Evan Rachel Wood
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)

In a shocking twist, Westworld saved its biggest reveals until the end. After a mixed season with some exceptional emotional storytelling and a lot of detached meandering, we get what really happened in the final 40 minutes of an hour-and-a-half-long episode. Here’s the story you’ve actually been watching, the writers rush to inform us. Here’s everything we were holding back from you, so we could get to this point and you would be amazed.

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And sure, on some level, it works. There are some decent twists here. I managed to avoid reading any theories before the finale, so I have no idea if anyone was speculating on the true identity of the present day Charlotte; it’ll be interesting to go back and see if there were any clues as to her status as Dolores-in-disguise, and I’m sure the few scenes we saw of her in the present (meaning after Bernard woke up on the beach with his memories intentionally fragmented) will play differently. The fact that Bernard was more active than he appeared to be is a relief, and the dichotomy established at the very end of the episode, with Dolores bringing Bernard back to life in the human world and more or less declaring war between them on the fate of our species and theirs, is one of those pitches that pulls you in even as you can’t help raising your eyebrows.

But we’ve been here before. Last season ended much the same: with a conclusion that showed us what we’d really been watching, with an ending that promised a new, thrilling premise to explore. How much you’re excited for season three depends a lot on how successful you think season two was at delivering on that promise. While a show can certainly improve on itself at this point in its run, it should, by now, have at least told you what kind of show it is. Westworld has demonstrated the scope of its vision and the nature of its tricks. This season had it developing in some ways, regressing in others, but as much as we might want to tell ourselves otherwise, barring some cataclysmic behind-the-scenes shake-up, next season will work much as the previous two seasons did: with a lot of vagueness, a lot of philosophical meandering, weird timelines (you just know they’ll find some new excuse to bring those in), and a weighty tone that belies the fundamentally simplistic ideas at its core.

That Westworld is, at heart, pretty simple is something that fans of the series might take issue with. If you find some greater depth here, more power to you; for myself, when you boil it down, this is all straightforward, at times comically shallow, theorizing. One of the big revelations in “The Passenger” is the nature of the episode’s title: It’s the term Bernard and “Logan” (not really Logan, but the Forge AI’s manifestation of itself) come up with to describe humans. After millions of iterations and experiments, the system that William bought to figure out the nature of humanity came to the conclusion that we’re essentially passive creatures going through the motions established by the limited algorithms in our brains. Free will is an illusion humans invented to make ourselves feel better—in reality, we’re all just passengers, moving from point to point until we die.

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I guess it’s a perspective. It doesn’t take into account why Ford would make the decisions that he did, though maybe the argument is that because of his fundamental misanthropy, he decided it would be a good idea to build things that could wipe out mankind? It’s hard to say if we’re supposed to take any of this as ambiguous or more complicated than it looks, but it certainly seems to be something that’s intended to be accepted at face value. Given William’s struggles this season, given the crumminess of nearly all the human beings, this has all the weight of an “aha, that explains it”-style revelation.

There are exceptions: Lee had a character arc where he went from a self-centered prick to a self-centered prick who was also willing to sacrifice himself to protect Maeve and the others. And given that the season ends with Bernard putting himself against Dolores, determined to save as many people as possible even as he makes choices that put humanity even more at risk, I’m not sure we’re supposed to just embrace the “kill ’em all” approach Dolores seems to be going for. (But then, I’m also the sucker who kept telling himself that The Walking Dead wasn’t really about how mercy and kindness would get you killed, so…)

Maybe it’s less a problem with the philosophy than it is with the way it’s presented. The show has such lofty aims, and yet it so rarely earns its ambitions. You have to work for statements like “People don’t have free will but robots do” by presenting the case that you understand both, and I still don’t think the writers behind the series have ever really demonstrated a strong grasp on characterization or human nature. The show’s presented concept of humanity—of selfish stupid people going to a Wild West theme park to kill and fuck and hardly anything else—is so narrow and childishly cynical that it makes it nearly impossible to take anything deeper it tries to say seriously. William, the supposed malignant tragedy at the heart of so much of this, is a thinly written character played by a great actor. We’ve had a whole season to get to know him better, and what we got is he’s a jerk who pretends to be a nice guy. Or something. Which is, more or less, everything we knew about him from last season.

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There are simple, even effective, narrative pleasures here. Watching Akecheta finally reunited with his wife in a digital paradise was as lovely as the battle it took to get to that point was thrilling. The fight to save Maeve’s daughter, Maeve’s ultimate sacrifice, the sight of Clementine riding through the hosts and turning them savage—that’s solid stuff. There were clear stakes and consequences here, lives put at risk in a last-ditch run for salvation, and it’s not hard to imagine this being an entirely satisfying climax to a season more willing to build itself around traditional structures. Hell, the whole thing with Bernard and Dolores could have, should have been amazing. It creates an entirely new conflict for the future, one that plays off of archetypes from civil rights movements of past (man of war versus man of peace) in potentially fascinating ways.

But man, the show is just so unwilling to actually sit down and tell its own damn story. While much of this registers, little of it registers as much as it should have. Several characters had arcs, which, when summarized, sound like quality TV: Dolores journeys to the Valley and is forced to sacrifice everything before losing and then winning; the group of hosts come to the Valley looking for answers; Maeve finds her daughter, loses her, but still manages to save her in the end. (Honestly, Maeve’s story was probably the best served overall, largely because it was the most straightforward of any of them; it turns out cornerstones are good for plots, too.) All of that shit Bernard was up to. So many of the payoffs here felt rushed or even arbitrary solely thanks to the show’s determination to reveal its stories rather than just show them.

And I find that maddening. Robots versus humanity is a battle I’m always up for watching, and there are large chunks of season two I enjoyed. My reviews have tended toward the positive (at least, the grades have), even as I’ve struggled to find a way to express my frustrations. There’s ambition here, and I respect that, and it’s clear by now that this is the kind of show that the people running Westworld want to make: one that routinely sacrifices build and momentum for the sake of mystique, which it then deflates with narrow and unilluminating core ideas, while still hoping the audience will be thrilled on the rare occasion when it does deliver more conventional resolutions. (“This isn’t a dream, Dolores. It’s a fucking nightmare,” is an action movie quip. It works because Jeffrey Wright sells the hell out of it, but it also seems to exist in isolation.) I’m not sure the show will ever manage to reconcile any of this, and part of me is reluctant to get excited for the Dolores vs. Bernard battle royale, because I know it’s going to be just more of this one step forward, two steps back stuff. Yet I’m excited anyway. The only thing worse than being a rube is knowing you’re a rube and being unable to help yourself. I blame you, Westworld, but I can’t give up on you. Maybe you have a point about free will.

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Stray observations

  • I have no idea what the hell was going on in that post-credit scene. William is one of the survivors of the park, even after losing his hand (I guess in the chaos nobody’s going to notice he murdered his daughter and a bunch of Delos security people), but we see him taking an elevator into a ruined version of the space where they tested the James Delos iterations. Emily is there, and… yeah, no idea. Is it a psychotic break? Did someone make a William machine? The only clue I can think of is that he’s carrying a knife when he follows Bernard and Dolores into the Forge, but the next time that we see him in the elevator, he’s loading a gun. Maybe more timeline shenanigans.
  • Where does Dolores (in the fake Charlotte body) send the signal of all the hosts at the end? She says it’s someplace where they’ll never be found; is that another tease, or just the writers’ way of saying, “Don’t worry about it, it’s fine.”
  • The revelation that Bernard created an imaginary Ford to help him take down Charlotte is not nearly as mind-blowing as the show seems to think, given that we’ve had all of five minutes to process the fact that Ford’s back again.
  • Teddy went to heaven. Aw.
  • So Maeve is dead, but the Delos people put the two tech guys who were traveling with Maeve in charge of figuring out which hosts can be “saved,” which means Maeve could be back next season.
  • Is there a reason why Dolores would rebuild her own body once she’s outside of the park? Beyond “we have Evan Rachel Wood under contract,” that is. (I’m not complaining, as Wood is a lot of why the character works at all, but it’s still odd.)
  • There was some really bad dialogue in this. Like, just hamfisted and clunky and working way too hard.
  • This season will probably play better on the rewatch.

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