Three seasons in, it’s pretty clear that ‘Westworld’ isn’t going to be a hit franchise
It’s no secret that HBO still wants the sci-fi series Westworld to mature, three seasons into its run, as a worthy successor to Game of Thrones. On the network’s own website, HBO touts five reasons fans of the dragons-and-disappointment fantasy should embrace its robot-theme-park prestige drama. “Theories galore,” “more powerful women to love,” and composer Ramin Djawadi are among the items in HBO’s pitch; you can almost hear the copy/pasting of Microsoft PowerPoint bullets someone at the network’s marketing department must have put together.
But while the two shows originate from decades-old source material, and they both have been among the most expensive television productions ever, Westworld doesn’t feel like it’s growing into a phenomenon the way GOT had by its second and third seasons. Season 3, which debuted in the middle of a global virus crisis, adds Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul and Master of None writer and star Lena Waithe to the cast and moves the story off the Old West setting and into a futuristic America with plenty of self-driving cars, drones, and voice-activated gadgets not too different from what we have now.
The ratings for the new episodes have been pretty bad, suggesting that the setting change and pre-premiere buzz weren’t enough to galvanize people to either start watching or to give the show another chance if they dropped out early, as I had.
Season 2 Should Have Been a Warning
When I posted recently on social media that I was going to give Westworld another chance, I got a telling response. Only one of my friends out of a large pool of avid TV watchers, some of them professional TV critics, bothered to defend the series. Nearly everyone else who responded said they’d either dropped the show by the end of Season One, found the end of Season 2 frustrating and swore off Westworld after that, or had heard enough bad worth of mouth about it to avoid watching entirely.
Undaunted, I dove into Season Two again. I continued right after an episode I vaguely remembered as being about Thandie Newton’s madame robot Maeve and others making their way out of a Shogun-themed park. Without the expectations baggage I’d previously carried, or even the memory that the whole season was one big flashback (that would come later when I tried to make sense of the season finale), I was free to enjoy the show on different terms. Evan Rachel Wood and Newton are particularly good at giving emotional subtext to the show’s oft-ridiculous writing and helping make digestible Westworld’s ponderous navel gazing about free will. Jeffrey Wright gives new meaning to the word “inscrutable” with his tortured performance as a ‘bot who has also had a hand in creating many of the Westworld park’s AI hosts.
As with most of GOT, there’s no sense of cheap green screens or skimping on casting. It’s a big (too big) cast of characters, lots of on-location shooting, and effects that sell the idea of convincingly human robots that bleed and cry and get ennui when they’re too self-aware.
Every now and then, Westworld will hit a home run, such as a late Season 2 episode, “Kiksuya,” focused entirely on Akecheta, a Ghost Nation tribe member whose story unfolds as a lyrical meditation on loss and memory. It’s a stunning one-shot story, sharing DNA with some of the better one-character episodes of Lost and The Leftovers. For that episode, at least, Westworld pushes off its overly twisty narrative threads, antsy world building and confusing timelines to simply tell a good, mostly self-contained story.
But then the very next episode, “Vanishing Point,” attempts to do the same with Ed Harris’s William/Man in Black character, far less effectively. With the exception of one very good Season One twist, William has been a drag on the show, a selfish and obsessed antihero who drove away his whole family in his pursuit of solving the grand puzzle of the park.
The penultimate season two episode fleshes out that story with more details about William’s marriage and his relationship with his daughter (who may or may not have met a tragic end, who the fuck knows?). But it all seems in service of making William a more tragic figure, another late-middle-aged white guy with secrets and regrets on TV who (spoiler from 2018) drives Sela Ward to suicide. Does the suicide make any sense as anything more than a plot-mover and to give William some tragic character shading? Nope, not really.
The season finale is a complete mess. It builds to multiple climaxes that include a server house flood, a “San Junipero”-esque digital heaven for artificially intelligent spirts, and multiple robot characters killing each other and then bringing each other back to life when they realize they’ve made a mistake. Then we get a coda that pretty much confirms all the time we’ve been spending with Ed Harris for Season 2 has been either a huge waste or a tease to an apocalyptic future we probably won’t get back to for at least another full season.
So many converging threads fizzle, so many people get shot in the head for shock value, so many previously interesting characters (Delores, Maeve, Bernard in particular) make dumb choices, that I wondered if I just watched the episode wrong. I began to doubt whether I’d properly understood what I just watched. So I Googled the news from nearly two years before, looking to decipher things.
To my dismay, the creators of the show revealed an even more convoluted and needlessly obfuscated rationale for “The Passenger” than I thought, perhaps in an expectation that every viewer by this point is crawling Reddit threads and scouring Twitter after each episode for clues and deciphered reference points. But with a million other good-to-great shows that are just as adept at holding their interest, most viewers are more likely using that time to scroll Netflix and other streaming services for better options.
Aaron Paul Isn’t Enough
So. Season 3. I’d made it this far, and as infuriated as I was with that finale, I intended to press on. And…things got better. The first two episodes of Season Three have a sleek, action-thriller feel, dispensing with a lot of the mopey soul searching for identity and focusing more on revenge, power plays, and new characters such as Aaron Paul’s Caleb, a war vet who performs odd tasks assigned by a very snarky phone app while he looks for a steady job.
But Westworld can’t help but take wild swings in directions that don’t have much change of paying off in the larger narrative, such as temporarily sticking Maeve in a Nazi-themed “Warworld” that only serves to get Thandie Newton in some fantastic period costumes.
Now the show is about an AI entity, Delores, who’s smart enough to take down all of humanity. But people can still shoot her with guns, apparently, and she can’t communicate with other robots without opening her human-like mouth and talking out loud. These seems like pretty basic potholes/plotholes that a show trying to look so smart should be able to steer around. But as Westworld remakes itself into something simpler, more accessible, and increasingly lurid–with plenty of nudity and violence, as if in shoutout to Throne–it risks losing the frustrating, wonky, pseudointellectual posturing that fans who made it through Season 2 might already be missing.
I’m glad I’m made it through the slog of Season 2 to see whether Season 3 is for me. Parts of it really appeal, from the attention to architectural design and future home tech, which doesn’t seem to have evolved too much in another 38 years, to its new shiny, vibrant locale. But the inevitable man versus-robots-endgame brewing will likely be a protracted bloodbath that scales up from Season 1’s finale carnage. If that’s where we’re headed, I’m not much looking forward to watching.
Maybe the show’s creators took last season’s critical shrugs to heart and have really rebooted the show to strip it of its pretensions and its endless-puzzle-box pacing. Or maybe Westworld will recode enough to find the best version of itself, to patch over what’s self-indulgent to make way for the glimmers of transcendent storytelling and great visual storytelling that occasionally peeked through the sludge in those first two seasons. Maybe that will be enough to keep me watching.
But my hope will only go so far. I endured the last season of Game of Thrones, a set of hasty, turgid episodes that diminished everything that came before. With Westworld, if things get so dense and dumb that I regret not leaving well enough alone two years ago, I hope I’ll be smarter about walking away.