Do you remember the end of Blade Runner, another movie about life creating life, when the ending subtly hinted that Deckard is a Replicant and, once you get it, it blows your mind? Well I’m pretty sure Jonathan Nolan remembers it too and when he was pitching Westworld it probably included a line about, “Wouldn’t it be great to make a show where that happens, but with every single character!?!” And then HBO gave him one hundred million dollars.
Seasons 2 of HBO’s Westworld is blood-blisteringly awful. It just totally and completely sucks. There are so many reasons why it is bad, but first I actually want to focus on the positive. Which is Season 1. Season 1 of Westworld was great. I mean, I watched most of it while on a layover in the Beijing Airport when I had nothing else to do and my debit card wasn’t working so I couldn’t get drunk, but I still think it holds up. It sets up this very complex, involved world. It raises some interesting questions about creation and consciousness and life. It looks great. It’s engaging. It’s got just the right amount of twists, which aren’t all that telegraphed. It was equal parts mystery, community college philosophy, great acting, great set design and great world-building all doled out in measured, even doses. When it ended on that cliffhanger I was on the edge of my seat!
The lesson executive producer Jonathan Nolan took from this experience was that audiences love unnecessary ambiguity and ridiculous twists, cultivated in an over-the-top and extremely slow and fragmented narrative, and that he should quadruple down on that. He’s like a guy with one of those t-shirt cannons shouting “And YOU get a twist! And YOU get a twist! EVERYBODY gets a twist!” Honestly, he should be put in jail.
The show still looks great. It still has great actors, doing the best that they can. But it really slid right into a dung pile. Let’s start with the main thing that made this season so ulcerativey awful. The narrative. Why is it structured this way? It is needlessly complex, told out of order, apparently just so they could hide a “twist” at the end. This decision truly enraged me for the simple fact that it is so, so utterly unnecessary. I mean, I get it that the Nolan brothers have some kind of genetic deficiency that prevents them from telling a story in a linear fashion, even if a non-linear narrative makes no sense. Memento told out of order? Makes perfect sense. Genius even. Twisting up Dunkirk’s narrative? No good reason whatsoever. But listen, that is never gonna stop these whackadoos, because they love it for whatever reason.
But here’s the thing, telling the story out of sequence in Season 1 worked really well because you don’t know it’s a nonlinear narrative until they reveal it. So thinking that everything you’re seeing is one straightforward story right up until it’s not is genuinely surprising, and it’s a clever twist. Moreover, it feeds into some of the bigger issues the show is toying with, such as how these ageless robots can totally un-tether you in time and place and turn meaning on its head. Great. That works for a variety of reasons.
Deciding, I suppose, that they needed to top that somehow, Season 2 opens with multiple story lines taking place across multiple time periods, featuring an orgy of flashbacks - and for what? I found it so convoluted, just for the sake of being confusing, that it didn’t even warrant me expending the effort to track all these threads. In fact, it made me kind of angry that the show had such a high opinion of itself, that it actually expected me to try and keep track of all this bullshit. I’m not saying that it’s an affront to human dignity, but it’s certainly bordering on a human rights violation.
And all of this stupidity was inflicted on me because the show is so in love with itself. It is so in love with its mystique and philosophy, and that hubris just burns a hole right through the screen. There is no other way that a show would do the things Westworld does in Season 2 unless it had an unfaltering sense of its own place in the scope of human greatness. But - and this is critical - it doesn’t earn that. I mean, in many ways the show is actively bad, a festering pile of turdulence, so for it to act like we should be grateful just to be eating this garbage they are putting out is frankly insulting. For one, because everything is so impossibly and needlessly complex in this show you wind up with these really inelegant, clunky, and just frankly terrible exposition dumps.
They are not trying to carefully build the world anymore (as they did in Season 1), but to just have characters tell you about the world. Look at when Bernard and Elsie (who apparently has been chained up in a cave for 10 episodes???) go to visit the Cradle. Now, of course these two characters should already know what the Cradle is. Yet Bernard feels compelled to explain it to Elsie, as if she doesn’t already know. And spoiler alert - even when they do these cheats with shitty ass exposition, it doesn’t make the ideas land any better. The Cradle is just another in a long line of stupid, badly-described stillborn techno-babble. My favorite bit of unintentionally awful dialogue was when Bernard, in a moment of revelation, exclaims: “You’re not coding the Hosts. You’re using the Hosts to de-code the guests!”
A-ha! Not even Jeffrey Wright can polish that turd. This is simply inexcusably bad writing. It doesn’t have to be bad. Star Trek: The Next Generation proved that if your characters, your setting and your plot are on-point you could cram the stupidest techno-babble gobbledygook into Data’s mouth and people would love that shit! But Westworld just ignores those other very important components of good story-telling and goes right to the nonsense, believing that audiences are so in love with nonsense that they will tolerate all this lazy writing. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you have a hit on your hands, and people stop pointing out when your ideas suck.
Some critics, such as Todd VanDerWerff, have toyed with the idea that this is intentional, in some ways. Like Samurai World is actually supposed to be a conscious send-up of bad samurai movies, because the park is catering to rich white people whose only knowledge of Japanese culture would come from bad samurai movies. That is like trying to out-think a marmot. Why did that marmot just run up in that tree and start rubbing its butt on a branch? Maybe it’s a comment on the neo-Platonic relationship between land and animal in post-colonial America. Or maybe it’s a fucking marmot and that’s what it does because it has a brain the size of an acorn. I mean, we don’t really need to stretch our metal faculties to figure out why Samurai Land plays like a worse impression of a bad Samurai movie. It’s because it was hatched in the brain of Jonathan Nolan, who is drunk with power and pseudo-genius, and he thought that this sequence in Japan was wonderful, dolerant art.
Now, Todd has also evinced a certain degree of ambivalence toward this project. He suggests that the show is really meant to be played like a game, rather than enjoyed like a television show. If you engage with it, by constantly trying to guess what the twists are, then you will find it to be much more enjoyable. True, that does explain why the show is so bad, because it incentivizes the writers to simply try and make it as complicated and twisty as possible, without reference to whether those choices play well from a narrative, thematic or character standpoint. It’s all about the twists, and so they will just try to keep one-upping themselves with new twists, and even more confusing and fractured narratives, and even more weak attempts to pass off mealy pop philosophy that wouldn’t even get a B in Intro to Western Thought at SMC as some kind of transcendent commentary on life, reality and society.
But of course, as M. Night Shyamalan proved fairly conclusively, making twists the cornerstone of your filmmaking philosophy suffers from diminishing returns that will accelerate over time. I just feel cheated, you know, that they took a good premise (thanks to Michael Crichton, a simple man with an abiding love for negligent theme parks) and have run it into the ground by breathing the fumes of their own self-evident genius. The show still looks great, and if they had just treated it with a modicum of restraint, instead of trying to stupify and wazzle us at every turn, then Season 2 might of lived up the promise of Season 1. But instead we get this dodolerant cacophony of noise and garbage, one which has created a mystery it doesn’t dare solve for fear of losing it’s audience. The result is a zombie of a thing, stumbling about without any purpose through fractured narrative timelines, lurching through exposition dumps while trying to find the next twist that will feed the gnawing hunger in its stomach.