Nuclear Take: ‘Westworld’ Season 2 Is Good, Even When It Frustrates Fans to No End

     March 13, 2020

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Friends, Delos VIP members, countrymen: I am here to tell you that Westworld Season 2 is actually extremely good, even when it tests your patience and even when the show feels more temporally mixed up than the playing cards in a round of three-card monte. As a major fan of TV shows that make me think and demand my attention, I’ve been a fan of the HBO sci-fi series from the jump. From devouring new episodes to poring through the (now-defunct) Delos Destinations site for clues to reading explainers on WTF I just watched, my time as a Westworld fan has been just about the most fun I’ve had in a long time. So, I was surprised when I discovered that, as Season 2 wrapped back in 2018, other Westworld fans we left much colder by how things had panned out story-wise and, in many cases, publicly slammed the season for being too twisty for its own good.

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Image via HBO

First off, what I’ll say here and now is that I simply can’t defend Dolores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) Season 2 arc. The shine surround Dolores in Season 1 wore off as she went from newly-awakened Host-turned-revolutionary to brutal killer whose desires to leave the park had her making erratic, needlessly bloody choices (RIP Teddy). While I fully acknowledge that my life experiences as a flesh-and-blood human might exclude me from sympathizing with a being made of wires, metal, computer chips, and a growing hunger to tear down the system, it’s a truth universally acknowledge that Westworld Season 2 did Dolores dirty. She deserved better — and hopefully might get a crack at narrative redemption in Season 3.

Broadly speaking, what makes Westworld Season 2 so good is embraces complexity and demands you not just tune in, but really dig deep for answers thanks to its more active use of transmedia, a.k.a those extra sites related to the show, clues dropped on social media, and even special e-mails you might have received if you signed up for the Delos Destinations mailing list. Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy were never going to spoon-feed us the answers (that much was clear all the way back in the Season 1 premiere). They’ve continued to fulfill on that unspoken promise by playing with narrative structure even further in Season 2. Westworld Season 2 may have had its fair share of open-ended storylines from episode to episode and more than a few big cliffhangers from the finale. We viewers weren’t just hopping around the timeline, we were hopping through new parks and cities and following multiple groups of characters.

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Image via HBO

We were expected to keep track of the motivations of many and understand that each of their tiniest moments could end up being more meaningful in the long run. Thanks to Westworld‘s repeated use of transmedia to hide important (but still accessible!) clues, like the Easter egg-filled Delos Destinations site which required you poking around and engaging with a sentient customer service chat bubble, even if we didn’t get clear-cut answers we remained entwined with the show. Westworld Season 2 never sought to distance itself from us through its structural trickery; it demanded we take over where Dolores left off and continue piecing clues together, especially when the answers were seemingly too remote to locate unless we looked hard enough. It’s too easy to throw your hands up in the air and say “Westworld is purposely trying to be complicated and doesn’t want me to keep up.” No, that’s completely counterintuitive to why this show is a) very watchable and b) still on television. Westworld is not just limited to what you see and experience on the episodes; it’s so much bigger than that. Season 2 adhered to the idea that there was so much more at work than what you saw right in front of you. There was information to be gleaned, clues to be focused on, interactions to be parsed, decisions to be unpacked. It was clear during Season 2 that if you really wanted to get true fulfillment out of this show, you had to engage and engage hard. TV doesn’t often ask you to do that and for some, that’s alienating. For me, that’s just too damn exciting an opportunity to be passed up.

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Image via HBO

In addition to turning us from complacent viewers into active viewers, Westworld Season 2 excelled in illustrating the very human — or, more accurately, human-like — response to existing in a world where you were only ever meant to be a cog in the machine. Westworld succeeded in exploring this through the arcs of Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) and Maeve (Thandie Newton). I mention Akecheta first because he figured into what I believe was one of the best hours of television in 2018, the bottle episode “Kiksuya” which arrived in the backend of Season 2. “Kiksuya” is a story told through Akecheta’s eyes, showing how it can be even more devastating to watch America’s own bloody history and destruction of the Native way of life and lands play out as a cool new interactive storyline in a theme park people are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to participate in. Not only do we watch Akecheta achieve sentience in similar ways to Maeve and Dolores, but we have to watch him struggle to comprehend loss and death (of sorts) as he discovers his friends and family become deactivated Hosts kept in a mildewy bunker underneath the park. Akecheta’s path to radical sentience is heartbreaking but deeply necessary as a means of recontextualizing history and the cost of human progress. It’s also a reminder of why this show is so damn good and succeeds in its nuance.

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Image via HBO

As for Maeve, well, her arc was similar in thrust to Dolores’ but somehow all the more satisfying. Where Dolores’ path to freedom what a blind bloodbath using little common sense, Maeve’s journey was steeped in pathos and stakes, paying off with big developments in her character’s journey. Maeve became a tour de force through Season 2, not only becoming a skilled warrior but honing her abilities to manipulate her own programming. By the end, Maeve was operating on an almost mystical level, controlling other hosts and showing herself to be the leader of the Host revolution we deserved. There is no success without sacrifice, so watching Maeve lose allies and the comfortable parts of her previous life and instead become a character bent on breaking the wheel but doing it smartly (rather than Dolores occasionally erratic approach) was refreshing.

Ultimately, Westworld Season 2 succeed in building on the themes of Season 1. Where the first season asked us to become aware of the larger forces at work controlling our existence, Season 2 asked us, “How can we effectively tear it down and build a version that better suits us?” Reshaping the world is never easy, especially when you’re seeking liberation and control over your own life. The time-jumps we experienced in Season 2 prove to us that things have always been this way but, if we really want to take action, they don’t have to be in the future — something Season 3 will no doubt explore.

So yes, on the surface, Westworld Season 2’s timeline was whack as hell and yes, oftentimes it felt like this show was trying to make us fall out of love with it by withholding information we should have been getting right off the bat. But really, when you take a step back and assess, you can find some beauty within the chaos. There is meaning to all of the madness meted out through Season 2 and it’s worth remembered that. Even when it feels like Westworld was leading us astray, it was just giving us a different perspective to make us think. When’s the last time a TV show did that for you?

Westworld Season 3 debuts on Sunday, March 15th. For more, check out our review of Westworld Season 3‘s first four episodes. Also, refresh your memory with our guides on the Westworld timeline and essential episodes to rewatch before the Season 3 premiere.

Television