Few TV shows feel as much like a solid hour of high-intensity cardio as Westworld.
When I reach the end of any given episode, I feel like I’ve put in the effort, but I also feel a little deflated, like I’m going to have to sit for a second before I can climb a flight of stairs. Everything about the show — including the ideal way to watch it — is effortful, and it wants you to know it.
The series’ first season scrabbled around looking for a point for too long, before zeroing in on some ideas about the nature of consciousness. I really loved the first season finale, but it also laid bare a lot of the series’ problems. This was a show that reset its protagonist’s consciousness every few episodes, one that seemed more interested in structural gimmicks than in creating a story or characters worth getting invested in. It’s telling that the closest thing the show had to a breakout character — Thandie Newton’s Maeve — is the only character with a readily defined set of desires and goals.
And yet ... there’s something about Westworld I can never shake. It lives with me throughout the week, even in spite of its flaws, like a slightly stiff feeling in the legs the morning after that big workout. I’m always aware of how much the show wants me to buy its bullshit, but I’m also incredibly susceptible to bullshit salesmen.
And in season two, the series is emulating one of the least likely shows imaginable: AMC’s faded zombie drama The Walking Dead. And it’s kind of working?
How Westworld is like The Walking Dead in season two
Most of the frustrations I had with Westworld’s first season involved how thoroughly the series devoted itself to sticking viewers inside the point of view of its robotic Hosts, artificial near-intelligences designed to populate a theme park for the ultrarich. Very basic ideas about the series’ world or time period were left deliberately obscured, and the show’s story was self-consciously constructed as an elaborate nesting mystery, owing to how the nature of the Hosts’ consciousness allowed them to revisit events from their own pasts as if they were really happening in the present. (I’ve never entirely understood how this functions, but hey, I’ll go with it.)
In season two, however, the series has freed its Hosts from their mental bondage, the self-awareness that seemingly began with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve rippling through the rest of the park, leading them to fight back against those who hold them there. Gun battles erupt frequently, the characters race all over on a variety of missions, and both Dolores and Maeve are chasing phantoms they might not find. Westworld, in short, feels a lot more like a TV show than it does an extended lecture on the nature of consciousness.
This is a good thing. Though two of the five episodes HBO sent out (out of a total 10 in the season) were around 70 minutes long, and no episodes were under 55 minutes long, Westworld has a propulsiveness it often lacked in season one. Knowing even the most basic facts about the world at large, as well as the sister parks to Westworld (which include the Shogun World teased in season one and another I daren’t spoil), helps situate the show’s chaos in something real.
But what’s most notable is the way that Westworld is telling stories this season, which is to say that it’s largely abandoned the gigantic patchworks of season one in favor of telling smaller chunks of the same bits of the story from different perspectives.
These first five episodes don’t cover a very large chunk of time, but because we keep looping back to see what was happening to different characters (who were often in different locations) within that chunk of time, they end up feeling more momentous. And that’s before we get to the way the series can hop, skip, and jump about within the Hosts’ consciousnesses, to fill in vital bits of backstory.
There’s another TV show that tells stories in this fashion: The Walking Dead. And where that show’s tendency toward decompression — the storytelling term for taking a plot and examining it in almost microscopic detail — eventually led it down a deep, deep hole, it had a couple of really good seasons when it found a way to tell compelling character stories within the framework of reiterating the same series of events from slightly different perspectives. (At its most decompressed, the show spent eight episodes covering about 16 hours of story time from a myriad of perspectives.)
Westworld hasn’t quite gone that far down the rabbit hole, but it does keep finding ways to move the story forward but a few inches with every episode by focusing on different character pairings in each hour, thus allowing it to keep things moving but also let them stand still while everybody gets a chance to catch up. One episode might follow the diptych of Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris), linked in ways they don’t quite understand, while the next lays out what happens as Maeve heads into Shogun World and Dolores chases her own ambitions into an ever-tightening, potentially self-destructive spiral.
Westworld doesn’t yet have the characters to completely pull this off — poor James Marsden continues to play a complete cipher as Dolores’s sidekick/main squeeze Teddy — but its embrace of this kind of storytelling decompression keeps it from feeling like a watered-down Game of Thrones or Lost rip-off like it often did in season one.
But the decompression also highlights how Westworld talks an enormous game but has yet to truly prove itself as anything other than the Most Important Show on Television (in theory).
Westworld is working toward some sort of grand unified theory of oppression, but its games get in the way
The frequently stunning visuals of Westworld — all sweeping vistas and sly reinterpretations of prior scenes with new information added — promise big, brassy TV like only HBO can make. Sit down and enjoy yourself and feel like you’ve watched something important, even if you haven’t.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Vaguely intellectual escapism has a long, proud history on cable television (and in American pop culture more generally), and Westworld ably slots into this tradition. But at times, I feel like Westworld wants to be an escapist show that is simultaneously about everything in existence, and that’s when it starts chasing its own tail.
Take, for instance, the season’s fifth episode, largely set in Shogun World. (Don’t worry; I’m not going to spoil anything.) The hour opens with some fascinating exploration of the universality of certain storytelling tropes, then continues with a plot that gleefully lifts from as many landmarks of Japanese cinema as it can (right down to several shots of faces painted white with makeup before bright red backdrops — either straight out of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran or some strange inversion of the Japanese flag).
The series is self-aware enough to realize what it’s doing, but somehow incapable of transcending that self-awareness to a place where it’s interested in talking about the perniciousness of storytelling tropes that exoticize non-Westerners or turn all Japanese men into brave warriors and all Japanese women into geishas.
Westworld, on some level, is telling a story that takes aim at presenting a grand unified theory of oppression. The Hosts that viewers have best gotten to know have largely been coded as women, or as people of color, or as members of other groups who have been subject to horrible oppression throughout human history. This makes them at once an all-purpose metaphor for how it’s sometimes tempting to tear down the world and start over again and examples of the very storytelling tropes they’re supposed to be subverting. The series, after all, is about storytelling too, and at times showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy behave as if their characters are oppressed by them and the other writers.
I don’t want to suggest that focus on oppression is somehow irresponsible. By telling a story about the future oppression of artificial intelligences, set in the weird future-past of the parks, the show is able to examine power structures of our own world through a literal funhouse mirror that offers just enough remove that viewers who’d rather think of the series as pure escapism wouldn’t be wrong to do so. But it also frequently leaves me feeling like I’m chasing the show in circles, never quite catching it, because if it slowed down enough to let me do so, I might realize how little was there in the first place.
All of the above leaves Westworld sometimes working at cross-purposes, trying ably to tell a story and subvert it at the same time. When it works, there’s nothing like it on TV. When it doesn’t, it’s hard not to watch in fascination as the train flies off the tracks, wondering if it might land back on them or this time finally plummet into the gorge below.
Westworld returns Sunday, April 22, at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. Watch season one on HBO’s streaming platforms.