“I used to see the beauty in this world, and now I see the truth,” Dolores says in the second episode of the new season of “Westworld.” I feel the same way about the show.
The first season of “Westworld” created an infinite playground of possibilities, moral dilemmas and existential questions for its robotic hosts. It toyed with us in multiple timelines and kept us guessing about who was real and who was just part of a larger game. It was gratuitous and convoluted, but in the best ways. It was a glorious mess.
But sadly, this new season is just a mess. Three episodes into HBO’s “Westworld,” I’m close to checking out. The show is swimming in blood, timelines and fortune-cookie wisdom. But the show has lost the curiosity factor that made the original season engrossing.
We’re going in circles. I’ve seen the hosts die so many times, I’m no longer afraid to see them die again, only to (probably) be revived. No one cares what happens to the humans, who, we’re constantly reminded, can seem so inhuman. The question of what is programmed and what is free will feels less important when the outcomes feel the same either way. Westworld isn’t a game anymore, yet the stakes feel lower than ever.
Fascinating world-building went into “Westworld” the first time around. We had fun exploring the park and learning the rules. This time through, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy push us into the deep end of the pool. We’re unraveling mysteries and timelines from the get-go. Thus far they’ve only teased other worlds outside of Westworld, such as the Shogun World introduced in Season 1. Now the third episode of Season 2 introduces an Indian safari world. (Did anyone else catch that sitar plucked version of “Seven Nation Army?” I can’t decide anymore if the musical reworkings are awesome or a travesty).
Let’s for a moment try and figure out where we are in this maze. Or is it a door now?
After Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) got his brains blown out, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) kicked off a host uprising in which the stakes have been reset and no one is safe. She’s made it her mission to eradicate her makers, liberate hosts and win freedom in the real world, which she remembers visiting along with all her past lives. Dolores used to be a character of values and goodness in this bleak, sci-fi universe. Now she’s a revenge-bent murderess who thinks of herself as a God. She hips hosts like the now hapless Teddy (James Marsden) to the true nature of reality and disposes of the rest to suit her needs.
Maeve (Thandie Newton) is on a journey to reunite with the daughter she remembers from one of her past lives, and she’s recruited her lover Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and the park’s former chief storyteller Lee (Simon Quarterman) to get her where she needs to go. Her arc feels grounded, and her manipulative cunning and wordplay are more interesting to watch than Dolores’s torture spree. Also, Lee flashes his dick.
The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is on yet another mysterious quest to the deepest reaches of Westworld, but good luck figuring out what he has planned beyond that. Being susceptible to an army of violent robots hasn’t made him any less invincible. And even his younger self William (Jimmi Simpson) is back along with his awful alpha bro of a brother-in-law, Logan (Ben Barnes), suggesting there’s more to William’s past than we realize, even though that seems to go against much of his Season 1 story arc and reveal.
Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) seems adrift, popping up in multiple timelines all while finding his own grip on reality. What’s confusing with him is that he knows he’s a host, but not everyone does? And he himself maybe doesn’t have a great sense of who he is? He’s fidgeting, injecting himself with serum and blinking in and out of consciousness, but even with his glasses, it’s impossible to track his mental condition across timelines. All we know is he’s shellshocked.
Bernard spends much of his time hacking hosts and helping Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) track down a host who is basically a living, breathing flash drive of data. Yes, because even in a future where AI has become imperceptible from humanity, the most valuable currency is still behavioral data that might better help sell people junk. This is echoed in a banal flashback of William showing around a potential investor and touting Westworld as if it were just a Mecca for market research.
There’s a scene between Maeve, Hector and Lee, where Lee wonders how it is that Maeve and Hector are in love. Hector says Lee doesn’t know everything about him, but then Lee starts quoting the words right out of Hector’s mouth. These characters have free will, but they’re also programmed to behave and speak as they’ve been written.
So when I’m watching Dolores confront a posse of hosts, it feels like we’re still watching hosts play-acting one of Ford’s scenarios. They’re wild and unhinged killing humans left and right, but aren’t they still puppets with someone else pulling the strings? Are all of us puppets? Unraveling these existential paradoxes didn’t feel this contrived the first time around.
The first season didn’t skimp on bloodshed and carnage, but it didn’t have as much straight-up warfare as Season 2, with lengthy shootouts and showdowns between swarms of hosts and humans in every episode. And don’t forget that scalping. This isn’t “Westworld” anymore; it’s “Game of Thrones.”
Weeks before this latest season of “Westworld” premiered, HBO dropped a poster that had a secret code embedded in it that pointed to a hidden layer to the show’s website and a new teaser trailer. It felt like HBO’s entire marketing team was catering to a handful of Redditors. The show is deep in weeds of its own making.
This is still obviously a show with ambitions, intrigue and potential. Everything that made Season 1 such a phenomenon is still here. But so far this season, I feel like I’m stuck in a maze, wondering why I wandered in here in the first place.