Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Get to the Next Screen: Thoughts on Westworld's Second Season

When I wrote about Westworld's first season eighteen months ago, it was with profound annoyance at the show's reliance on twists and revelations, to the detriment of some of the interesting ideas about personhood and consciousness that the season tooled around with but never really explored.  I wasn't alone in making this criticism, and creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have subsequently backed off some of their more elaborate (and unsatisfying) structural choices.  But the result hasn't been all we could have hoped for.  In 2016, I was annoyed by Westworld.  In 2018, I was bored by it.  Removing the show's central gimmick, it turned out, only revealed a sad truth: that despite its sumptuous production values, gorgeous shooting locations, and amazing cast, what you find at the center of Westworld's maze is a great big blank.  That after producing twenty-three or -four hours of material, this show still isn't any closer to articulating what it's actually about.

I mean, really, what actually happens in season two?  The best of the season's storylines is probably the one involving Maeve (Thandie Newton), which is already a huge warning sign, because on paper Maeve's story is nothing but a great big runaround.  She spends the season chasing after her daughter--despite the very logical objections of almost everyone she meets, who point out that the host in question isn't her child in any way and that the feelings of love Maeve feels for her were imposed by the same people who pimped her out to be raped and murdered repeatedly by the park's guests.  Nevertheless, Maeve insists on her goal, and thus proceeds along a Perils of Pauline-like plot in which she encounters one obstacle and setback after another.  It works mainly because Newton is so amazing in the role, combining wit, humor, warmth, and determination.  Also, because it's the storyline that incorporates the season's two best episodes, each focusing on a different secondary character--Rinko Kikuchi's head geisha Akane, Maeve's counterpart in Westworld's Japanese-themed neighbor Shogun World; and Zahn McClarnon's Akecheta, head of Westworld's mysterious Ghost Nation tribe.  But it's also the storyline least connected to the season's thematic and conceptual load, and impacting the least on the show's main story, the conflict between the hosts and the park's owners, the Delos Corporation.

Meanwhile, easily the worst storyline in the season is also the one that is supposedly driving this conflict, the journey of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her supporters as they launch the robot revolution.  This is where the bulk of season's violence is concentrated, as Dolores mows her way through humans and hosts alike, and it's probably that--along with her tendency to break out in pseudo-enlightened speechifying--that creates a false sense of significance around this storyline.  But when you look a little closer, it becomes clear that Dolores doesn't really have a plan.  She bounces from one objective to another, and her actions seem designed primarily to produce dramatic set-pieces (and, again, more opportunities for speeches).  Even her final accomplishment, escaping the park in a body built to resemble Delos honcho Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) happens largely because of other people's choices.

Somewhere in the middle is Jeffrey Wright's Bernard, a park administrator revealed last season to be a host.  His storyline features the season's major stylistic flourish, the fact that Bernard's memory has been "de-addressed", leaving him incapable of distinguishing between past and present, between remembering events and living through them.  It's here, as it moves back and forth through the weeks immediately following the breakdown of order in the park, that the show delivers the bulk of its conceptual payload, chiefly in revealing Delos's actual purpose for the park, which the show has teased since its first episode.  This turns out to be using the hosts and the park's systems to spy on the guests in order to model their personalities, in the hopes of later marketing artificial immortality.  (There are, to be clear, some massive problems with this concept, including the never-addressed question of how the park can recreate the hosts' memories, particularly of events that happened outside of it.)  Bernard ends up taking us on a guided tour of the behind the scenes stations where this project is perfected, from Ford's secret lab, where a host copy of company founder Jim Delos (Peter Mullan) has spent decades repeatedly failing "fidelity" tests, to the Cradle, an artificial reality where the guest models are tested and refined, to the Forge, where the copies are stored in their millions, and where the season's final denouement takes place.

Spelling it out like this throws into sharp relief just how nonsensically this project has been designed, as if for no other purpose than to offer consecutive, increasingly dramatic revelations for the viewer.  As Todd VanDerWerff observed in an essay published before this week's finale, Westworld makes a lot more sense if you approach it as something to be "played", rather than watched.  As if the flatness of the characters were intended to make them suitable player surrogates, and the weird, level-like arrangement of its locations and revelations were intended to mimic a player's progress through a game.  But whereas in a game, the sense of accomplishment derived from solving a puzzle or winning a boss fight can obscure a certain thinness in the worldbuilding (or, more precisely, a sense that a world was built for no other purpose than to be discovered by the player in a specific order), there's no corresponding hit of satisfaction that does the same in Westworld.  It becomes impossible not to notice that all the convolutions of plot, all the movement back and forth across the park, is in service of very little.  That the only real purpose of the characters'--and, eventually, the viewers'--actions is getting to the next screen.

It's not that there aren't interesting ideas in the second season of Westworld.  But they all seem to occur in the background, and are rarely given the space they'd need to develop into a coherent theme for the show.  Take, for example, the revelation that park writer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), pressed for time, used the same storylines and character types for Westworld and Shogun World, so that when Maeve and her companions, the outlaw Hector and his silent, tattooed second-in-command Armistice, arrive in Shogun World's central location, they find their exact counterparts, repeating essentially the same stories and the same speeches, with only superficial changes to account for culture.  It's a profound challenge to the characters' sense of self, to which they each react differently--Hector and his double are suspicious of one another, Armistice and hers are instantly fascinated, and Maeve and Kikuchi's Akane forge a deep bond over their shared feelings of bereaved motherhood.  It also allows the show to at least gesture at the racism implicit in its premise, which it also does in Akecheta's story.

Later in the season, Lee, radicalized by his closer view of Maeve's suffering, sacrifices himself in order to allow her, Hector, and Armistice to escape, but does so while delivering one of Hector's speeches, essentially becoming his own character and further blurring the line between host and human.  Perhaps most interestingly, there is the running theme of host characters--Maeve, Dolores, Teddy--questioning whether they should allow themselves to be driven by emotional attachments written into their programs.  (Though the fact that they all end up making the same choice, to follow their programming, suggests that perhaps this is not as interesting a question as I'm assuming.)

All of these, however, are ancillary to the season's main storyline and revelations.  The most interesting idea suggested by the immortality plotline comes very late in the season, when we learn that the reason the park's system have struggled to recreate the guests in host form--they inevitably reach a "cognitive plateau" and go mad--is not that the system isn't sophisticated enough to model a human, but that humans are too simple.  For the park's AIs, it turns out, humans are a solved game.  With only a few thousand lines of code, they can be recreated with perfect fidelity, their every decision anticipated.

Jonathan Nolan's previous show, Person of Interest, toyed with very similar ideas, but approached them in ways that were compassionate and profound.  Westworld, on the other hand, chooses to take this concept in a direction that is cynical and glib.  "Humans can't change", the AI controlling the Forge explains to Dolores and Bernard, and when a digital ghost of park creator Ford (Anthony Hopkins) appears to Bernard in the Cradle and later in the real world, he insists that humans are incapable of grasping the personhood of hosts, and that violent conflict between the two groups is inevitable.  So in only a few steps, we've gone from "humans are completely predictable" to "humans have no free will" to "humans are incapable of learning to see past prejudices and expanding their definition of personhood."

There's a certain superficial attraction here.  Any avid reader knows that one rarely encounters, in real life, people as complex as the ones you find in fiction, and the last eighteen months in particular have been an education for people like me who grew up on fiction that told us villains were multifaceted and intelligent, only to realize that in the real world, bad guys are petty, stupid, and self-absorbed (and no less dangerous for it).  But simple isn't the same as soulless, and predictable isn't the same as inhuman, and it's not clear that the show realizes this--for example, no one ever comments on the fact that the system's conclusions about people's capacity for change are drawn from a sample made up entirely of people rich and bored enough to pay obscene sums of money in order to play an R-rated version of Cowboys and Indians.  It eventually starts to feel as if the show's dim view of people is less a philosophical standpoint, and more a way of justifying its own inability to write interesting characters.

Take, for example, the one human that Westworld does try to imbue with complexity, the Man in Black, AKA William (Ed Harris).  Not unlike his storyline in the first season, he spends the second refusing to be rescued after the robot uprising, and insisting on his right to pursue Ford's latest "game".  In doing so, he becomes convinced that the entire park exists for his benefit, including the human staff and, ultimately, his own daughter Emily (Katja Herbers), whom he kills.  But in his own focus episode at the end of the season, we learn that William has become obsessed with the park because he believes that it holds the key to his inner darkness, something that he has concealed from most people in the real world, covering for it with philanthropy and lies, and which is only suspected by his wife.

To state the obvious, this type of person--a complete sociopath, who somehow doesn't realize this about himself until his thirties, and then spends the next thirty years trying to hide his true nature while simultaneously becoming obsessed with a consequence-free murder playground--doesn't exist anywhere except in (rather pulpy) fiction.  But the problem with William is less that, and more the fact that the version of this character that Westworld offers is extremely unconvincing.  William feels more like an engine for story and shocking moments than a person--he's as inhuman as the most unaware of the hosts.  And while that might be a point the show is trying to make, it doesn't make watching him--or the fact that the narrative refuses to kill him off, despite multiple opportunities and the plain truth that his function in the story has ended--any more tolerable.

One of the frustrating aspects of trying to talk about Westworld is that for any criticism you can mount of the show, there's an equally valid defense of "yes, that's the point".  As VanDerWerff writes, for example, the flatness of the characters--humans and hosts alike--may very well be taken as a deliberate reflection of the show's belief that nobody, whether biological or artificial, can transcend their programming and core directives.  But plodding through the second season of Westworld, I was forced to come to the conclusion that there isn't a point to all these points.  That even when the show hits on interesting ideas, what it does with them is almost inevitably shallow.  The second season finale seems to promise the same sort of leveling-up as the first.  The surviving self-aware hosts have been packed off to their own artificial world where the humans of Delos can't harm them.  Maeve is recaptured, though some of her human allies may be in place to help her.  Bernard and Dolores escape the park and vow to fight for the future of their race, and against each other.  Once again, the show is promising that if we just stick with it, just move along to the next screen, we'll get to the real story.  But after two seasons of wheel-spinning, is there any reason to believe that Westworld has anything to say?


Brett said...

The biggest mistake they made with Dolores this season was in giving her all kinds of cryptic "I remember everything" knowledge, which of course she then couldn't share with any of her followers directly because then the mystery would be up. It turned her into a mysterious plot device until nearly the end of the season, and I agree that it was easily the worst storyline.

Imagine how much more interesting she would have been if she didn't have all that mysterious knowledge - if all she had were her horrible memories of the park, a few memories from outside of it, a burning desire for revenge and "I want their world", and a strong impression left on her by Ford that she should destroy the Cradle and seek answers (and escape) at the Forge. It would have made the pay-off at the end of the season - where she finds out to her horror and anger that the "escape" involved fleeing into a digitally constructed world, and that there was no physical "door" for her to leave the park or "weapon" to use to defeat the humans - all the better. It also would have made her more sympathetic as she goes into Season 3, into a brand new world where she has to try and find her place amidst it and decide what she's going to do.

Instead, we've got her on the potentially genocidal warpath while Bernard tries to fight against her, and the show pretty clearly sympathizes with and wants us to sympathize with the robots (it's telling that they have Bernard get betrayed by everyone human). And judging by that post-credits teaser with the Man in Black, it looks like she wins eventually.

Oh, and none of that stuff hinting that Dolores might be wrong in what she's doing - the Ghost Nation guy telling her that "there is no place for you", Teddy asking her what's the point of surviving if they just become as bad as the humans they've dealt with - pays off.

It works mainly because Newton is so amazing in the role, combining wit, humor, warmth, and determination.

Definitely my favorite storyline this season. The pay-off isn't great, but the journey was easily the most entertaining and poignant storyline in this season aside from Akehata's. Plus I feel affectionate towards the Maeve Gang, and I'm looking forward to Maeve coming back in some fashion next season.

RE: Man in Black

It really is weird that they didn't kill him off (other than that Ed Harris is entertaining to watch). His whole character theme is that he's obsessed with finding meaning where there is none, chasing the "maze" for futile reasons in Season One and then killing everything in his path (including his daughter) on just a couple sentences Ford had hosts say to egg him on. It should have ended with him realizing that the park didn't have any deeper meaning before he dies - there's no "game", no revelation, just him projecting his obsessions on to it.

Ori Avtalion said...

>Ford's secret lab, where a host copy of company founder Jim Delos
I thought that was William's secret lab, and Ford wasn't supposed to know about it.

Clever use of "Get to the next screen" for a title. I was almost convinced it was from Westworld, but it was from Altered Carbon, and felt weirdly anachronistic there, as no-one I know uses that phrase, even from the generation who grew up on those kinds of video games (which are no longer popular).

I couldn't follow any of the characters. Seemed like none of the robots had any clear motivation (or ones that made sense), and it all was in service of surprising the viewer, instead of trying to grab my attention with interesting plot. The ending was particularly baffling, as I couldn't understand why Sizemore and Maeve had to sacrifice themselves.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I actually thought giving Dolores back all her memories was an interesting idea (certainly the episode in which we flash back and forth through her existence was one of the better purely plot-oriented entries in the season). But as you say, what they end up doing with that is using it as an excuse to have her be cryptic and all-knowing, which ends up reducing a character who was compelling and human last season into an annoying cipher.

It really is weird that they didn't kill him off (other than that Ed Harris is entertaining to watch).

That honestly feels like the only possible reason to keep him around. As you say the point has been made, and made, and made. Hell, even the point that he's incapable of growth or change and therefore doomed to keep chasing an unachievable high has been made multiple times. Let it go already.


I thought that was William's secret lab, and Ford wasn't supposed to know about it.

Except that Ford clearly does know about the project, because he uses it to create Bernard. Who then works at the secret lab to create a copy of Ford to put in the Cradle.

None of it really holds together, is what I'm saying.

"Get to the next screen" felt really apt for this show, much more so than for Altered Carbon (it was a bit dated even in the book, published in 2002). The gamification of TV narratives has been going on since Lost popularized "leveling up" as a storytelling convention, but no show does it as consistently - and with as little payoff - as Westworld. The feeling at the end of the second season is exactly the same as the feeling at the end of the first - now, finally, we've arrived at the real narrative - and just as likely to be illusory.

ddaise said...

I really wish they had done more with Leonard Nam's character. He was probably my favorite human character from season 1 and he avoids a lot of the issues you raise. Maybe Joylan just wanted to make the point that the non-wealthy people in the world are liable to side with the hosts over rich guests, in which case they would have failed since his motivations for helping Maeve were unclear beyond his fear turning into a sort of respect or reverence. I dunno. I'm rewatching Person of Interest Season 2 and it is so beautifully plotted that part of me thinks that Westworld is going to have a worthwhile payoff but, of course, that's the same thing as "move along to the next screen." I guess I really just wanted to give Nam a shoutout since he got sidelined this season.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Felix's story definitely got shunted aside in favor of Lee this season. Which on one level I get, because Lee was a more colorful character in S1 and has more room to grow in S2. But on the other hand, it means that an Asian actor playing a working class character gets downplayed in favor of a white actor playing a more privileged character. It certainly could have been interesting to see Felix explore how the have-not humans in the show's world live, and whether there's the possibility of solidarity between them and the hosts against plutocrats like Ford and William. But if I'm honest, that's not something I expect this show to ever get into.

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