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.
The show still has a tendency to get too cute in its shuffling between timelines, particularly by leaving a brain-damaged Bernard feeling unstuck in time, so at a loss to differentiate between the order of events that he frequently asks — in a line echoing what some viewers may wonder — “Is this now?” (It’s an ongoing waste of Jeffrey Wright, particularly at a moment when Bernard’s discovery that he’s not a real boy should be giving him no end of meaty things to play.) And the puzzle box isn’t completely shut and put away, as all the characters are in search of something the young William built at the far end of the park, referred to by various vague nicknames (“Glory,” “The Valley Beyond”) to keep the audience from figuring out what it is — which of course means Reddit will have detailed blueprints for it within a week or two.
But Westworld has, like its sympathetic automatons, evolved and gotten better at its chosen tasks. The episodes are all long (a few running well over an hour), but they move briskly and have just enough of a cheeky sense of humor (particularly whenever Maeve and Sizemore are around) that they don’t feel like a slog. It also helps that the show-within-the-show of the various Delos parks allows the series to occasionally put the arcs on pause to tell what are essentially standalone stories where the regulars get caught up in different park narratives, like an episode where Maeve’s group wanders into the Japanese-themed Shogun World(*). There are still more characters than the series knows what to do with (every time Luke Hemsworth reappears as security chief Stubbs, I have to remind myself that he’s still on the show), but for the most part, characters and narrative threads feel more consolidated. The regulars have their own agendas, but you can see how all the paths will intersect now that everyone has stopped fumbling around in the dark while Nolan and Joy waited to raise a curtain that many of their viewers had already figured out how to peek behind.
(*) Nolan’s previous series, CBS’ underrated Person of Interest, initially leaned too far in the other direction of the procedural/serialized ratio before finding a satisfying balance between the two. Westworld isn’t built to come close to that, but even spending a large chunk of an episode on something unrelated to the ongoing arcs is satisfying in both the short-term (an entertaining, action-packed story largely wrapped up in an hour) and long-term (ongoing stories don’t feel too elongated just because there are 10 episodes to fill).
As William succinctly puts it, “The stakes are real in this place now. Real consequences.”
It’s not nearly as deep as it often presents itself as being, but it’s more fun than it used to be, and much more conscious of its strengths and weaknesses, and of the many different ways people might watch and think about the show. At one point, Bernard and a colleague debate whether to pursue their current course of investigation. “Maybe we don’t want to know,” a nervous Bernard suggests, while his colleague insists, “We have to see what’s inside.” In another episode, he replies to one of Dolores’ philosophical questions, and when he sees her disappointment, he admits, “That answer doesn’t seem to satisfy you.”
Some habits may be impossible for Westworld to entirely break — William complains that some of the robots still speak in code, even after Ford’s agenda has been revealed, to which the robot replies, “Everything is code here, William” — but on the whole, season two left me a more satisfied and entertained visitor to this park, and this show.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.