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The Haphazard Storytelling of ‘Westworld’ Season 2

The finale of the show’s second installment was expected to tie up loose ends. It succeeded only in making more of them.

HBO/Ringer illustration

As the hosts in Westworld’s first season took steps toward gaining consciousness, they hit a few roadblocks. Maeve scoffed at the idea that she was following some predetermined narrative code until Felix the lab tech showed her a word-for-word script of a response that she had just given as she was programmed to. Bernard had a similar coming-to-Jesus moment that resulted in his stuttering uncontrollably — the Pinwheel of Death in A.I. form — until Ford snapped him back into focus. These cognitive limitations were a necessary part of the show — why begin Westworld when the robots are already awake? Part of Westworld’s initial thrill was in the hosts’ own self-discovery.

Season 1’s other discernible trait was its theory-obsessed fan culture: In the spirit of Lost (that show’s cocreator J.J. Abrams is also an executive producer on Westworld), the original Twin Peaks, and current shows like Mr. Robot, Westworld was as much a homework assignment as a viewing experience. To be an active participant in the Westworld experience was to try to sort through the show’s clues. Little moments that seemed innocuous to the casual viewer were tinfoil-hat fodder for others. This was by design: Showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan acknowledge Westworld’s unique relationship to its redditors, to the point that they did an exhaustive Rickroll to mess with them after promising to spoil the entire second season. A series catering to a theory-inclined fan base isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but if the show wants to do that, it must match the ambition and diligence of its most fervent followers.

Unfortunately, Westworld’s second season has reached a cognitive plateau of its own doing. The show’s creators didn’t seem like game-changing auteurs so much as snake oil salespeople with a thesaurus of philosophical and biblical references for heavy-handed metaphors that would stoke the Reddit flames. What we have now is a purposefully confusing series, and even its creators may not know exactly where it’s headed.

The use of multiple timelines in Westworld’s first season might’ve been aggravating, but it had a purpose: The twist realization that William was just a young Man in Black explained his uniquely distasteful approach to the park’s narratives and furthered Dolores’s character arc. In the Season 2 finale, “The Passenger,” we finally found out why we needed to follow Bernard around in two timelines that were just two weeks from each other: Westworld was preserving another twist. This time, it was the reveal that Charlotte Hale in the present timeline wasn’t actually Charlotte, but rather Dolores’s consciousness in a Charlotte host body after the real Charlotte was killed.

The twist itself was thrilling and unexpected, not least of all because the original Charlotte was so comically one-dimensional that even Tessa Thompson couldn’t make the character work (really, can anyone say, “Either we destroy them or they destroy us,” and not sound like a total dweeb?). But consider Westworld’s priorities: It spent the entire second season in a confusing temporal web to keep this single moment hidden from its viewers. It’s one thing to make narrative decisions to keep the audience guessing; it’s another to hijack a season for one shocking moment that doesn’t do anything to service its characters. The end doesn’t justify the painstaking means.

But the Charlotte-Dolores moment was the reason the showrunners created the season’s framework in the way that they did; the same can’t be said about the absurd Ashley Stubbs reveal. At the end of the finale, Stubbs, one of the park’s security men (played by the Other Hemsworth Brother), heavily implies that he is also a host, designed to help protect other hosts as they eventually gain consciousness. He hints that he’s aware that Charlotte is really Dolores, and sends her on her way to the real world. What the hell? Westworld didn’t do anything to set up the Stubbs twist. As Fred Toye, who directed “The Passenger,” told Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson, co-showrunner Nolan “literally wrote [the Stubbs host reveal] the night before they shot it.” (Hemsworth reacted with “oh shit,” which is fair considering none of this was planned!) Reddit can parse through old Stubbs scenes to try to explain how the twist was hiding in plain sight the whole time, but it would be disingenuous to what really happened: Westworld threw in a last-minute audible just because it could. This was a jumbled mess, as was the Man in Black’s absurd post-credits scene, which hinged on elevator-related sleight-of-hand.

Such haphazard storytelling isn’t just reserved for tertiary characters, but also where Westworld is headed. When Dolores leaves the park for the real world, she brings along company in the form of five — at the very least; there could always be more — spheres containing the consciousnesses of other hosts. One of those little balls probably contains Bernard, considering the season ends with Dolores reviving him. But what of the other balls and potential hosts? As Nolan told Entertainment Weekly, they aren’t sure just yet: “Who remains and who doesn’t is something we’re having a lot of fun with.”

While we can’t expect showrunners to map out every detail of their show, to see creators publicly juggle the fates of the series’s central cast members between seasons is … disconcerting. “The Passenger” was ambitious in its willingness to kill off important characters, but these deaths are undercut by the show’s lack of rules: Is Maeve really dead, or is she salvageable? We don’t know, because the show might not, either.

Westworld is returning for a third season, but until it does — which, thankfully, might not be until late 2019 or 2020 — Nolan and Joy need to reconfigure their approach to puzzle-box storytelling. To reach the zeitgeist-grabbing heights of Twin Peaks and Lost, Westworld needs to achieve a balance between its twisty, timeline-obsessed framings and a story that isn’t undercut just to service those moments. (Also, if you’re going to suddenly make a human character a robot, hopefully you’ll come to this decision a little sooner than the night before shooting a pivotal scene.)

There’s still hope: With Dolores and Bernard ostensibly in the real world, perhaps we can see what humans of the future are like while hosts assimilate alongside them, Blade Runner–style. If nothing else, it’s a refreshing change of pace from the trappings of the parks, which were beginning to reach a derivative nadir. In Westworld’s future, Westworld the park should be put in the rearview. It would behoove the series to do the same for its worst storytelling vices.