Spoiler warning: this piece discusses the biggest reveals from the Westworld season 2 finale. Proceed at your own risk.
Westworld’s second season concluded with some major reveals, some high-profile deaths, and a list of unanswered questions. For a show that’s constructed around the ideas of perception and mystery, that’s to be expected. More so than any other show on television right now, Westworld uses narrative tricks and fragmented storytelling to keep as many plates spinning in the air as possible, letting the audience’s curiosity about something like “The Door” create an added layer of drama and anticipation that isn’t there if the narrative was told in a more traditional way.
When it works, like the season 1 revelation that the Man in Black (Ed Harris) is actually William (Jimmi Simpson) 30 years later, the pieces fit together with a satisfying click, recontextualizing what came before and sending the characters off in intriguing new directions. The season 2 finale has its own twists, including the revelation that Dolores, in a look-alike body, has replaced Charlotte Hale, and that in some distant future, the Man in Black becomes a host clone in his own right. It also ends with Dolores and several other hosts escaping from Westworld, laying the groundwork for upcoming storylines where the hosts take the battle to humanity’s own turf. We got together to discuss what worked in season 2, what didn’t, and where Westworld should go from here.
What did you consider the high points of season 2?
Bryan: I revisited much of the season in anticipation of the finale, and several episodes really stand out on a second viewing. “Kiksuya,” the bottle episode that tells the backstory of Ghost Nation leader Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), is the most emotionally effective episode in the entire season. His story is simple, but emotionally resonant — he literally faced death and went to the underworld to find his love — and it also fills in lingering questions about why the symbol for “The Maze” is scattered through the park. The meta-humor of “Akane No Mai,” in which it’s revealed that Shogun World is just a reskinned riff on Westworld’s narratives, was one of the few times the show actually laughed at itself. Another favorite was “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” which revealed the James Delos host clone program while also giving the Man in Black a momentary shot at redeeming himself. That actually strikes me as the most successful single episode of the season, in that it was able to move both the big-picture narrative and smaller, character-focused storylines together, while using Westworld’s non-conventional storytelling techniques with absolute precision.
There are a lot of other individual moments that loom large: the reveal of The Raj, the ending of “Phase Space,” where Bernard discovers the consciousness of Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) inside The Cradle, and a flashback to the pitch meeting where Logan realizes that he’s surrounded by an entire room of hosts. But individual moments were never really a problem for me this season; it’s the way that things connected that could sometimes be problematic.
Tasha: I’ve always gotten the impression that you enjoy Westworld’s big reveals a lot more than I do. I’ve gotten to a point where I see “James Delos is a host… and he’s still around!” “Charlotte is dead!” “Maeve has a new power!” “These have always been different timelines!” reveals as gotcha moments where the showrunners want us to be a lot more shocked than we are, but these twists tend to leave me cold, because they so rarely seem justified. (I’m still not convinced that Bernard would kill Dolores with good cause, then immediately change his mind and resurrect her. That seems like a twist for the sake of a big reveal, rather than anything that emerged from either of their characters.)
What impresses me instead are processes that play out over time. Watching host James Delos repeatedly try and fail to come to terms with his artificial nature was heartbreaking and fascinating. Seeing the Westworld characters and storylines copied over to Shogun World (“You try writing 300 stories in three weeks!”) was funny, but watching how differently that reskinned story played out was much more interesting for me. And I do still get a thrill on the rare occasion when something that seems inexplicable gets an explanation that isn’t disappointing or forced. In this season, that included the reveal of exactly why there was a giant image of The Maze outside of Maeve’s original house, where she died with her daughter. What a payoff! And I felt the same way about the revelation that Dolores interviewed Bernard more than 11,000 times in the process of tuning his fidelity to Arnold. It never made sense to me that Ford would set a bot to shape another bot — until the full reveal of just how exacting and lengthy that process was. Suddenly it makes sense that Bernard is so true to humanity: he’s been shaped with literally inhuman patience and dedication.
I also was entirely psyched to see Elsie finally resurface, alive and well and angry, as I predicted she would all along. If the show starts casually resurrecting humans via host technology, I hope she’s on the bring-back list, because I never stopped enjoying her brusque practicality and cut-the-crap attitude, which cuts through so much of Westworld’s pontificating and mystery in favor of a straightforward survival instinct.
What were the season’s low points?
Bryan: There’s a lot to examine, but the thing I keep returning to is, perhaps fittingly, a meta observation. It’s just how easily puzzle-box structure can unintentionally undercut basic storytelling.
Series creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have compared this season’s structure to that of film noir: it opens with a mystery (the flooded valley and dead hosts), then ping-pongs between two primary timelines while Bernard tries to piece together what happened. On the surface, that does sound more straightforward than season 1’s secret crosscutting between decades. In my initial review, I even pointed out that season 1 was finally making it clear to audiences what was happening when.
But over the course of these 10 episodes, I had a harder time investing in the overall story. Part of it was Bernard. His scrambled brain made him a good audience surrogate, but it also turned him into an exposition machine. (No pun intended.) Wright’s performance is as strong as ever, but it’s not engaging to have a character literally explaining what’s happening to the audience in nearly every episode.
I also suspect that being upfront about the dueling timelines made the show feel more complicated than it is. Westworld season 1 could be watched like a traditional series, and aside from a few strange moments with Dolores, it all made sense even before the timeline reveal. The execution made the structural trick feel effortless. In season 2, the foregrounded timeline tricks demanded viewers analyze every scene before they could take the story in. That’s not a mark against this kind of puzzle structure; I really enjoyed breaking it all down. But it does demonstrate how narrative form can impede function, just as it can augment it.
Tasha: I’m with you. I like stories that challenge my ability to keep up, but Westworld’s reliance on reveals and narrative chicanery keeps me at a distance from the narrative, perpetually trying to decode what I’m seeing — not just to get ahead of the showrunners’ tricks, but for basic comprehension. It’s hard to focus on the emotion or execution of a scene when you’re perpetually trying to figure out who’s actually on screen, or where and when a scene is taking place. This was particularly a problem in the season finale — I couldn’t focus on Bernard’s post-death beachside conversation with Ford, for instance, because I had no idea what we were actually seeing there. I frankly wonder if one of the reasons viewers were so taken with “Kiksuya” was because there was so little ambiguity in it: it was largely information we already knew, presented clearly and directly through a new perspective that focused on emotional, artistic storytelling, instead of on trying to surprise or confuse us.
Timelines and puzzleboxes aside, my primary problem with season 2 was how little interest the writers take in people’s motivations for doing the crazy things they do. (That was another advantage to “Kiksuya” — Akecheta’s goals and the reasons behind them were clear and relatable.) Plenty of people have talked about how Lee Sizemore’s willingness to sacrifice himself for Maeve felt abrupt and out of character, especially since it would have been so easy for him to create the same distraction without forcing security to kill him. I had that problem a lot throughout the season, as people flip-flopped on what they wanted and cared about, in order to keep the story moving in specific directions.
For instance, I’m still baffled at Dolores going to so much trouble to retrieve her father, then deciding to cut out his brain instead of pushing the techs harder to restore him. That could be an extremely potent decision — a turning point in her choosing to think of him as a programmed response getting in the way of her revenge, or as a malfunctioning bot instead of a person she loves, or as a necessary sacrifice who she can only honor by ending his pain — but the show spent no time on examining this huge shift in her thinking. Or on her decision to bring back Bernard to serve as her foil. Or on Maeve’s decision to ditch her protectors and approach her old house alone, which causes a long series of problems. Or on anyone’s decision to keep host James Delos alive and sitting in the dark alone for generations. There were way too many decisions this season that could make sense from a character perspective if they were in any way justified, but are instead lackadaisically thrown out to force a particular kind of confrontation, at the characters’ expense.
Also, in the finale, I had a hard time believing there were still living Delos investors out there waiting for rescue, after watching the park killing them off en masse for 10 weeks. How many people were at that original party?!
Based on the season 2 finale, what do you expect from season 3?
Bryan: The finale wraps up with some pretty important pieces already in place. Obviously, I imagine the third season will focus primarily on the adventures of Bernard, Dolores, and the Hale-Host-To-Be-Named-Later in the real world. I’d imagine the two main camps will break down into Team Take Humanity Out (Dolores) and Team Coexist (Bernard), but season 2 also wraps with Delos employees deciding which host bodies should be salvaged. That means Westworld and its companion parks aren’t done — not in the slightest. My money is on Maeve coming back, and that the show will be visiting those three other Delos parks as the company tries to relaunch and recover from what will undoubtedly be a PR nightmare.
That’s something the Man in Black could make significantly more complicated. He’s alive in the rescue camp at the end of “The Passenger,” so it’s clear he goes on to fight another day. It’s also evident from the post-credits scene that hosts, and the mysterious host clone program, continue on in some form, or else they wouldn’t exist in that “far, far future” scene in the first place. I expect his process of dealing with the fact that he murdered his own daughter to be as messy and problematic as the way he dealt with his wife’s suicide — particularly because the post-credits scene infers that he may be using Delos technology to create a timeline where he didn’t do the unthinkable.
Tasha: Ugh, I was so focused on the prospect of Bernard and Dolores duking it out in the real world for the future of humanity that I hadn’t even thought about William’s place in it all, and the completely unappealing (to me, anyway) prospect of him getting involved in their war solely because he’s still spoiling for a fight with “real stakes.” He really seems to have lost his mind by the end of season 2, with his obsessive belief that everyone around him is a Ford-host trying to manipulate him, so I suppose it might be interesting to see him carry that madness out into reality, and see how it affects his ability to function. But I’ve gotten tired of his cruelty and blinkered sociopathy and his monomania over the past two seasons, not to mention his frustrating illogic in spending 30 years heading to an escapist fantasy world, then loathing it and everyone in it for being a fantasy. So while the setup may be there for season 3 — including the setup for the mystery of how he becomes a host — I’m not looking forward to seeing how that plays out.
In general, season 2 doesn’t give me a lot of hope for season 3. The mystery around the remaining three Delos parks, the characters who stayed behind in Shogun World, and Delos’ determined host-salvage project each offer ways for the writers to keep the story within Delos’ bottle worlds, instead of moving it out to a broader stage. I could easily see Dolores moving from park to park to enlighten more hosts and destroy the other parks’ equivalents of the Cradle, which would let the show keep up its fantasy element and potentially stretch out the hosts-vs.-humans fight for several more seasons, if that’s the goal.
But Vanity Fair critic Joanna Robinson makes an interesting point in the Decoding Westworld podcast — the series has been extremely expensive to produce, and pushing it toward more real-world scenes could be a necessary cost-cutting measure. So could the massive character kill-off in the finale. So whatever form season 3 takes, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t at least a bit smaller and less elaborate than the first two seasons. I guess it does depend on whether Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy want to blow the budget and go out with a bang, or sustain the series longer, at lower costs.
What do you most want to see in season 3?
Bryan: More than anything else, I hope the third season gives its characters satisfying resolutions. The first season did this well, but several storylines in the second season — Maeve, Ford’s reappearance / disappearance, Elsie, Charlotte Hale, The Man in Black — faltered in the final moments. There were compelling twists involved with each and every one, but they didn’t all land with satisfying emotional conclusions. (Okay, on second thought, getting killed by Dolores was a suitable fate for Hale, given how terrible she was.)
Part of the intrigue of Westworld is decoding things, trying to understand what’s what, and living in the shoes of the show’s hosts as they try to make sense of their own cognition. I don’t expect that approach to change, and it would feel like a different show if it did. But the further along the series goes, the more complex its tricks and narratives are going to get, and walking the line between puzzlebox and satisfying storytelling will be that much more of a challenge.
Tasha: I’d just like to see some indication on the show that this world is moving forward in some meaningful way. So much of Westworld feels like it’s operating in circles: William doggedly pursuing the same unworthy fantasy goal, Dolores and Ford each giving their flowery speeches that don’t amount to much, Bernard being baffled, people gunning down people who are resurrected to get gunned down again. The finale seemingly put some characters permanently in a magical VR haven, out of reach of both Delos and Dolores’ war. I hope that’s the end of that arc, and they don’t get called back into unwilling bodily existence, solely because it’s nice to see someone on this show have a meaningful resolution — something that’s going to get progressively harder to have in an environment where almost anyone could potentially get resurrected. With the Cradle and the Forge seemingly destroyed, a third of Westworld’s hosts wiped, and most of Delos’ investors wiped out, it really feels like we’re on the cusp of a radically different story. But with Delos so eager to get the hosts up and running again, it simultaneously feels like the company just wants to take the story back to normalcy. I’m really hoping that plan doesn’t pay off, because I feel like we’ve learned everything that there is to be learned from the Westworld setting, having explored it at length over two seasons.
But really, at this point, the only character I feel much attachment to is Maeve. And I hope her daughter stays comfortably in the haven, so Maeve can figure out who she is without that plot hook hanging over her. Maybe she can finally give poor Hector the time of day, or he can figure out who he is without her. (Yes, I certainly think they’re both coming back. What would Westworld be without them?)