Westworld is critic proof. It doesn’t really matter what is said, good or bad, so long as people are talking about it. After all, it’s built to be spoiler-bait that’s talked about and obsessed over. Co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have crafted an expensive sci-fi series that isn’t interested in eventually becoming a watercooler show; Westworld is engineered to be the watercooler show everyone is talking about. It does so not by virtue of its nuanced storytelling or by plumbing the emotional depths of its characters, but by assuring its multiple timelines and various storylines twist and turn into a devil’s maze attuned precisely to the interests of its audience.
Viewers don’t talk about the experience of watching the show. The experience of Westworld isn’t in the viewing, it’s in the discussion. It is the 10 weeks (or less, depending on how quickly Reddit picks everything apart) when the internet gathers en masse to solve a show rather than experience it. Westworld is for anyone who seeks out an article with the word “explained” in the title before anything else. It is a remarkably well-tuned engine meant to drive the audience’s curiosity as much as it does their collective fear of missing out.
In a way, the series is a tribute to what television used to be. Like the period settings of its park(s), Westworld is as obsessed with recreating something that, for various reasons, no longer exists, and in doing so warps what it’s trying to recreate into something else.
Westworld is the uncanny valley of television. It’s a close-enough approximation you can tell what it’s supposed to be, but unlike the Hosts who’re so real they’re otherwise indistinguishable from their human counterparts, the series is unencumbered with questions as to its true nature. Westworld is aware the difference. It steers into the skid of its own simulation because Westworld doesn’t want to be a real boy, lest it lose what makes it special in the first place. This isn’t a television show. Like William, the Man in Black, is so fond of saying, “It’s a game.”
And as was demonstrated by Nolan and Joy’s bizarre pre-season 2 Rickroll of the Redditors who deciphered the maze of season 1’s narrative in roughly three weeks time, Westworld is a game that plays back. Season 2 plays obsessively to its audience’s inquisitiveness. But it’s also playing with them. Every twist, turn, or glimpse at one of the new season’s many timelines practically announces itself as a subreddit waiting to be populated with theories and guesses as to its meaning. Early on, a door is discovered in a place that shouldn’t have doors. This is Westworld, where elevators pop up out of the ground miles from civilization, but still, it’s out of place and the show knows those watching know it’s important. There is a pregnant pause on the door. The camera lingers just long enough to inform those watching to take a screen shot, upload it to the internet, and begin obsessively theorizing what’s on the other side.
The conversation around the door is blithely self-aware, too. Once inside, the reaction is not unlike those watching the “spoiler video” discovering they’ve fallen for one of the oldest internet pranks in the book.
That the show would target Redditors specifically with a video so expressly attuned to its audience’s tendencies and so wildly out of touch at the same time is fascinating. It’s the equivalent of Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock infiltrating a high school and addressing the students with “How do you do, fellow kids?” The difference being, Westworld intends to be conspicuous, because no matter how lame the joke, the creators proved the degree to which viewers are jonesing for the drug that is Westworld. Viewers watch to obsess over Easter eggs, puzzles, mysteries, and surface-level philosophizing about the nature of consciousness. That the show has pared itself down to be a delivery system for those elements is of no concern to those invested in discovering its secrets, so long as the creators keep them coming.
Season 2, then, offers a continuation of the plot from season 1, picking up very soon after the Host’s rebellion was kicked off by the assassination/suicide of Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). But, more importantly, it’s an upgraded version of the previous season. It’s smarter about how it doles out its mysteries and theory-inducing plot points because, like Dolores, the show’s writers’ room has learned from past experiences.
Westworld season 2 is more blatant in how it indulges the audience, but the sheer meta quality of it all is even more admirable this time around. The show knows exactly what the audience is thinking, and has the characters respond in kind. A new character played by Vikings’ Gustaf Skarsgård, who’s sent in to deal with the robot rebellion and help Delos save face, so that the wheels of capitalism can keep turning, takes one look at an element that most certainly doesn’t belong in the Westworld park and asks, what it’s doing there. Meanwhile, after his semi-successful suicide at the Ford’s command last season, Bernard is having trouble differentiating his past from his present, and as such, repeatedly asks, “Is this now?” These developments aren’t surprises, not really; they’re how Nolan and Joy and their writers’ room aim to expand the Westworld narrative and send it deeper into the maze. The biggest surprise is that neither Skarsgård’s Karl Strand or Wright’s Bernard never look into the camera and posit their questions to the audience directly.
But this iteration of Westworld is still interested in making use of that pesky middleman that is the actor, so characters still matter, inasmuch as they are the delivery system for the mysteries filling the show’s puzzle box. That puzzle box remains as cavernous as ever, as characters from Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) to Teddy (James Marsden) to William (Ed Harris) are all in search of a mysterious location referred to as “The Valley Beyond,” which is season 2 talk for “The Maze” that metaphorical place where what the characters seek — answers, consciousness, free will, life and death stakes, what have you — supposedly awaits.
What makes the season different isn’t the suggestion that Dolores or William will find this valley, this “Glory,” or that there will be a definitive answer to the question of the Hosts’ consciousness, but that there might be a story here that makes Westworld worth watching for a reason that goes beyond the question of “What’s next?” and the needs of the Subreddit and Thinkpiece/Explainer Industrial Complex that’s sprung up around it. Season 2 is obsessively self-aware, and aware the discussion that will inevitably erupt around it the second the premiere is over. But there’s also a hint that the show wants to have some fun outside of the mysteries and the puzzles.
That move comes in the form of the show’s most interesting character, Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her new reluctant traveling companion, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman). This is the one storyline that feels the like it’s is playing the cards dealt it by the reveals of season 1 rather than becoming mired in another round of the same game. Maeve, too, is saddled with a potentially unachievable goal — Westworld’s version of Not Without My (Robot) Daughter — but that journey isn’t for some vague place that may only exist as metaphor. There’s emotional context to Maeve’s storyline that offers more to invest in than the Gordian knot of multiple timelines and surprise reveals.
In season 2, the series feels unburdened by the closed loop of many of the first season’s key mysteries — Bernard is a Host modeled after Arnold, William is the Man in Black, and so on — but it also feels more engineered than before, every move more calculated, down to the smallest constructed element possible. And it's all seemingly in anticipation of the internet’s inevitable response. Part of watching Westworld is coming to terms with how calculated it all is. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the level of calculation on display.
Westworld continues next Sunday with ‘Reunion’ @9pm on HBO.