8:30pm PT by Tim Goodman
Critic's Notebook: 'Westworld' Took Its Time Opening the Door, But Season 3 Should Benefit From the Next Step Forward
This column explores elements of the entire season and the season finale of Westworld and thus contains spoilers. If you haven't watched, come back when you have.
In its two seasons, Westworld has been a series that seems to fracture the available audience into thirds. In the first season, a certain number of people got annoyed at the shifting time puzzle — probably, for some of them, because superfans on the web were constantly guessing and unfolding Easter eggs and theories until their heads exploded (or their readers did). Another third was all in because of one or all of the elements that Westworld brought to the table — a revamped look at A.I. and sentient beings, with violence and sex and mystery and, for those who liked it, a lot of existentialism about what it means to be truly alive and to evolve personally, morally and philosophically. And maybe the last group, now perhaps emboldened by the second season finale's multiple time-jumping gymnastics and what seemed like 17 different endings, will continue watching but do so with an annoyed headache.
Maybe your appreciation of Westworld comes down to what you can tolerate. Or what you're looking for to begin with. While I've loved both seasons and didn't mind the complicated time jumping in the first season (partly because I wasn't wrapped up reading about a lot of theories online and figured things out on my own, or didn't, while enjoying it as a solid drama), the second season was a dollop more frustrating, if only because it seemed to double down on "when is now" and then, by the finale, had quadrupled down on it. I love a good puzzle but sometimes I just don't want to work that hard. On the other hand, this second season of Westworld took some very intriguing leaps, creatively, and those mostly masked my growing frustration with having to over-think the timelines I was witnessing.
Much of the existentialism that I liked in season one got more lost while the puzzle grew more pronounced in season two, but it was intriguing when it did surface, particularly in both "The Riddle of the Sphinx" and even elements of this season finale. That said, if you believe, as I do, that existentialism is the best core quality of Westworld, the show did oversell it quite a bit with some heavier-than-needed exposition and introspection, a mix that doesn't always work. The parts that did, such as Dolores saying, "That which is real is irreplaceable" and Bernard later getting to the gist of it all with, "Is there such a thing as free will for any of us? Or is it collective delusion? A sick joke?"
I doubt Westworld really wants a definitive answer to that larger question, but I'm fairly certain it will continue to explore the idea of it. And despite some of the more bloated aspects of this finale, I'll keep watching creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan tease out the philosophy.
A large part of that continued faith is that, once you get past the numerous false endings in the finale, the actual fade-to- black moment indicates that the series will indeed be stepping outside "The Door" that is so often mentioned and into "the real world," setting a course for a wider look at what the possibilities are in this revamped franchise that's already seen life as a book and a movie. Part of the appeal of the television series has always been Nolan and Joy's willingness to expand its boundaries. And if we didn't get quite enough Shogun World (or other worlds/parks for that matter) for my taste, the third season sets up a blueprint that would allow Dolores, Bernard and Charlotte — or at least the non-human version of Charlotte — to live in the real world, expand the number of hosts who will exist beyond the walls and, at the same time, keep those left behind (or dead) in the parks relevant. How? Lots of ways, not only because nobody's ever dead forever on Westworld, or so it seems (and a lot of main characters died in that finale), but it's essential to keep Westworld, Shogun World and the rest of the relatively unexplored "worlds" intact for further storytelling. Those are not going to be abandoned just because the series is about to open the door, so to speak.
It's not too difficult to imagine there will be A and B storylines in our world and in the parks. Whether that gets pulled of with aplomb or whether it drags will be discovered next season, but if Game of Thrones is any indication, the ability to succeed in that construct is a mixed bag.
For a lot of people, the ability to bring the hosts "back online" after fixing them, meaning that nobody important ever really dies, certainly lessens the dramatic stakes. And how William/The Man in Black hasn't died from his wounds has crossed well past the far-fetched line by the finale, but back he, too, will come. Yet the idea that Dolores, Bernard and a side-swapping Charlotte will be out in the real world creating potentially new and interesting stories is the thing that will bring me back to see if that idea strikes gold like it seems it should.
However, I'd be lying if several times this season and several times in the season two finale alone, I didn't contemplate just giving up and moving on. Counterpart on Starz is doing something similar in ways that haven’t been egregiously misused, and Joy and Nolan should be mindful that even the most devoted third of fans mentioned at the top could get tired of all the puzzle-solving and lowered emotional stakes and move on. It happens. Maybe season three won't tear through story as much as season two did — it was thrilling at times, but also felt, by the end, to be unnecessary and excessive.
I would be particularly pleased if some of the crutches from season two were removed. Having the Greek-chorus, guiding light presence of Ford (Anthony Hopkins) this season felt too easy by half. Throw in the ultra confusing time-shifting and it felt like Westworld was more into parlor tricks than storytelling. And there could be quibbles with those story choices as well (did we need William's daughter?; was there too much Ghost Nation or not enough?; were there too many Delos handlers? — your mileage may vary). I know some fans didn't like all the James Delos flashbacks, but I thought those were particularly essential to the story (and you can absolutely never have enough Peter Mullan), so who knows. A good rule of thumb is that I'd rather a series get sidetracked building characters than getting sneaky with timelines. And speaking of those timelines, you can imagine the depth of analysis that the ultra-loyal will be deconstructing them elsewhere (which you should enjoy, as I do).
But for me Westworld only works if it can be simultaneously thoughtful (the existentialism) while being entertaining (everything else, minus half of the time confusion). Season two definitely suffered from not having the season one grand visionary gestures of Ford (and Hopkins) — but it's too late to go back and unkill him, because god forbid we endure more of his season two ghostly presence, which wasn't nearly as good or effective as when he was alive and lived within some believable set of rules. What did work was the setup to the next chapter, as the finale did in fact open a door to a perhaps more compelling leap for Westworld next season, and I'm going on that ride until it makes me get off.