Spoilers below for Westworld season 2.
The second season of the HBO sci-fi drama series Westworld debuted under a huge amount of anticipation and pressure. Not only was the first season critically acclaimed but over the 16 months the show had been off the air, rampant mega-fans had been theorising about every which direction the series could go. So, did the second season live up to the hype? For the most part I’d say yes. The season was less consistent than the first but it still had fantastic moments and pushed the show into new directions, away from a simple theme-park-gone-wrong and more into the realm of the origin of a new species, complete with copious biblical references. However, I do think the season had more flaws than the first, as the show, much like the hosts, broke free of the more rigid storytelling of season 1.
One thing the first season of the show did much better than the second was escalation. Some found season 1 to be too slow but I really enjoyed the pacing; I found that slowly seeing the answers and endgame come into sight was very satisfying. Whereas the first season ends with the biggest and most dramatic moment perhaps the show will ever accomplish, the second season obviously has to begin with that moment and go forward from there. Looking back on the season, I’d say that the opening three episodes are by far the weakest and meld into one and other, eventually culminating in a huge battle in episode 3. The problem is that this action sequence, which sees Delos security mount an attack on Dolores and her army, is unnecessary. Sure, it helps explore character beats like Dolores now being unforgivably brutal and Teddy refusing to kill in cold blood, but there would be other ways to show this without such a ginormous engagement. It breaks the flow of escalation in the season and makes Delores’s counterattack on the Mesa in episode seven seem small and undramatic in comparison when it should be the action highlight of the season and the culmination of the violence between the hosts and humans.
For a lot of the season the plot seemed to be stalling until characters reached The Valley Beyond. The fabled place was mentioned in the first episode and by the end of episode 2 it became clear that the parties led by Delores and The Man in Black were both heading there. And then characters keep mentioning it and how important it is in every episode until we get there in the finale. I understand the need to set the place up and build anticipation but I feel like the writers knew the characters were going to get there as the season’s endgame in the finale and were often just biding time until that happened. Now, I loved the finale. I thought it had great twists and turns, payoffs and posed many great questions for the future of the series but I feel that maybe a little too much happened in the episode and the season could have been restructured slightly to be better paced.
The first 3 episodes of the season could have been condensed into 2 and the finale therefore could have become the final two episodes rather than just the one extended episode. As much as I liked everything that happened, I feel it all happened a little too quick, especially when Dolores and Bernard both change their minds on very important matters very quickly. Bernard shooting Delores could have been the shock ending of episode 9 and allow the two episodes to breathe a bit more. This would also have allowed for the series to show us pieces of big information rather than just tell us. Because the Valley Beyond was the big drive of the season from the very beginning, the writers were handing out information on what that place was in several episodes. Showing the audience something is much more powerful and interesting than just telling them the information and I feel the writers told us far too much about the Valley Beyond rather than just showing it to us. For example, in the season’s penultimate episode, Bernard tells Elsie, and therefore the audience, exactly what the Valley Beyond is and because we had already figured out what it probably was from pieces of info scattered through the season, this straightforward description felt unnecessary and was just pandering to viewers.
I’ve been far too negative already so let’s take a look at some positives of the season. One episode where they undoubtably show rather than tell is the season’s fourth episode, “Riddle of the Sphinx”. It’s probably my favourite episode of television of the year so far and the scenes with James Delos being tested for “fidelity” are just perfect. The writing is fantastic and the direction is impeccable because the episode doesn’t tell you what’s going on but rather shows this loop play out three times and trusts the audience to pick up on what is happening and the revelations it brings to what the whole show has been about. The James Delos sequences, particularly the opening shot, reminded me of the season 2 opening of Lost but one thing that didn’t remind me of Lost, and I say this as a big fan of that show, was answers! Season 1 posed lots of fascinating questions and I loved that the second season took time to answer basically all of them and in turn pose different questions for the upcoming third season. I’m shocked that the vast majority of these answers were satisfying, especially learning why members of Ghost Nation had the maze engraved under their scalp and that answer led to one of the show’s very best episodes.
What the season mastered by the final few episodes was the human drama. Well, I say “human” drama, they’re robots, and even the main human character started questioning his biology, but you get the point. The plot meandered at times but I liked the arcs of every character and the show managed to build off the investment the audience had in the characters and develop them, taking us to surprisingly emotional places with some of them. Everything surrounding Maeve’s daughter felt earned, Teddy’s ultimate fate and what pushed him there was very well done, Bernard continued to be the show’s best character and Akecheta, a character we knew nothing about until episode 8, became one of my favourites by the time that episode was over. The show also subverted my expectations when it came to Lee Sizemore as a character too. In one of my “Hopes for Westworld Season 2” articles, I had said I wanted Lee to be turned upon and killed by the seemingly lifeless hosts left in Cold Storage, considering he was the architect of all their pain, but I think his redemptive arc was very satisfying.
Going into the second season I was concerned about how the show would balance having other parks be locations but overall, I think they were well utilised and didn’t overshadow the titular Westworld. Shogunworld was a fun diversion for a couple of episodes and the glimpse at The Raj was cool and all that was needed this season. The other parks could have easily been forced-in and I like that we only know what 3 out of the 6 of them are so far. I was a little disappointed we didn’t get a new primary character from a park other than Westworld but maybe that’ll happen in season 3.
Having said that however, I think the second season had some issues when it comes to new characters. Some were little more than plot devices like Phil, the character Delores kidnaps to rewrite the code of soldiers so that they fight for her before doing the same to Teddy. Teddy then leaves him with a gun and one bullet to show how much he has changed and that’s the last we see of Phil. He had no characterisation and was just there to do whatever the plot required of him. The same can be said for the creepy new body-shop guy whose name I never bothered to remember. The one who ‘stigmata-ed’ Abernathy to a chair and tortured Maeve before she got her revenge. He was in the show quite a lot but they never embellished his character other than making him enjoy torturing hosts which was only included so the audience would want to see him dead. That seemed like far too cheap a move for Westworld.
Do you agree with my thoughts on the highs and lows of the season? Where do you think Westworld season 2 succeeded and failed? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.