It's not just you. The sci-fi western that ignited fandoms back in 2016 is back--Westworld Season 2 is airing on HBO, and it's already almost halfway over. But it just doesn't feel the same. Westworld Season 2 isn't the cultural event--the only thing anyone can talk about Monday mornings, the source of as much speculation and theorizing as every new Game of Thrones episode--that Season 1 was.
It's a bit of a mystery why exactly that might be, but I have some theories.
Westworld Season 1 ended on a banger. The Man in Black was William, Bernard was a host, and Ford sacrificed himself to catalyze the robot uprising. If you were part of the massive online community of Westworld fans who combed through each new episode looking for clues, you probably saw those surprises coming. If you weren't one of those people, you might have been shocked by all the twists. But Westworld Season 1 gave even casual fans plenty of reasons to keep watching every week, whether it was the emotional resonance of William and Dolores's journey, the mystery of the Man in Black's maze, or simply wondering when the blood will start flowing through Westworld's dusty, simulated streets.
Besides a few tertiary, leftover questions--like "Is [insert character] really dead?" or "Does Westworld have a greater purpose?"--Westworld Season 1 had a fairly satisfying arc that wrapped up all its central plot lines. With the hosts apparently achieving sentience and the maze solved, did we really need to see what happened next? The season may have ended with the start of the host uprising, but it felt more like a conclusion than a beginning.
That said, Westworld Season 2 really has done a decent job picking up where Season 1 left off. There are new mysteries, characters, and locales, and we're learning more and more about the park's true purpose. So why does it feel so much less exciting?
No Emotional Core
One big problem with Westworld Season 2 is the lack of an emotional core that we, as the audience, can identify with. That role was filled with redundancy in Season 1; Dolores, Maeve, William, Bernard, and several other characters were all sympathetic. Dolores struggled against domineering forces she couldn't yet understand, William was the White Knight who was going to help her break free, Bernard and others running the parks were sleuths following the mystery along with us, and Maeve was trying to piece things together from her own perspective.
All those sympathetic points of view are gone. In Westworld Season 2, Dolores has gone full Terminator, mowing people down in between insufferable sermons about "The Valley Beyond." Our flashbacks to William are past the point where he broke bad, making him just another villain. Bernard is more lost than ever, but he's too unreliable a narrator to identify with (more on that in a second). And Maeve's search for her "daughter" might have worked better if we didn't already know that her daughter is a construct that was written for her and probably doesn't even exist anymore.
Another problem is that Bernard's whole deal this season is way too meta. Westworld Season 2 is using the fact that Bernard is a host to turn him into a completely unreliable narrator. Through the "time displacement" Bernard is suffering, the show is able to keep us utterly confused. Bernard's storyline in Westworld Season 2 feels more like being strung along with a blindfold and earmuffs on than trying to solve an actual mystery.
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Every scene from Bernard's point of view feels blatantly misleading, like the show is deliberately obfuscating basic questions like "when," "where," and "why." No doubt it's building toward some twist, but is it really a twist if the only reason we weren't able to guess it is the show taught us not to trust our own eyes?
Season 1's maze was a source of much mystery and speculation among Westworld fans. What is "the maze"? What will the Man in Black find there? Will there be an actual maze with a big red button at its center, or is it more of a metaphorical thing? Just what does the Man in Black really want?
But so far in Season 2, Bill is just retracing his steps. He fetched Lawrence from another bind, returned to that same little town, and has continued to act like this is all a game. To Bill, Westworld was always more real than the real world, so it makes sense that he'd continue playing exactly as he did before, even though the stakes are suddenly so high. But it doesn't make for very compelling viewing week to week, and there's no well-defined central mystery. No matter how many creepy child-hosts Bill chats with, looking for a "door" will never be as exciting as the search for the maze was.
The World Has Changed
This might be Westworld's biggest problem, and ironically, it's the one HBO could have most easily fixed: It's not 2016 anymore, and I think audiences have less patience than ever for shows like Westworld stringing us along week by week.
This is the era of streaming, when Netflix drops entire seasons all at once and it's normal to binge ten plus episodes in a single day. Who has time to plod along behind a miserly trail of narrative breadcrumbs every week? For many fans, it's more fun to dive in and submerse oneself in fantasy for an entire season at a time.
Thinking about it like that makes you wonder how Game of Thrones Season 8 is going to be received next year. Like Westworld Season 2, it might be worth it to just wait until it's over and binge it at the end.
Hopefully Shogun World is cool once they finally get around to revealing it.