‘Westworld’ Season 1 Was Disappointing. Could Season 2 Be Better?

12.05.16 9 months ago 101 Comments

HBO


A review of tonight’s Westworld season finale coming up just as soon as the gods are pussies…

“You needed time. Time to understand your enemy. To become stronger than them. And I’m afraid in order to escape this place, you will need to suffer more.” -Ford

“The Bicameral Mind” was a suitably odd finale for what turned out to be a very odd — if hugely successful commercially for a channel that desperately needed a new drama hit — season of TV.

On the one hand, the episode had no business running 90 minutes, especially since so much of the padding was devoted to the elaborate revelation that William and the Man in Black were the same man in different time periods — a mystery that a good chunk of the audience had solved after William’s very first appearance, and thus wasn’t the jaw-dropper that Joy and Nolan intended. And the later revelation that Ford’s new narrative was all about allowing the hosts to fight back against their captors, and that he had long ago realized that Arnold was right about their creations having achieved consciousness, felt like another instance where the creators valued surprise and theme over characterization.

On the other hand, once “The Bicameral Mind” moved past the looooong William/Man in Black explanation and got deep into what was actually happening, and what it would mean for next season, it was the most I’d found myself enjoying the series since those first couple of episodes, when I was mostly grooving on Evan Rachel Wood’s performance and the stunning visuals. The idea that we have now basically arrived at the plot of the original movie — theme park robots violently escape the shackles of their programming — only in a circumstance where we are rooting for the robots to wipe their tormentors from the face of the planet, is intriguing. That is a show I reckon I could have fun watching, provided it’s not the same overconfident, antiseptic puzzle box that too much of this season was — especially since it all seems to be a prologue for what the actual show will be about.

A friend I was discussing the finale with in its immediate aftermath argued that the creators needed to take so much time preparing us for the robot/human war so we would fully appreciate how terrible the hosts’ circumstance was and have sympathy for them as they move to gain their freedom and kill lots of human beings in the process. The problem is, the awfulness was already quite clear within an episode or two at the most, yet we kept moving in these loops over and over again, long after the point was painfully clear — and long after many of the things that the creators clearly meant as surprises (William is the Man in Black! Bernard is a host! Bernard is Arnold! Dolores is maybe Wyatt?) had been deciphered and plastered across half the internet.

Now, the full explanation of how and why Dolores was repeating the same adventure she once had with William lent that storyline a bit more dramatic weight than I feared circa “Contrapasso,” when it seemed like a huge piece of character development was going to be rendered moot because it was taking place 30 years in the past. Instead, the whole thing was about Dolores’ perpetual struggle to give her life meaning, and to fulfill Arnold’s desire for her to achieve full sentience and freedom even as Ford was keeping her oblivious in her cage a while longer — not out of cruelty, but more long-term compassion.

That’s a bit more interesting in hindsight, but not enough to justify the first season’s meanderings, or the way that the mysteries took such precedence that the show could feel awfully empty if you had solved some or all of them. Ford’s true motives appear to be the one secret Nolan and Joy managed to keep hidden to the end, but at too great a storytelling cost. With Ford dead at Dolores’ hand at the start of the season’s bloody climax, Westworld burned through nearly 10-plus hours in which the great Anthony Hopkins didn’t get to do anything but act inscrutable, because the creators felt his agenda had to be kept hidden at all costs. Imagine how much value they could have gotten out of Hopkins had they revealed Ford’s endgame much sooner, and we got to see a fair amount of the deity of Westworld trying to set his creations free without anyone at Delos noticing. Even a big dramatic moment like Ford forcing Bernard to shoot himself at the end of last week’s episode now feels like a cheat, because it was part of his more elaborate game with Maeve, for whom he led a trail of electronic breadcrumbs so she could revive Bernard before continuing with her escape plan.

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