Spoilers for Westworld ahead.
The first season of Westworld ended with a remarkable reveal – we had been watching two timelines all along. The cruel and driven Man in Black, played by Ed Harris, was actually the same character as the sweet, naive William (Jimmi Simpson), just thirty years more jaded. The man who had been reluctant to come to the park and engage in the violent, sexist fantasies had matured into a man who had mastered them all, and who was looking for something more meaningful beyond the gunplay and brothels.
Showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy apparently decided that this was the most interesting part of their first season, not the deep philosophical debate about consciousness, or the investigation of the gameification of culture or questions about deeply ingrained misogyny in even the nicest of men. That seems to be why Westworld season two has taken that conceit and doubled down on it; three episodes into the new season it appears that every point of view character is operating in their own timeline, with some of them separated by decades while others appear to be only days or hours apart. The result? So far it’s a jumbled structure that has consistently kept me disengaged from the emotional arcs of the characters. (Vulture counts five timelines, but I suspect they’re right when they guess that the fourth timeline itself features myriad mini-timeline jumps back and forth)
This increasingly shattered timeline should be no surprise to anyone who has followed Nolan’s work. Brother Christopher Nolan’s Memento was based on Jonathan’s short story “Memento Mori,” and the wacky timeline of that movie comes from the short story. Jonathan co-wrote The Prestige, which has a secret storyline, and he also co-wrote Interstellar, which is also preoccupied with a non-linear experience of time. What Westworld season two has become isn’t a gimmick, it’s a long-standing reflection of what intrigues Jonathan Nolan. He now has his biggest, most expansive canvas upon which to explore alternative approaches to chronology in narrative. In other words, this isn’t Lost, looking for a new gimmick as the seasons go by.
But it could be that this exploration of non-chronological storytelling is more interesting on paper than it is in action. The first season of Westworld captured me with its philosophical themes and with the slow awakening of the hosts; I was invested not just in the larger mysteries of the show (who was Arnold? What was the secret he hid in the maze?) but also the journey of the characters, and what it meant for my own understanding of complicated, hard to define concepts like consciousness. As someone beginning my studies of Buddhism when the show aired, its grappling with the very nature of sentience and being fascinated me.
The second season, at least so far, has sacrificed many of those elements at the altar of its storytelling conceit. Every time the show switches between a storyline we are forced to take a moment to figure out when this is happening in relation to what we have seen in the scene before; sometimes characters show up in different storylines back-to-back but separated by chasms of time. Lost is any organic growth of character and theme, replaced instead by the need for constant note taking (if only mentally) and cross-referencing.
This means that even the more straight-ahead storylines lose some power. The character of Teddy, James Marsden’s heroic cowboy host, is going through a slow-rolling crisis of conscience in the wake of Dolores’ (Evan Rachel Woods) revolution. With the exception of a first episode leap forward that shows Teddy is dead (I’m not sure if that leap forward is actually the anchor timeline or if the chaos post-revolution is the anchor timeline), we follow Teddy’s journey in a largely linear fashion. But with so many timelines jumping back and forth before and after the revolution the impact of it is softened; set in a single timeline we might take that journey with Teddy, going from the high of season one’s finale violence through a discomforting feeling that wholesale slaughter does not give the hosts any moral advantage. Instead we’re tossed through time periods, including ones where it’s quite clear this revolution is something of a mess.
What made season one work so well was the ability to grow with the hosts; when the two timelines were revealed it only deepened that growth, as we realized we had also watched William change into something horrible. The timelines complemented each other; even before it was clear there were two timelines they ping ponged back and forth thematically. William’s story in particular played out like the set-up of a hero versus villain confrontation, with each timeline mirroring the other. Even without an eventual timeline reveal that structure worked; watching The Man in Black abuse Delores while William tried to save her was just good TV even before the radical reframing of the whole plot.
This all gets compounded by the season’s so-far heavy emphasis on a MacGuffin – the Abernathy host. He has some program inside of him that is driving him nuts and that a number of characters want. We don’t know what the program is, what it does, why it matters… and we may be chasing it in two different time periods. It’s hard to find a place to care about this beyond the mystery element, and it’s frustrating because I just don’t care about the mystery. It’s not that I’m averse to mystery, but we haven’t been given enough beyond “Tessa Thompson really wants this host, and Tessa Thompson seems kinda evil” for me to latch onto here.
The final disappointment for me this season (so far) is the way that Delores has turned into a one-dimensional character. What’s more, the decisions she’s making aren’t entirely clear to me – she’s killing hosts as much as she’s killing guests, and I’m not certain why that is. I suspect that she’s ‘cleansing’ the park, but I don’t understand her criteria. I really don’t understand her strategy in the big battle at the fort (I don’t understand anyone’s strategy in that battle – why would the QA team just slowly walk forward across an open field at noon?). Delores was certainly the best character in season one, and her awakening was the backbone upon which the show hung. But this season she’s so opaque as to be inscrutable; where the degradation of William into the Man in Black was given lots of time in season one, season two has made Delores into nothing but a figure of unpleasant violence. There’s not even a discussion about whether or not she’s right – the show is fundamentally not on her side.
This is a small side note, but I think that this is a thematic failing for the show. After spending all of season one building up the consciousness of the hosts and the cruelty of the guests, the show appears to have immediately pivoted to a “violent revolution is bad” place. I’ve seen a couple of people compare Delores to Khaleesi in Game of Thrones, but I think that show spent a lot of time moving from the glory of righteous violent conquest to its dark side, allowing for complicated questions about exactly how large scale change can be implemented. Westworld gave us the thrill of the uprising in the season one finale, but immediately began recasting Delores as a hard edged murderer in season two. It feels like it would have been more interesting – and less defensive of the current real world status quo – to have her gradually slip into a Reign of Terror.
That said, with the fractured timelines would anything feel like gradually slipping into anything else?
I’m hesitant to critique a serialized show just three episodes into a season – when all is said and done this structure may pay off. But at the same time Westworld is a weekly series, and I realized after episode two I had lost my burning desire to tune in for episode three. And this week I made plans for the time when episode four airs, which I never would have done last season (I hold holy the Sunday night HBO offerings, and always try to be home for them). I found myself thinking about the eventual fanmade chronological recut of this season, and wondering if I should just hold out for that. Season one of Westworld walked the line between mystery show and character show beautifully; season two seems to have made a choice to lean on the mystery harder. I need the characters, and I need the organic flow of a story – all of that comes, for me, before any mystery or narrative trickery.