This review contains FULL SPOILERS for season two of HBO’s Westworld. Proceed at your own risk!
After a lengthy 16-month hiatus and amidst a massive amount of hype, Westworld returned back in April.
Westworld had a ton of promise in its first season. The premise of androids becoming self-aware combined with top-notch production values and an all-star cast had me hooked on this show from the start. However, the show meandered through its first season while its characters were stuck in loops both metaphorical and literal, and the mystery was prioritized over building compelling characters. The season ended with a shocking finale that seemed to open the door to a much more confident and exciting second season. And for the first few episodes, it seemed like that’s what season two of Westworld would give us.
Unfortunately, any narrative momentum proved short-lived as Westworld once again kept its characters going in circles until the season finale rolled around. Despite two standout episodes and some strong moments along the way, season two of Westworld proved to have many of the same problems that plagued season one.
Episodes Five and Eight
Easily the high points of the season came in episodes Five and Eight, titled “Akane No Mai” and “Kiksuya” respectively.
“Akane no Mai” almost exclusively follows Maeve (the incredible Thandie Newton) and her gang as they venture through Shogun World (another of Delos’ parks). While “Kiksuya” formally introduces us to Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), a member of the mysterious Ghost Nation tribe, and tells a deeply emotional main story while revealing a key piece of the show’s mythology.
A common criticism of Westworld is its inability to tell stories that only span one episode. These two episodes prove the show is plenty capable of that by introducing stories and resolving them within the hour. Both use the viewer’s background knowledge of the show and deepen our knowledge of its characters but never felt burden by inscrutable twists and frustrating character choices.
The Purpose of Westworld
You’ve got to wonder what would make a giant corporation spend billions of dollars creating a theme park filled with sophisticated androids were guests can do whatever they want. It was always pretty obvious that is wasn’t just for enjoyment. Thankfully the truth behind the various parks that the Delos Corporation built proved to be a satisfying one.
As revealed in episode four, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” the Delos Corporation has been using the hosts to collect data on all of its guests in the hopes of implanting human consciousness in a hosts body. It all works thanks to some superb pacing and editing coupled with acting by Jimmi Simpson, Ed Harris, and Peter Mullan.
No doubt the show’s decision to kill Ford at the end of season one was a shocking twist that set the stage for season two but with his absence left a bit of a void in season two. I’d forgotten just how much gravitas Anthony Hopkins brought to season one of the show until we spent the vast majority of this season without him. So when Bernard encountered a digital version of Ford in “The Cradle” (a digital world where the host’s backups are stored) I was quite delighted to have the good doctor back and manipulating events for his own ends.
We spent much of season one considering Ford an antagonist to the hosts gaining consciousness so it was a let down to learn by the end that he truly was on their side only for him to die. Bringing the man back allow the show to explore a little more of Ford’s true motives while giving Anthony Hopkins to spout off some more important-sounding but still inscrutable dialogue. That said, I wouldn’t hold my breath on seeing any more of Ford in season three. I think he’s well and truly gone now (although I thought that at the end of season one too).
Most Of The Characters Still Aren’t Worth Caring About
Perhaps Westworld’s greatest weakness is that very few of the characters are worth caring about. Did you care about William playing Ford’s “last game?” I sure didn’t. What about Dolores and her quest to eradicate humanity? Or maybe Bernard trying to figure out when he was? I can’t say that I cared about any of those stories and that’s three of the show’s main players!
Westworld is filled with some of the best actors in the world but rather than give them dynamic characters to play, they just become slaves to the mechanics of the plot. The frustrating part is, I know the show is capable of giving me characters I care about. Look no further than Maeve’s quest to find her daughter. Thandie Newton consistently knocks it out of the park as Maeve and brought so much heart to her search. Despite this relationship being an artificial creation, Maeve clearly loved her daughter. The moment in the finale when Maeve sacrificed herself so her daughter could escape to “The Valley Beyond” was poignant and a great cap to Maeve’s arc this season.
I need season three to give these characters more depth if I’m going to invest in the plot. If I don’t care about who these things are happening to, I guarantee I’m not going to care about what specifically is happening to them. And I know they can do it! They made me care about Lee Sizemore which is not something I would’ve said after season one!
The Season Finale
If there’s an episode that sums up all my frustrations with season two of Westworld, it’s the season finale. I don’t remember the last time an episode of TV left me as exhausted as “The Passenger” did. What should have been an exciting climax to the season turned into a 90-minute slog of confusing reveals that by the time the episode was over I was left unsatisfied and largely confused.
I typically read recaps and reviews of the shows I watch but mostly as a way to supplement my viewing but “The Passenger” practically required reading something after watching just to make sense of the insanity. Where the ending of season one left me excited for what directions the show would take in season two, this finale left me cold and less than enthused for what’s coming next.
Season two of Westworld held so much promise and while it was able to deliver on some of that promise it, much like the show’s first season, ended as a largely frustrating exercise. You get the same amazing production values and A-list cast combined the even more confounding plot twists and all the pontificating on the nature of the “self” that you’d expect from a philosophy student writing their term paper.
But here’s the thing, I don’t regret the time I spent watching the show. Along with Game of Thrones, Westworld remains one of the few shows left that is capable of dominating the online conversation from week to week. Reading the exhaustive recaps prepared by journalists like Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair was part of the fun of following along with this show and that’s something that a lot of TV just can’t do. Talking with my friends about each episode was a fun moment of connection that is missing from most TV shows these days.
So Westworld and I continue to have a complicated relationship. It does just enough that I like to keep me watching but at least once an episode leaves me frustrated and cold. I’ll be back for season three but the show needs to streamline itself and build characters worth caring about if it’s ever going to become must-watch TV.
Both seasons of Westworld are available to stream on HBOGo and HBONow.