Rule no. 1 of watching Westworld is succumbing to the fact nobody knows what the hell is happening in Westworld. HBO’s big-budget adaptation of Michael Crichton’s cult 1973 flick (and, more so this season, aspects of its Crichton-less 1976 sequel, Futureworld) has confounded viewers from the jump and left critics teetering somewhere between befuddled and beguiled. To some extent, that’s the point. Yet, as evidenced by ratings hitting steadily in the million-plus-viewer range, we can’t stop watching this show about people watching people watching robots staring back at people.
Westworld is simultaneously unknowable and instantly familiar, which again, is a feature and not a bug. The bad news is showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s heady, hugely ambitious saga probably won’t temper its time-jumping, meta-curious tendencies any time soon. But refreshingly, You The Viewer needn’t fret over how its disparate timelines fit together. Let that be William’s bane, because as the boundaries within the fictionalized park itself have broken down, some big-picture themes and arcs have come to the fore, gifting those at home with an opportunity to immerse themselves in a virtual adventure of their choosing. We are all now Westworld’s guests, and here are a handful of perspectives (among many) from which you can explore its narrative crevasses without worrying about when or how it all adds up.
Westworld: The Mystery
Season 1 may have been largely a meditation on consciousness, but its crux was the mystery box presented by William’s identity, and the riddle-solvers still have plenty to mull in Season 2. How heavy a hand did Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins, largely in absentia this season) have in preprogramming the current robot uprising and to what end? For that matter, is he definitely dead, and what does dead even mean on this show anymore when life is something that can be both carefully engineered and ruthlessly rendered obsolete? (Did he metaphorically “become music” or did he literally become one with the OS?) Delos employees and endless searchers like William are still circling the maze for meaning, while Maeve makes her way through worlds in pursuit of her estranged daughter and Dolores doubles down on her merciless mission for answers and reunification with her cattle-herding pop. (And we’re as intrigued as anyone else about what lies beneath the depths of that lake.) Elsie may have been found, and we know Bernard came into existence as Arnold incarnate, and William slowly slipped away into some vengeful carcass of his former self, but there are plenty of revelations remaining (including exactly how Mr. Man in Black so repelled his late wife, Juliet, and adventuresome daughter, Emily). What exactly happened between the host uprising and when Bernard woke up on the beach? (And why are Karl Strand and Charlotte Hale treating Bernard so strangely?) For all its new timelines and philosophical nuances, Westworld has been reliably forthcoming with its twists and character turns, and as we round the bend to this season’s second half, more meaningful connections await.
Westworld: The Timely Meditation on Tyranny and Tribalism
If philosophy is your cup of tea, this path is for you. Yes, there is a literal Native American tribe taking scalps and scaring the bejesus out of folks, but in the larger sense this season’s clearly focused on assessing the full value of freedom. Already, hundreds of humans (that term admittedly relative at this midway point) and hosts have been humbled and slain in the name of self-possession. Whether it’s William, Maeve, Dolores, Hector, Charlotte, Angela, or even twerpy Lee (Simon Quarterman, making the most of his newfound usefulness), to some extent everyone has their notions of what’s fair and just and free and what they’re willing to do to take it. They’re all on the cusp of some new world, or at least of how they perceive the one they’re in, and it’s already clear how quickly—and some might argue necessarily—fundamental preservation curdles into something corrupt. All of which is often far more interesting to mull over than how Emily managed to survive being mauled by a massive robot Bengal tiger.
Westworld: The Self-Referential Genre Show
Westworld is already a show-within-a-show—all of this world is literally a stage, after all—but there are lots of other subtextual clues to parse. Sitting down for 60 minutes of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s head trip isn’t quite like the popcorn ride of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One or one of Quentin Tarantino’s quotable tributes to his many influences. But Westworld can absolutely be consumed (and has been by some) as a robust diet of Easter eggs and winking nods to its forebears, within its own franchise’s universe or beyond. The recently introduced Shogun World naturally (and rightly) prompted plenty of social media sidebars citing Akira Kurosawa as inspiration. Though the influence of late-period Shaw Brothers shockers like Human Lanterns surfaced as well. (Samurai and the replication of living humans as obedient bots were also seeds planted in Futureworld.) In Episode 4, James Delos’s (how good has Peter Mullan been?) groovy host pad echoed Dave’s post-everything neoclassical bedroom in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Elsewhere, eagle-eyed fans were giddy when a silhouette of Yul Brynner’s iconic Gunslinger from 1973’s Westworld (and, in one very memorable dream sequence, Futureworld) appeared in cold storage last season. And given that Michael Crichton wrote and directed the feature Westworld and penned the novel Jurassic Park (it all comes back to Spielberg), there’s been plenty of online energy spent wishing and wanting the two to coexist. So if nothing else, Westworld the TV series slices through its existential clutter with some interactive fun for know-it-alls and novices alike.
Westworld: The Musical
Prefer an aural experience to a blood-soaked visual journey? Here you go. There were two absolutely perfect musical cues in Episode 5, our foray into Shogun World: One occurred as Maeve, Hector, Armistice, and crew got corralled in the park’s mirror image of Mariposa. A symphonic version of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” paralleled the pilot’s usage, foreshadowing the chaos to ensue. (All of which is rich to begin with, given the Stones’ infamous history with the licensing of string instrumentals.) But having Akane dance to a Far Eastern riff on the Charmels’ “As Long as I’ve Got You”—which was famously sampled by kung-fu-flick obsessives Wu-Tang Clan—before decapitating the Shogun qualified as a truly deep cut. All along, Westworld’s non-original soundtrack selections have been somehow too on the nose and simultaneously sublime, baring the bones of songs by classic and contemporary artists including Kanye, Radiohead, the Cure, the Animals, and Nine Inch Nails to enrich the atmosphere of a place pitting past against future. Waiting for Westworld’s next auditory prompt can be as rewarding as stumbling into its surreal narrative clues.
Westworld: The Post-#MeToo Empowerment Tale
Dolores was the protagonist of Season 1, and despite her current moral ambivalence she’s still taking names at a stunningly cathartic clip. Even if the once even-tempered farmer’s daughter kind of spoiled her and Teddy’s “will they or won’t they?” magic at the end of the last episode, Dolores’s turnabout was also a startling role reversal of how that scene might normally play out, and the way it was patterned to per Westworld code. Neither she nor Maeve—who, as the more compassionate and emotionally/intellectually curious of the two, represents a polar-opposite archetype of heroism and an insight into what a middle ground between Teddy’s timidity and Dolores’s cavalierness might look like—is waiting a second longer to get closer to true independence and what they deserve. They continue to enfeeble and ruin any man who’s either too weak-minded or mired in some antiquated notion of who’s entitled to what to help upend the status quo. Evan Rachel Wood has been very candid about how this season has emerged as a personal catharsis and clear commentary on whose time is up. Westworld on the whole has responded to the cultural movement that’s taken root since Season 1 wrapped by fast-tracking its female hosts’ evolutions. And as Lee and others (be they of flesh and blood or virtual hearts) have learned, and William probably will soon, the status quo is a bug, not a feature.
As the curtain gets pulled back on the breadth of Dr. Ford’s experiment, seeing the spectacle is bittersweet. We’re effectively witnessing a time-lapse, redramatized deterioration of history’s great societies from a cliff overlooking humankind’s uncertain tilt. (Either that or we’re watching a dime novel writ large.) Viewed glass half-full, Westworld’s appeal at this juncture has less to do with the sum of its parts than how its parts scatter and subsume. But unlike William or Dolores or the other tortured souls trapped in its maze, we can kick back with the benefit of virtual distance and observe Westworld from whatever angle we find either most comforting or compelling. Because, to quote Radiohead, today we escape.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.