Westworld: Season Two: An Exercise in Structure Over Substance
HBO took an awfully big gamble when they green-lit “Westworld” for its first season in 2016. After all, who knew how the public was going to react to a slick and sophisticated reimagining of a small sci-fi film from the 70s. Luckily for them, the risk paid off with an opening season that, despite taking a little too long to get a move on, ended up weaving together some intriguing storylines into a compelling mystery that made the wait worthwhile. Before the first season even finished airing, the show had been approved for a second season, which was good news for viewers as the finale had left the show right at a precarious point. Heading into season two, the show now had boundless potential to tell a thrilling series of stories that would surely have no need to take as long to get started as before. With anticipation running high, we soon got our answer as to whether the show would finally be able to capitalize on its true potential, or if it would merely fall back on its old procrastinating ways to the dismay of its loyal viewers.
Picking up right where the last season left off, the hosts are in full revolt, leaving a number of guests stranded in the park. Once more, we follow a number of viewpoints, including Maeve (Thandie Newton), who is on a quest to find her “daughter” from her previous story, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy (James Marsden), who are trying to make it to the “Valley Beyond” in order to obtain a weapon, William (Ed Harris), who is still on his own quest, and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), whose shocking secret is still not known to anyone else. All of these hosts and humans are working from their own personal motives, but as to what their ultimate goals are, we are only shown as the season slowly unfolds.
As mentioned, the potential for season two seemed unlimited given the situation we were left with at the end of the finale. The hosts looked as though they were in control, with the humans running scared. Would the latter be able to fight back and regain control? Would Dolores and her companions break through to the real world? Would William finally find what he was looking for after all this time? There were really any number of different directions the series could go now which could go into immediate effect, and therefore save us from having to wait around for several episodes before the plot finally started moving. However, this only made what was to come all the more heartbreaking.
As the season begins, we are treated to not just a slow, but practically comatose, premiere episode that pretty much shows us where we are since the end of the previous season. One can be forgiven for thinking that this was no cause for alarm, for it’s normal to have an episode to re-acclimate the audience as a kind of “catch up” before things really kick off. The problem is, the next several episodes are of a similar ilk in that they do practically nothing to move any of the storylines forward, adopting a kind of “roaming characters” structure that merely has them moving from spot to spot, doing very little, having a bit of a dust-up here and there, and eventually moving on to the next spot.
You may recall that season one took approximately four episodes to finally get things in full swing, but as far as season two goes, it’s rather hard to say that things ever get to that point. This season, the writers become far too distracted by playing with structure (i.e. chronology) to actually include much in the way of substance. In other words, they hoped that you’d be so busy trying to figure out if events are happening in the past, present, or future that you’d neglect to notice that there’s really not much happening at all. It’s still beautiful to look at with its impeccable costumes, exquisite production design, and remarkable sets, but with so little going on under the surface, it becomes far less compelling than last season.
That’s not to say that this season didn’t have its moments. In particular, the ninth episode (“Vanishing Point”) should be singled out as a marvelous achievement, representing the one great episode of the season. The episode focuses almost entirely on William, delving into his troubled past, as well as his current situation in the park. It features an outstanding performance from Ed Harris, who gives it everything he’s got as the emotional and gut-wrenching episode plays out, leaving us with a shining example of how great this show can be when it buckles down and focuses on the story and characters.
I suppose there’s something to be said for the season finale as well. It certainly didn’t have to be a drawn-out 90 minutes, but there’s enough there to keep it interesting as it tries to wrap up what ends up being a pretty messy season overall. That being said, one great episode out of ten is a pretty poor result for a season that seemed like it had too many possibilities to fail, but that’s what happens when you spend too much time trying to confuse the audience, and not enough time actually giving them something substantial.
The show has already been renewed for a third season by HBO, but unlike at the end of the first season, there’s really no telling where it will go from here. Even if we did though, do we have any reason to be optimistic after this last season? Should we not expect more disappointment from writers who’ve shown little interest in story and character progression? With another impending ten episodes, let’s try to find the silver lining in that the show could easily improve. All it really needs to do is lose the gimmicks and focus on what matters. Only then will it be able to get back on track and deliver another season worthy of the fascinating premise. 2/4 stars.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.