There was one funny moment in this season of Westworld. In Episode 3, Bernard and Charlotte Hale knock out Rebus, one of the park’s bandits, and Bernard hacks into Rebus’s code and changes him from a violent kidnapper into “the most virtuous, quickest gun in the West.” Rebus walks back down the hill to the guests, who he had just tied up at gunpoint, and promptly shoots all of his fellow kidnappers. “It’s OK, I won’t let them harm you!” Rebus says to the panicked guests. When one woman runs away, Rebus chases her.
“Wait!” Rebus yells. “Bandits are all through these hills! I’ll escort you! Keep ya safe!”
A lack of comedy might not seem like the biggest issue with Westworld right now. Season 2’s storytelling was haphazard and incoherent. Some of the most basic questions were either empty or never answered (how did Teddy’s body end up in the sea?). The entire season felt more like a treasure hunt than a television show. Westworld might not even know what kind of show it wants to be. The dominant question for the main character—Is this now?—became the rallying cry of an audience confused by what was happening, and when.
Multiple timelines can be trimmed, convoluted plots can be simplified, but just as big a problem for the show is that the robot characters still feel … robotic. Westworld is obsessed with how hosts relate to the human psyche, and the thesis of Season 1 was that personhood stems from grappling with suffering. Yet somehow the show has avoided one of the fundamental avenues for processing suffering: laughter.
Laughter is not well understood in science, but some theories suggests that it helps regulate our emotions.
“If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you’re almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can’t function well,” Oriana Aragón, a psychology professor at Clemson University, told The Atlantic in 2014 after publishing a study on the topic. “Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions.”
“We laugh so we don’t cry” isn’t just a cliché, but Westworld never lets characters find joy in things big or small. Dolores, Maeve, Teddy, Lawrence, and the other hosts are tasked with portraying the depth of human suffering without the full range of human emotion. Injecting humor can’t solve the show’s basic storytelling issues, but as long as the series refuses to acknowledge the role that laughter plays in processing reality, the hosts will be stuck on their character plateau—and viewers will be stuck with an overserious show that never lightens the mood.
It’s not always easy (or appropriate) to make jokes in a serious world depicting serious violence, but Westworld has a comedic gold mine at its disposal. Every host as at least 120 attribute sliders that can be set between zero and 100 percent, including strength, sarcasm, curiosity, literalism, spirituality, strength, narcissism, self-esteem, pride, forgetfulness, laziness, and, of course, humor. Westworld is a factory of manufactured awkwardness, yet the show never seems to be in on the joke. From Teddy and Dolores having sex, to Maeve and the gang finding their clones in Shogun World, to James Delos finding out he already died, every episode lets moments ripe for levity slip by. Don’t we deserve one scene when Clementine’s honesty is turned to 100 percent and she tells Anthony Hopkins, “I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but you sounded so smart when you said it”?
This lack of self-awareness is even more frustrating because modern mega-franchises have become excellent at poking fun at themselves. Jurassic World begins with Chris Pratt ranting about product placement. Thor spends most of Avengers: Infinity War with two characters and doesn’t learn their names (“This is my friend, tree”) as if he is tapping on the fourth wall to say, “I can’t keep track of everyone in this movie, either.” In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rey tells Luke Skywalker that she thought the force was “a power the Jedi have that lets them control people and … make things float.” In Game of Thrones, Bronn loses it when a man introduces himself as Dickon.
If Marvel, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones can make fun of themselves, so can the show about robot cowboys. It might even be less optional for Westworld than just about any other prestige franchise. Westworld is about self-awareness, but how self-aware is a character—or a television show—that can’t make fun of itself?
Westworld has plenty of other problems to fix if it wants to occupy the place in the TV pantheon between Game of Thrones and Lost that it seems to covet. Making the timeline coherent, the plot digestible, and answering the questions laid out is a good start, but all that will be pointless if it doesn’t come with proper character development. For the hosts to seem human—both as robots and as TV characters—they need a sense of humor. Now that Season 3 will feature Bernard and Dolores as two country robots navigating the big (human) city, the comedic potential has never been higher. If Westworld wants to focus on the darkness in this world, it needs to lighten up.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.