There was a thrilling scene in a recent episode of Westworld. As “Virtù e Fortuna” began, we were given our first glimpse of another Delos park, this one apparently constructed to resemble the British Raj. Two new human characters, a man and a woman, met and, as so often happens in Westworld, soon spilled blood and swapped fluids. Then things went south: The wave of haywire hosts and guest-directed violence that has dominated this season in the main Westworld park appears to hit the Raj park, sending the pair fleeing. There were shotguns and White Stripes riffs and an open-field, flying tackle by a Bengal tiger. But more than that—suddenly, there were stakes. Two humans, both of them reasonably compelling in their first minutes on screen, were fighting for their lives. How exciting! And, on Westworld, more and more rare.
One of the underlying ideas of the show’s first season was that the park’s hosts were more than chatty Roombas; they were capable of being textured and complicated beings, just as intelligent and feeling as the park’s human guests.
How disappointing, then, that Season 2 has backslid so thoroughly. It is, in theory, fine that most of Westworld’s characters are cyborgs—Dolores, we’re told, is every bit as rich an antihero as Ed Harris’s Man in Black—but the show hasn’t bothered to flesh out many of its non-flesh-and-blood characters. Clementine continues to vacantly stride between scenes; Dolores’s de facto second-in-command, Angela, has a personality that consists in its entirety of vague anger and headbands. Some skimping on character-building is inevitable for a show with this much ground to cover; we’re now chasing separate, and increasingly disparate, arcs with Dolores, Maeve, Bernard, the Man in Black, and past William, plus (until the final beat of last Sunday’s “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” anyway) Grace, of Raj-and-tiger fame. But the fact that we’re meeting a lot of characters in a short (well, kind of) amount of time shouldn’t have to mean watching the show devolve into meaningless chaos.
One of the more pivotal sequences “The Riddle of the Sphinx” featured the Man in Black ambushed alongside his frequent cyborg sidekick, Lawrence, on a visit to Lawrence’s village. There, a leader of the oft-antagonizer Confederados, Major Craddock, was terrorizing the townsfolk, murdering and threatening, and blowing off poor, kindly bartenders’ hands in an attempt to locate a cache of weapons. Violence ensued, capped by a bloody shootout—but it was hard to get worked up about any of it. Couldn’t Craddock’s victims simply be revived at some later date, as Craddock himself was earlier this season? Now that we know that Lawrence’s wife and daughter are artificial contrivances, what are we supposed to make of their tearful reunions? And was Craddock necessarily even a real villain to begin with?
There are still a handful of real humans traipsing around Westworld: the Man in Black, Grace, an assortment of Delos employees, and bejeweled stragglers from the gala in the Season 1 finale. The difference in drama here is real: Where hosts might be after freedom or revenge, the park’s humans are trying to survive. But even their mortality is downplayed. You might think that the fact that humans are uniquely able to die a real and final death would be of interest to the hosts who’ve learned the truth about Westworld—which is nearly all of the principals at that point. And yet it goes mostly ignored, with host immortality mostly held up as a party trick, and not a signature strength over their one-time overlords. Seeing Craddock, whose earlier revival would suggest he grasps at least some of what’s going on, torture human captives—even some of the gussied-up party guests who, somehow, have survived this long without catching either cholera or personality traits—would be a much more jarring demonstration of barbarism. Instead, we see him rough up a number of fellow hosts, most of whom we’d never even seen before and all of whose deaths are decidedly un-final. For Westworld, even the Great Cyborg Awakening couldn’t snap hosts out of disposable, redshirt status, and we’re given precious few characters—host or human—to root for. Or, indeed, against.
Also generally ignored: the scattering of handheld control panels that might best be considered “magic iPads.” Once you know that Delos’s magic iPads can bring hosts back to life or, as with Maeve, radically alter personalities and capabilities, you would think that these would take on an intense importance. Instead, Dolores uses her own magic iPad as a show of force, but doesn’t seem interested in it beyond that (or in—just spitballing here—making sure no one cracks its screen). We’ve learned that some elements of host personality aren’t fungible—Maeve still loves her daughter no matter what—but for the most part, they are. This season, we saw Rebus, heretofore a violent lecher through and through, emerge from a brief magic iPad session as kind and helpful a frontiersman as anyone should hope to meet—what Bernard dubbed “the most virtuous, quickest gun in the West.”
It’s hard to think much of Westworld’s cyborg baddies. Was Craddock truly cruel, or did he just have his “mean” setting turned all the way up? Are the heavily face-painted warriors, the show’s favorite dramatic deus ex machina, really monsters, or do they just need someone to adjust their personalities to something a little less cartoonishly abysmal?
Westworld is at an impasse. There’s reason for hope, however: “The Riddle of the Sphinx” concluded with the first meaningful linkup of human characters in quite some time, and we may find in their journey some tension beyond a hard reboot. To get there, though, we’ll need some modicum of self-awareness—a trait, apparently, that no magic iPad can control.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.