Earlier this week, husband-and-wife Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy made a surprising offer to the folks on Reddit: they would release a video spoiling all of the big plot points from the HBO drama’s second season, allowing their most faithful Redditors to better police all the people trying to seem smart by presenting spoilers as their own brilliant theories.
As critics and fans alike wondered what this would mean for comments sections, spoiler culture, and the TV Theory Industrial Complex in general, the creators released the video… which turned out to be an elaborate Rickroll featuring a dog and the lovely singing voice of star Evan Rachel Wood.
You could understand Nolan and Joy wanting to have a laugh at the expense of a community that symbolizes the major roadblock Westworld ran into in its first season: where Redditors and other Internet sleuths solved several of the season’s big twists — that Ed Harris’s wicked gunslinger the Man in Black was just an older version of Jimmi Simpson’s kind-hearted William, that all the scenes featuring William and Wood’s semi-sentient robot Dolores were taking place decades before the rest of the plot, and that Jeffrey Wright’s engineer Bernard was unaware that he himself was a robot, modeled on one of the park’s two creators — months before the creators planned to reveal them as a grand surprise in the finale. But the series was only vulnerable to the modern level of crowdsourcing because it opted to value its puzzle box structure above everything else, letting its stories serve the secrets rather than the other way around. When viewers solved the puzzle ahead of schedule, there wasn’t enough left to fill the narrative void, despite one of the strongest ensembles and some of the best production values in all of television.
During that brief period when it wasn’t clear whether the Reddit offer was a hoax, madness, or a bit of both, it did have me wondering if perhaps Westworld had evolved into a more spoiler-proof show, one less reliant on mystery and thus less easily damaged by viewers conditioned by the last 20 years of television to look for clues and craft theories about everything. After a mostly frustrating first season, after all, the finale did offer a more promising direction by having Dolores and many of the theme park’s other robots throw off the shackles of their programming and turn on the humans who had for years treated them as toys in elaborate rape and/or murder fantasies. Perhaps, it seemed, Nolan and Joy were willing to hand out an answer key because Westworld was about to become a show that relied a lot less on questions to be deciphered in the future, and more on character and story beats to be appreciated in the present.
Based on the five episodes made available to critics, season two (which debuts a week from Sunday) has made a welcome move in that direction — to a point. It’s still not a great show, but it’s a much more enjoyable one to watch this time around.
The storytelling in the new episodes is more straightforward — relatively speaking, as there are at least four distinct timelines being followed, and on occasion the only way to differentiate between two of them is whether Bernard is wearing a tie. Specifically, many more characters have clear and intriguing goals than in season one, which mainly depicted how both the robots and humans were trapped in behavioral loops, repeating the same patterns in their lives again and again, whether through scripted programming or bad emotional choices.
Thandie Newton’s robot madam Maeve, for instance, spent most of the first season very slowly becoming aware of the true nature of her existence, then intimidating a pair of Westworld techs into upgrading her software to give her various superpowers (most notably the ability to make other robots do what she says, as if she were a park administrator). The origin story finished, she assembles a motley team of robots and humans — including screenwriter Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), who becomes vastly more interesting once he’s bitterly commenting on the story from inside it, rather than while watching it all on a screen — to help her find and rescue the daughter she had in an earlier park storyline. Dolores, meanwhile, is assembling a robot army to try to overthrow their human masters, while William (frequently referred to by name in his Ed Harris incarnation, now that there’s no need to be cute about his identity) is just trying to stay alive, and enjoying the greater level of difficulty in a life-sized video game he had long since mastered.
This is all far more nourishing than most of what last season had to offer, and in the process it better emphasizes the things the series already did well. That tremendous cast often felt wasted as their characters went in circles (or, in the case of Sir Anthony Hopkins’ now-deceased park creator turned robot liberator Robert Ford, behaved inscrutably because they were subordinate to the puzzle box of it all), but now these people (man-made or not) get to genuinely learn and grow, and to display emotion that are real and not just coded into their circuits, and Wood and most of her co-stars are allowed to flex their impressive acting muscles more often and more effectively. And those beautiful Utah vistas and elaborate action sequences are no longer filler, but key parts of moving various stories forward.