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What Show Does ‘Westworld’ Want to Be?

‘Kiksuya,’ an emotional bottle episode, demonstrates the potential of the series—and also highlights recent shortcomings

HBO/Ringer illustration

Sunday’s “Kiksuya,” a spotlight on the Native American robot “host” Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), was one of Westworld’s best episodes this season, tracking Akecheta’s burgeoning self-awareness and cruel separation from his wife. It also stood out for providing what the rest of the second season has not: a compact narrative, emotional stakes, and a manageable short-term story. Watching the episode, I was struck by how effective the show can be when it prioritizes clarity, concision, and personality. I was also struck by how rarely the show makes those kinds of choices.

The first season of Westworld took its time. Over 10 episodes, creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy introduced a world where artificially conscious androids slowly became conscious for real, unbeknownst to the wealthy humans paying top dollar to rape and pillage in the namesake park. But Westworld spent the entire season building to what was essentially the series’ inciting incident: the opening salvo of the host-on-guest assault everyone knew was coming. To buy time, Westworld obscured basic elements of its own premise. When and where was all this happening? Why does Westworld exist and for whose benefit? And, most crucially: What do its characters want?

Westworld’s first season included plenty of reasons to keep watching: alluring performances, hints at complex themes, elaborate set pieces. There was also the unshakable feeling that the season was essentially a long wind-up to the real story—the hosts’ open rebellion against their makers. The Season 1 finale even climaxed with a symbolic act of baton-passing: Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the newly awakened host who could now remember all of the show’s various timelines, killing Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the park founder who knew everything but told the viewer nothing. The mascot for Westworld’s withholding approach had been replaced by one for a more straightforward version of the show. The wait for the other shoe to drop was over.

But now, with just two episodes left in the season, the limitations of Westworld’s storytelling seem to have ossified, even as the show continues to deliver occasional flashes of excitement. Questions (What happened to Ford’s cofounder, Arnold? Who is Wyatt?) have been replaced by yet more questions (What’s the Valley Beyond? Why does Delos want a hard drive so badly?). Protracted mysteries, delayed reveals, and fractured narratives aren’t temporary interest-drivers; they’re permanent parts of Westworld, and they handicap its potential as a drama rather than a scavenger hunt. Even late-breaking exceptions like “Kiksuya” are a reminder of both the show’s potential, and its inability to regularly deliver on that promise. (Plus its propensity to pile on side stories and new conundrums in place of solid world-building.)

As in its predecessor, the second season of Westworld splits itself into two primary timelines. But where the Season 1 gap between William (Jimmi Simpson) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) yielded insight on what decades in the park could do to a man, this season’s timelines thus far lack a purpose deeper than filling space. Characters on both sides of the temporal split share the exact same goal: locating the control chip of a host named Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum), who’s been uploaded with … some set of data Delos desperately wants to get its hands on. In the present timeline, the continued vagueness around what that data is makes it increasingly difficult to maintain interest in the search and the people conducting it. In the flashbacks, the vacuum at the plot’s center is increasingly obvious. The fulcrum on which the timeline split currently rests is a sea filled with host bodies discovered by Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), who claims he killed them. The problem is that, on a show which systematically portrays casual mass murder, hundreds of hosts’ deaths feel like a logical consequence of Westworld’s events—which means there’s little urgency to the events leading up to the massacre, especially when the audience knows the hunt for Abernathy will still be on weeks later.

Westworld’s structure inevitably affects the players operating within it. Despite a typically magnetic performance from Hopkins, Ford was one of the weakest parts of Season 1—a bon-mot-dropping enigma without a clear relationship with his own creations, an early example of the show’s investment in generating mystique over building complex, rewarding characters. The finale was satisfying in part because it provided much-needed insight into Ford’s goals—he’d been working behind the scenes to foment a robot revolution—and then killed him off once he’d accomplished them. But now that Ford’s “new narrative” has taken over the park, the problems with his character, or lack thereof, have metastasized to include almost all of the show’s protagonists. Dolores, the appointed leader of Ford’s insurrection, has some kind of master plan beyond killing as many humans as possible—but as viewers, we’re not privy to any of the details, and likely won’t be until the season is almost over. (Like father, like daughter.) The same goes for Delos and its intentions for Abernathy’s data, which renders its onsite representative Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) uniformly one-note. Meanwhile, Ford’s game turns out to be not a euphemism for unleashing the hosts, but an actual game, which William is now playing to no obvious end in a beat-for-beat repeat of his arc from last season.

Most tellingly of all, Ford himself is back, bringing the attendant baggage with him. (Apparently, he’d had Bernard, really a host clone of Arnold, upload his consciousness to the cloud, where he’d been thwarting attempts to shut down the uprising as a ghost inside the machine.) This development only compounds my colleague Claire McNear’s complaint that, for a series with so much gore, Westworld can feel oddly devoid of stakes. Once Ford takes over Bernard’s body and resumes forcing him to do his bidding, it also takes a toll on one of Westworld’s richer veins: a newly self-aware consciousness coming to terms with his identity and divided loyalties between hosts and humans. Bernard has been reduced to a puppet, one with little time to devote to the fascinating questions brought up by his existence.

The trajectory of Maeve (Thandie Newton), a savvy host who consciously decides to look for her programmed daughter instead of escaping the park, argues that emotions—even manufactured ones—give life meaning, and should be embraced. Watching Westworld this season, it’s hard to avoid speculating about what the show might look like if it actually adopted Maeve’s point of view. Such a series would probably include more hours like “Kiksuya,” a rare relatively stand-alone episode with a complete story centered on the wants and desires of a single character. The episode does further Westworld’s larger plot, retroactively explaining why Ghost Nation members have a maze symbol tattooed on their scalps and haven’t been killing humans under the park’s new regime. But its primary value is in how the episode imbues Akecheta with pathos and discernible incentives: find his wife, because he loves her; wake up the other hosts, because they deserve to know what’s being done to them; escape Westworld, because the hosts don’t belong in a prison.

“Kiksuya” ends with Akecheta promising to protect Maeve’s daughter from the chaos in the park, establishing a direct connection between one of Westworld’s strongest episodes and the story line that could most easily and effectively build on the hour’s lessons. True to the show, however, even Maeve’s bond with her artificial child appears to be part of some larger design, one that’s causing Maeve to manifest telepathic superpowers. It’s certainly impressive to watch her compel other hosts to impale themselves or otherwise do her bidding. But Maeve’s abilities don’t inspire the speculation they’re intended to, because they’re not rooted in the sense of individuality that otherwise makes her so compelling; they’re inflicted on Maeve—both within the show, likely by Ford, and outside of it, by the writers—rather than achieved by her. Westworld’s latest mystery is yet another example of plot being imposed on characters rather than arising from them. Just because a show makes itself hard to figure out doesn’t mean it’s always worth it to try.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.