The first season of Westworld, HBO’s show about a debauched theme park in which sentient robots are raped and tortured by human beings on vacation, ended with the robots in open rebellion. In the final sequence, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the show’s robot protagonist, known in the series’ vernacular as a “host,” executed Robert (Anthony Hopkins), the park’s co-founder, according to his wishes. She killed him in front of a black-tie–clad group of park investors, whose annual gala was soon set upon by all the defunct hosts in the Westworld storage lockers, guns blazing.
I thought this last sequence was pretty great. (It was actually the second-to-last sequence, because Westworld is trying to transport the crassly commercial Marvel movie tic of inserting a throwaway scene after the credits, as if receiving 10 more seconds of story you didn’t need is a benevolence and not just excess.) Dolores, along with the more clear-eyed host Maeve (Thandie Newton), is the show’s most interesting character, even if long stretches of the series have relegated her to a supporting role or a multiple-timeline haze. But here she was—as was promised from the end of the first episode, when Dolores hurt a fly—leading the hosts against the vile human overlords who doubted their very personhood, setting up an action-filled second season about an oppressed group fighting for their freedom, an allegory for basically any struggle you could name, including particularly relevant fights against racism and tyranny.
It was not great enough, however, to make up for all of the show that had come before. When Westworld began, it too seemed poised to explore rich thematic material about consciousness, trauma, and humanity and instead spent eight episodes communing with a Reddit board. A little after its start, the show became slavishly devoted to twists, all of which were successfully predicted, up to and including Dolores’ identity as the mass-murdering big bad Wyatt (shown in the finale not to be an evil being but a human-directed host on a murder-suicide mission of compassion) and William being one and the same as the Man in Black, a theory so well-circulated it became unavoidable even to people doing minimal spoiler avoidance.
In a very generous reading, the finale was trying to operate as a kind of correction to all the twist-hunting it encouraged, insofar as the twists didn’t really matter. The reveal that William was the Man in Black thankfully did not overshadow the revelation that Dolores has also been repeating herself in time, on a perpetual loop towards consciousness, though the episodes-long buildup to that reveal did make Dolores’ story opaque and needlessly confusing, up to and through much of the finale. Moreover, the Man in Black’s obsession with “the maze” was revealed to be silly and futile, a jab at clue-hunting viewers that would have been more powerful if Westworld Kremlinologists had whole-heartedly taken the maze-bait—instead, the maze was, relatively speaking, ignored.
But Westworld is the show that stuffs candy down your throat and then lectures you about how sugar is bad for your attention span. A viewer could have successfully “predicted” the finale without paying attention to any of the theories or spoilers—but then, he or she could have “predicted” the finale without watching about seven episodes of the show. It’s one thing to say the maze doesn’t matter in any literal way; it’s another to say that and also have spent six episodes of focusing on the maze. It’s one thing to make William’s revelation secondary to Dolores’ character development at the end of the season; it’s another to do that after subsuming Dolores’ to William for all of the season that came before. It’s one thing to construct a twist whose “real” twist is that it is literally a child's toy, a plaything, junk, and another to have given your show a tortured, confusing structure that prioritized twists over character development (Robert’s motivations are the real maze) and relationships.
It’s much better for a show to end its uneven and needlessly complex first season on a promising beat than an unpromising one, but Westworld is still Westworld. Next season won’t be about the concrete and clear-eyed Maeve trying to lead an uprising with the ephemeral, trippy Dolores (that’s a show I would watch!); this storyline will take a backseat to a dozen new twists, including whatever is happening in the recently revealed SamuraiWorld. (When do people whose fantasies don’t involve macho violence get a theme park?)
Westworld is too well-designed for this moment of #PeakTV to change. It’s a game that requires player participation and all the attendant watercooler chatter that comes with it, with enough ideas embedded in it to keep it from being critically written off. (Read this Twitter thread and be convinced the next season could be amazing.) It’s the host version of a TV show, expertly designed to play into an increasingly predictable and lucrative TV-watching mode—TV show as treasure hunt—but ultimately hollow.