I’ve been a pretty big fan of HBO’s Westworld, pretty much from day one. It is a show, however, that isn’t without its fair share of criticisms, and I’m pretty sympathetic to most of them…even when I heavily disagree that the series is too complicated, or too mysterious, or not dramatic enough, or what have you. While the journey of the last nineteen episodes has been far from flawless, I’ve mostly found the ride to be incredibly compelling and, at its peak, some of the most superbly crafted television we’ve been lucky to get in the past decade. Warts and all, minor frustrations aside, I can’t say I ever found myself truly against what this show was, and what it was doing.
But in the heat of my post-finale pontification, and while absorbing all I can about just what happened in “The Passenger,” I think I can finally say it — Westworld Season 2 kind of lost me, not exactly in what is going on (that more or less makes sense to me), but why the show is even making the creative decisions it is making to begin with. And even as optimistic about the show as I am, I’m not sure what the show can do in the next few seasons to get me back up to the same level of enthusiasm and passion I had back at the start of the season. To put it bluntly: for the sake of the season and the series moving forward, the grand finale of Westworld Season 2 had to work. And, boy, I’m not really sure it did at all.
Which, fuck, is a really different place from where I was at the conclusion of the series’ debut season. That finale, “The Bicameral Mind,” was able to cap off all its big plot threads while also serving as a promising tease for what was to come, AND be an entertaining episode in its own right (when it comes to Pew-Pew Robot Action, Maeve’s posse escaping the Mesa is still one of the show’s finest set pieces.) We don’t get much of any of that with “The Passenger,” though.
While the finale technically paid off the bigger questions of the season, it was belted out in such a half-hazard, messy way that connecting the dots seems like such a fool’s errand. And it wasn’t like the plot of the season, at the barest level, was all that complicated: our main characters all want to get to a place, and when they get to that place, things will happen. Sure, you have the future timeline messing things up a bit but, even with that included, the drive of Season 2 was expressed clearly from the start: everyone (Bernard, Dolores, William, Maeve, etc.) wants to get to the Valley Beyond/The Door/The Forge/The Server Room of Requirement. They all had different motives and drives, but the destination was the same.
And when, in the penultimate episode, it became clear that the brunt of the finale’s story would take place in The Forge, it was hard not to be excited. What exciting possibilities could come from all our characters converging in this one location? And considering just how hyped it had been by everyone involved, how would the show manage to blow our minds and, essentially, make this entire season’s journey worthwhile?
Because, as I said before, a lot was riding on this season finale. Coming off of a saggy middle portion, and a storyline in danger of collapsing on itself, Westworld HAD to deliver the goods in “The Messenger.” And while the popular storytelling edict of “it’s the journey, not the destination” is mostly 100% the case for long-form narratives, I’m going to just say it: I don’t feel bad for placing so much pressure on this episode. Because Westworld forced these heightened expectations on itself — simply due to how the story is constructed and paced, there was no way to separate the endgame from the journey in this particular instance. When your season rests almost entirely on the revelations that will take place in the final destination, that final destination better deliver big time.
Which, like most parts of this article, is just a long rejoinder designed solely to set up the following declaration: it didn’t.
Instead of something show-changing and dramatically powerful being kept within the crypts of The Forge, it just contained…well, what it was said to contain from like halfway through the season: a bunch of data about the people who had visited Westworld in the past, and a “door” to another world, specifically developed for the hosts. What exactly is in that world (or, hell, what that world really even is) is painted rather obliquely, as is Dolores’ intentions for the guest’s data (to, umm, learn stuff about the leader of the Extraction Team preparing to land at the park? Not sure how she plans to utilize said knowledge, what with her ZERO allies and resources to pull from, but whatever, bigger fish to fry here.)
That doesn’t stop a good portion of the episode from focusing on the two concepts, starting with the weird use of Logan as The Forge’s, umm, receptionist I guess, and leading to a gigantic library containing the “code” for the guests, which the show claims is essentially a complete copy of a human consciousness, represented by a book. Or something. Nothing more is made of this after Dolores cracks open the “Karl Strand” novella, and gives it a quick speed read. She then exits The Forge (which you can just do with sheer willpower, I guess — look, nothing about The Forge/The Cradle makes much sense, but you’ll just have to roll with the show on that one), and declares that she plans to destroy all the guest data so she can, umm, pass. Before she has the chance to enact her (let’s say) “plan,” however, AI Secretary Logan reveals to Bernard that he has control of The Forge and its real purpose: serving as a door to a virtual world, built by Arnold, where the hosts can frolick forever, outside the control of those pesky humans.
All this is revealed in what seems like 75 seconds so, if you are at all confused by any of it well, BUCK THE FUCK UP PAL. There’s still a lot of shit to get through in the next half of the episode. I’m not going to go over all of it, but let’s just say that what transpires inside of The Forge is BONKERS, in a way that first kind of impressed me, if I’m being honest. By the time a magic portal literally opens in Westworld, and the hosts (led by Akecheta, whose done a swell job of gathering every bot in town for the big event) begin strolling into this random field that looks like a Windows screensaver, I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing. It wasn’t even bad, per say — just strange, a mode “The Passenger” would stay in for a good portion of its remaining runtime.
Why is all of this Forge content so underwhelming? Because it fails to present us anything compelling that we didn’t already know. The theme of humans being the REAL robots has been in the show’s DNA for years now, so not much a revelation there. Furthermore, the show is kind of at odds with itself regarding all the talks of how humans=hosts. It’s a rather simple idea that the series keeps presenting as so deep man, leading to many, many monologues in which the characters just keep repeating the same goddamn thing they’ve already said one scene prior. It gets very tedious, very fast.
The concept also seems to completely turn its back on one of Season 1’s main points: how memories and our past experiences define us. That served as the entire distinction between host and human back then, and when Ford decided to place “reveries” inside of the hosts’ minds, allowing them to experience memory and the passage of time itself, their path to achieving true consciousness began. But in Season 2, the series is arguing rather cynically that we are simple, dumb creatures who can’t change, and can be rebuilt and replaced easily just by applying the right, rudimentary code. But Sizemore ends up proving the show’s cynical viewpoint of humanity wrong just moments previoiusly by literally going against his “code,” and doing a selfless act to save others. Which could have been sold as a counterpoint to what Ford and the rest are arguing…if the show cared to present a counterpoint at all to its philosophizing. Instead, it feels more comfortable going on long spiels about how HUMANS are the ones who lack free will, NOT hosts. GETIT??? REVERSAL!
And on the subject of things we already know that propels so much of this episode: yeah, we get that Arnold and Delores are on opposing sides of this robot uprising, so what exactly does their disagreement over what to do about The Door add to the proceedings? The existence of the virtual world built by Arnold could have been something show-altering, but the show doesn’t seem to care enough about it outside as a plot mechanic to make it worthwhile. Hell, it’s not even clear we’ll ever see this Robot Eden (get it, BIBLE) ever again, which maybe explain why the show put so little thought or care into setting up and presenting this new universe. It was barely a concept: it was just a means to an end.
An end that, first and foremost, tied loosely into Maeve’s series-long arc. Of all the stories this year, Maeve’s has probably been the most succinct (although when hasn’t that been the case, really?) Even still, the big payoff that comes from Maeve “rescuing” her daughter and “sacrificing” herself just landed with a thud to me. Not only has a LOT of Maeve’s relationship to her daughter gone unaddressed and unexplored (she’s a walking motive device, not an actual character), but there’s still a lot of weird plot and thematic issues that the show refuses to dive into on that end (The girl’s new mother might actually have an opinion on this whole situation, and Maeve should at least consider the ethics of what she is doing by controlling her and the girl in the way she does.) But all of that is pushed aside just so we can see Maeve make an (admittedly cool looking) heroic sacrifice, dying so her daughter can make it to the shimmering Robot Eden.
Except, yeah, no, that’s not what’s going to happen. Which is another big issue “The Passenger” runs into many times in this episode: in its quest to make everything feel EVENTFUL and BIG, it delivers a lot of seemingly major character deaths. Sizemore, Elsie, Hector, Armistice, Maeve, Hale, Dolores, AND Arnold all seem to be disposed of at some point but, really, I never bought that Westworld was killing off its extended cast in such a major way. To put it bluntly, Westworld done Infinity War-d itself — by stacking up the deaths so impossibly high, I immediately pulled back from any emotional response to it, knowing that the show was going to find some silly way to bring them all back. For Dolores, Arnold, and (kind of) Hale, that has already happened. For Maeve and her crew, it’s heavily hinted (Felix and Sylvester are on the case!) That makes humans the only real casualties coming out of this episode , an expected if not disappointing outcome.
Because, despite what “The Passenger” argues, didn’t Westworld just make a major step forward in the defining the mortality of its robotic characters? Wasn’t the ENTIRE POINT of blowing up The Cradle (as stated in the show itself) making it so that the hosts were now mortal? How exactly are all these dead hosts, from both “The Passenger” and earlier episodes, being brought back to life? Were there more backups of their consciousnesses in The Forge? If so, why does The Cradle matter at all? Fuck, why do ANY of these server farms matter at all? Death doesn’t have to be the end all be all of stakes (it wasn’t even a concern I had for the show back in the first season), but when you’re going to present the concept of mortality being placed on immortal beings, I expect it to be at least ADDRESSED when immortality is randoly back on the table.
Case in point: the brief re-appearance of Teddy, whose death in the last episode seemed to be as close to a send-off as a host character could possibly get on this show. But, nope! In a great example of delirious editing and leaps of logic, we see Teddy for one brief moment all up in Robot Eden, chilling alone. Is this real? Is this just Delores imagining things? Maybe, but that certainly doesn’t explain how the hell Teddy ended up in the flooded Valley Beyond at the beginning of the season — from those clues, we are led to believe that Teddy made it to Robot Eden, which doesn’t make any goddamn sense.
On that note: can you BELIEVE we haven’t even got to the future part of this finale yet? Because, boy, is all that a dozy. Not only do we learn that Charlotte Hale is actually Dolores INSIDE a clone version of Charlotte (despite seemingly being murdered by Bernard back in the past story), but we also get to see the full extent of her plan — murdering Strand by shooting him in the goddamn face (glad that book of Strand cheat codes came in handy!) She then decides to reverse her position on Robot Eden, for reasons unclear, and launches the brain egg containing Robot Eden (JUST ROLL WITH IT) into an unknown location where it will “never be found.” Unless the show starts to run out of plot, in which case, it will possibly be found! Who cares though, as the finale zips to another scene of convoluted reveals and increasingly fraught storytelling, this time centering on the reveal that…Stubbs is a host?
Fuck this man, I’ve already written like 2000 words here! I don’t have time for “Ashley Stubbs is a fucking robot too, ha ha!” I don’t know why this matters long-term, or why any of us should give a shit about this development, but it definitely leans into the direction the show should not be going in, in which every major character is revealed to be a host, just for the shock of it. It’s generic robot sci-fi storytelling, and Westworld already made its mark on the concept to great effect with Bernard in Season 1. No, no, none of that reveal is earned at all, from any perspective. So let’s just move on to the final moments of “The Passenger” itself: Delores going off island with a bunch of pods containing the character sheets of whomever the fuck the show wants. Let’s say…Moe.
All this leads to the final moments of the episode, in which we learn that Delores REBUILT Bernard, who she murdered before leaving the park to cover her new Charlotte Hale sized tracks. This comes only a few moments after the initial reveal that Bernard REBUILT Delores, who he murdered before leaving the Forge because she was, well, kind of crazy. As crazy as reading all the events of “The Passenger” when presented together, you could say. In any case, the one-two punch of death/revival and death/revival gave me hardcore whiplash, and frankly is exactly what I’m talking about when it comes to pissing away all the stakes. It seems that these hosts can just be rebuilt from the bottom up so damn easily, despite the show’s MANY arguments to the contrary in the last few seasons, and the idea that death for the hosts were now permanent after the destruction of The Cradle. No backups, no problems, I guess.
As the 90 minutes of a lot drew to a close, we’re simply left with yet another reversal of the Arnold/Dolores sit down, this time with Dolores, now back in her own body (she remade it, but kept the Hale body around and put someone else in it…y’know, for Season 3 plotlines) monologuing about how she’s the Magneto to Bernard’s Professor X. Or something. Bernard then leaves the home they are in (the same one Arnold showed Dolores in a previous flashback), opening the door to a new chapter for Westworld. Where exactly is he? How long as it been? What the fuck is this story even about now? Wait for next year (or, more likely, a couple years), folks!
Leaving on such an unabashed cliffhanger wouldn’t be so bad, if any of the plot developments in this episode had me excited whatsoever for what is to come. Well there’s an argument to be made that going into unexplored, unpredictable territory for a series is good, I tend to believe that a strong finale should serve as the conclusion to the season’s major plotlines, while also serving as a teaser for what is to come. As I said before, “The Passenger” did a piss-poor job of doing either, and the fact that the finale left me feeling ambivalent about seeing more of this show is a massive, massive bummer.
AH, BUT THERE’S MORE!!! Because if 90 minutes of plot development wasn’t enough for you, “The Passenger” has a post credit scene too. And though I have some massive frustrations with the Season 2 finale overall, NOTHING is at the same scale as the anger I have towards the Man in Black scene that punctuates the entire season. To be quite blunt, it’s dogshit. The fact that every recap and review had a wildly different interpretation of what the fuck was happening in it is extremely telling, as is the fact that the people involved basically had to lay out it all out, because the text of the show itself gave us so little to work with. I shouldn’t have to do homework in order to figure what the fuck is happening, Westworld. And that homework shouldn’t be so damn impossible that I have to cheat on it by being told all the answers, either.
And even putting aside how badly told it is…ugh. The fact that we have another timeline to deal with, and that William’s story shows no sign of slowing down (even if Season 2 should have served as the proper note to end it on, IMHO) pisses me off. Just ending the Man in Black’s story for the season with him making it to his endpoint, only for us NOT TO SEE WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENS TO HIM THERE, and just showing up alive on the beach later, only to be back in the elevator MUCH LATER, makes me want to throw something at the damn screen. Considering all the complaints that the split-timeline got this season, I can’t imagine how adding another FAR, FAR FUTURE time into the mix will make things any better.
But just to make things clear, my issues with Westworld Season 2 as a whole (and this finale especially) are a lot more complicated than “two timelines are confusing.” The framing device has problems, but I would argue that too much attention has been put on the split timeline scenario, as though that is the end-all-be-all problem with the season as a whole. To be quite frank, I disagree entirely. I think the conceit could have worked, if the payoff for the decision was something far grander. Hell, at times, it did — I still maintain the initial “seed” of the idea rests in Bernard himself confusing the time he is in, creating an echo of chaos and confusion that the show very clearly wants us to sympathize with. It’s a neat idea that was also toyed with last season, but with a far greater sense of purpose: Dolores coming to terms with her past is what ultimately led to her becoming awake, after all. But here? It seems to mostly serve the twist of Dolores being inside a host version of Charlotte, an underwhelming and mostly just perfunctory way of getting Dolores out of the theme park. At the end of the day, even if the season was presented in chronological order, though, I see no reason why that would make things any better. No, the problems with Westworld Season 2 stem far closer to the series’ creative direction as a whole.
And, look, I get it: sophomore seasons are incredibly hard to make work, especially following something that grew into a pop culture sensation. But when a show manages to pull one off, there’s almost nothing better. As a viewer, my trust in the series and its creator’s skyrockets, and I can feel comfortable moving forward in my belief that what I am watching is truly of value. But when the opposite happens, it can throw the entire support system of the show crashing to the ground. And with the big ol’ narrative and dramatic flop that was “The Passenger,” I can’t help but now view this season — even with its moments of true, objective greatness — completely flawed as a whole.
But even saying all of that (and the whole “make-it-or-break-it” part of the headline), I don’t think the failures of Westworld Season 2 represent the end-all-be-all for Westworld. I believe the show can climb out of this hole and, with a bit of course correction, find its footing again. There’s still too much greatness in Westworld for me to throw it out completely, and Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are both immensely talented people up to the challenge of presenting an evolved, but refined version of Wesworld. BUT if the series manages to never right its way again, and its remaining days just present us with diminishing returns after diminishing returns…well? I’ll know exactly which episode to pinpoint the beginning of the end. And if that’s not a heck of a dull note to end a season on, I don’t know what is.
…At least Ramin Djawadi’s score still kicks ass, right?
Also published on Medium.