Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Westworld‘s season two finale.
The Man in Black spent Westworld‘s first season trying to find the center of Arnold’s maze in hopes it would free up the hosts to really fight back against the guests, all so he could play the game with real stakes. Even though it turned out the metaphorical maze wasn’t meant for him, he did get what he wanted–true, lasting consequences where people really die. It instantly added much-needed suspense and meaning to a show about a robot uprising, because every action carried more emotional weight and importance.
And the season two finale totally undid all of it by making it a story where nothing really matters because no one is ever truly in danger, a problem that threatens audience investment in the story. Fortunately it’s a problem the show can–and must–fix in season three.
The season two finale “The Passenger” eliminated lasting stakes entirely by showing 1) anyone might actually be a host, 2) no host can ever really die, and 3) any human can be brought back and live forever in some form. Each of those undercuts the story in different ways, but they all lead to the same disappointing realization that we can never fully invest in the story because no matter what happens it can be undone or changed without warning.
Plot points don’t matter when they are infinitely open-ended and adaptable, which is what you have now that anyone at anytime can end up being a host when the story needs them to be. In season one, it wasn’t a problem finding out halfway through the season Bernard wasn’t really human because we always knew in a world of lifelike robots some characters would end up being something else. (Plus the show wasn’t exactly subtle about foreshadowing that “surprise.”) Taking two clearly defined human characters who have definitively been on one side of the conflict and making them hosts with only the vaguest of hints is entirely different though. Those revelations in the season finale felt like convenient plot points rather than organic elements of the story, which means the show can do that whenever it needs to, a very convenient, lazy device. But if Charlotte and Stubbs aren’t human how can the show ask us to invest in any other human characters going forward? And if we don’t care–good or bad–about one side of a war how can we care who wins? It’s like watching a game where all the players are wearing the same jersey.
Even if the audience is still rooting for the hosts, what is there to worry about if death is still not permanent for them? Maeve died bravely saving her daughter, but Sylvester and Felix will absolutely be bringing her back the way Dolores was easily brought back by Bernard. Dolores also saved the codes for some other hosts who we can expect to see again eventually, so should we bother being upset by the deaths of Hector and Armistice who missed out on Valley Beyond Heaven? If any of them go down in a blaze of glory again, why wouldn’t we just shrug at it next time? Every decision a host makes, no matter how brave or terrible, still comes with a reset button so they can never lose. A scene or story can’t mean something if we know nothing lasts and the consequences don’t matter.
This year also made it so William’s season one journey to make the game potentially fatal for him wasn’t even honest, because we know he simultaneously was working on making it possible for human consciousness to be preserved in one form or another. Sure, humans can die at Westworld, but they can be uploaded into a server or into a host body, so they have the same invincibility as the hosts.
So what we have now is a show without stakes or emotional gravity, where we don’t know who or what to root for since we don’t even know what side they are on, especially since hosts can easily beat the little “neck” reading used to test them. But even if we did know who to root for that wouldn’t really matter because no one can really win if no one can ever really lose.
It’s not a good place for the series to be in because it fosters apathy which leads to a lack of interest, but fortunately the show can fix all of this easily if it wants to by making some simple changes. First, sacrifice some mystery for clarity. The only purpose for Bernard’s multiple timelines was to hide the revelation Charlotte Hale was really Dolores in the present, but the confusion that storytelling technique created wasn’t worth the surprise even before the surprise ended up causing many of these problems.
Also, the show needs to give us a concrete way to know who is a host and who is a human so we can invest in characters’ stories, either to root for or against them. If they can give us a faulty test they can also give us a reliable one. Westworld and has the greatest technology in the world, it can figure out a way to keep track of it.
Finally, the show needs to make it so deaths for humans and hosts alike are genuinely permanent. A character making an unexpected return or overcoming impossible odds should be the exception, not the rule. If Maeve sacrifices herself again we shouldn’t roll our eyes thinking it’s meaningless, we should feel it in our guts because we know she truly gave of herself. The only death in the finale that meant anything was Lee’s because we know he really is dead. Probably. Maybe. Maybe not. The point is the show has made it impossible to know if we should care about Lee or anyone else, and if we don’t care about the people in the story what reason is there to care about the story?
The Man in Black said he wanted real stakes, and now the show needs to give them to all of us.
What do you think? Does Westworld need to set new, meaningful rules and consequences to be interesting? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.