Although it has maintained a broad appeal, telling a beautifully depicted story and asking questions about artificial intelligence and the nature of humanity in a comfortable and technologically advanced world, the second season of Westworld has been shackled by narrative devices that give it little room to move or grow. First, a signal climactic event is visited and revisited in the initial episode of the season, from which there has been no narrative space to move into. The deeper issues of how we use stories to perceive and create reality (or consciousness) have been discarded in advance of a plot driven by revenge and violence.
The first season of Westworld displayed ample amounts of violence and sex, but seemed to be making comments on the baser human instincts that the park revealed. The characters with whom we sided—the robot hosts—were fighting to escape their loops: the repetitive cycles of abuse perpetrated on them to delight the human guests. When the first season culminated in a host revolution, the viewer could cheer, because the robots were breaking free of their loops. As the second season began, the hosts descend to violence against the humans and each other that rivals anything that occurred in the first season.
The war begins in the first episode and is shown in two closely linked timelines: one immediately following the uprising that ended season one, the other taking place a few weeks later. In the first timeline the hosts decimate the guests, in the second nearly all the hosts are found “dead” in an artificial lake. The season has been spent linking these two timelines and filling in some backstory to explain the “true” rationale for the park. We see waves of humans face the hosts, each one being dispatched with swift and stylized violence. We also watch as the hosts turn on each other. Set free from their controlled loops they repeat and amplify the excesses they had suffered as vehicles for the guests “bloody delights.”
While the first season was unabashedly bloody it also had four major narrative strands of awakening: Dolores gained consciousness and free will; William became the “Man in Black”; Maeve gained a kind of consciousness, but on a separate and less certain course than Dolores; and Bernard had his humanity stripped from him. Each of these plots had a cumulative development: each episode moved these stories forward, and there was a distinct pleasure as we discovered the stories for ourselves. That discovery was shared by the characters as well, some with pleasure, and some without. The climax of each story—personal revelation for good or bad—mirrored the overall plot. There was simple structural pleasure to be had.
In the second season these four characters have remained the main focus. But now, because the climax preceded all the events to follow, the action is more repetitive. Where else is there to go after mass slaughter? The characters do not grow so much as have secrets revealed to them or new powers added to them. They are at the mercy of plot needs. When Shogun World and Raj World, or the named but unseen Pleasure Palaces are introduced they are just grim mirrors of what goes on in Westworld. When the Cradle and the deeper purpose of the park is revealed, the viewer may have been able to anticipate their existence, but both feel like sleight of hand adjuncts to a story about characters. “Look over here! Isn’t this fancy? Don’t pay attention to the repetitiveness of the story.”
Maybe Westworld will pull out of this narrative funk—there are three episodes left in the season. How cool would it be to discover that after revenge is piled on top of revenge that some kind of peace breaks out. Imagine that: peace as a climax. Maybe it will build on the theme of the power of story that underpinned the first season, and subvert narrative expectations by inverting rising action, and we can be as surprised as William was at the end of the first season. Or maybe the next slaughter will just be bigger, more choreographed, more beautiful, and meaningless. Here’s hoping for a quick turn.