream that, one day, the series will give Jeffrey Wright something more to do than look confused (seriously: Jeffrey Wright is one of the best actors alive today, and this is what the show has him doing on a weekly basis). Perhaps, as I said at the end of season one, the finale will serve as a jumping off point for something better, if not bigger (the show doesn’t need to go bigger- it’s already plenty big). Maybe having hosts out in the real world will allow the show to explore their humanity, or rather, what constitutes humanity. But I think I already know what’s to come on Westworld in season three. And I’m not sure even the lure of the occasional deep dive into character and emotional complexity will be enough to bring me back for more. I know what’s real now, and I don’t think Westworld is it.
— I assume it’s a general note given to all actors playing hosts, but boy, were Thompson and Ed Harris wooden as hell when they were revealed to be hosts. It was like all the light drained from their eyes (and, considering how little both were given to work with in terms of character beats, that’s saying something), and they just deadened. Yes, Thompson was doing her Dolores impression (which also highlighted how wooden Evan Rachel Wood had been playing things), but it was such a weird change to see.
— I’ve seen a lot of comparisons between Westworld and Game of Thrones, which makes sense considering their shared network and huge price tags. But even when I’ve been annoyed by Thrones at times, it’s always kept its focus on what makes it compelling: its characters. Westworld doesn’t ascribe to that same cornerstone, and I don’t think the shows are even in the same zip code.
— So, pretty much everyone is either a host or dead at this point (or a barely one-dimensional character we don’t care about – except for Felix. I love you, Felix)? And most of those dead hosts and dead people will likely be coming back in some form? So, all that talk about how death is real this time around was just for show? Yeah. That’s pretty annoying.
— How is it that the one death that really hit me this episode was Sizemore’s? Even though he followed a pretty paint-by-numbers arc to that heroic moment, at least he had a legitimate arc. Although, perhaps it’s because he’s probably the only actually dead person out of the group (I still have hope for poor Elsie)?
— I may have taken the show to the woodshed in this review, but I do want to recognize that several of the actors did a hell of a lot with the little they were given to work with. Thandie Newton always delivered the goods, giving Maeve layers that I suspect weren’t there on the page. Once James Marsden was given a chance to do something other than look confused and sad as Teddy, he shined in his brief time as Evil Teddy. And Katja Herbers managed to create a pretty complete and compelling character out of Emily with only a handful of appearances.