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

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.

Secrets can be fun. Surprise can be fun. But when everything on a weekly TV series is built around secrets — when the characters operate in service of the secrets, rather than the secrets enhancing our appreciation of the characters — it becomes a drag, whether we figure out the answers long before the show thinks we will, or when we don’t have enough information to do more than scratch our heads and lament that something doesn’t make sense.

But as I watched Dolores beating the hell out of the Man in Black in the Escalante church, and later as Ford kicked off the final symphony of his career and life by siccing Dolores and the cold room hosts on the Delos board members, I could see the edges of a version of Westworld that could start dealing its cards face up and just tell the damn story, and could unequivocally treat the robots (always the show’s most complicated and sympathetic figures) as the heroes and the humans as the cannon fodder, and that would be a far more satisfying viewing experience as a whole.

Of course, we could return in 2018 (HBO has said that production logistics make it very unlikely season 2 will air next year) with still more mysteries the audience will get to play Sherlock Holmes with when Nolan and Joy at most expected Scooby and Shaggy. But hopefully the experience of seeing the internet crowdsource the season-long William/Man in Black secret by the end of episode 2 will lead them to heed Charlotte’s advice to make the storytelling more straightforward, because “This place is complicated enough as it is.”

Some other thoughts:

* I was just about to hit send on my emailed notes about the episode when the closing credits came to an end and suddenly we were back in the Delos labs with Armistice trying to free the arm that was trapped in the blast door, then simply cutting the thing off so she can keep fighting against the terrified and woefully unprepared guards. Post-credits scenes certainly aren’t unusual in this day and age (even if the best ones involve Nick Fury and/or shawarma), but it was a new device for a show that hadn’t done it before, and one I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you missed. Fortunately, it was more of a badass action beat than some huge chunk of the plot without which the finale/season wouldn’t make sense.

* Those Delos offices, meanwhile, offer our first glimpse of the other parks, as they’re full of samurai warriors and other pieces of various Asian cultures. The movie featured two parks besides Westworld — one set in medieval times, the other in ancient Rome — and we don’t yet know how many parks there are here, nor whether Westworld is the “Park 1” where Maeve’s daughter currently resides.

* Maeve’s decision to get off the train and go back for her daughter is frustrating if you were hoping she would be our conduit to see what the world outside the park really looks like. I also wonder how she’ll be able to move freely around the park (whether Westworld or one of the others) now that there’s ample video evidence of her masterminding this jailbreak with Hector and Armistice. Assuming, of course, that Delos isn’t too busy with the larger robot uprising to even notice.

* Though the Man in Black was a tiresome character when he was the guy who knew everything and could kill anyone without being harmed, Ed Harris’ performance became a whole lot more fun once the older William proved capable of being both hurt and surprised by the hosts. In that way, you can appreciate his quest to change the rules so the hosts can fight back.

* Though the opening scene, like a lot of this season’s scenes about Dolores’ development, was very evocative of Ex Machina, credit to the show’s VFX team for making the half-finished Dolores look so real and matter-of-fact.

* Upon learning that Bernard is a robot, Felix understandably begins wondering if he’s one himself. In fact, some of you speculated that the entire Delos staff beyond Ford was made up of hosts programmed to not know they were hosts, but Maeve helpfully shuts that theory down by informing Felix that he’s a human — later paying him a compliment by saying he’s terrible at being one.

* It’s a bit funny that Felix and Sylvester wound up getting a lot more screen time over the season than several characters played by more pedigreed actors. As we end the season, Theresa is definitely dead, Elsie probably is, and Stubbs (last seen being attacked by the Native American hosts) could go either way, depending on the needs of the season 2 plot. On the whole, this seems a poor use of Sidse Babett Knudsen, Shannon Woodward, and the third Hemsworth. And given what a thin character Charlotte turned out to be even by Westworld standards, I wouldn’t be all that upset if we return next season to find out that she was killed by one of Dolores’ many stray bullets.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com