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‘Westworld’ season 2 feels like mild, mild country

'Westworld' season 2, like its increasingly sentient creations, has gained self-awareness

A still from ‘Westworld’.
A still from ‘Westworld’.

I thought Westworld would change the world.

The first season of HBO’s expensive and gorgeous show had me conflicted. I loved that opening episode—about a sophisticated Wild West theme park where the robotic hosts captured our sympathy while the human guests appeared increasingly grotesque—but things soon got silly. The mystery-box storytelling became tedious as the show unfolded backward, the narrative moving in accordance with eventual twists and not according to character. The cast was exceptional, the music lovely, the vistas striking, but the storytelling hinged entirely on teases. It was like watching a magician with a very plush top hat perform dull card tricks, while sprouting self-congratulatory patter.

On 13 April, the couple who created the show, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, announced an offer to roll up their sleeves. Since all the “what is going on in Westworld" theorizing online, especially on forums like Reddit, had actually hurt the show’s finale last season by accurately guessing the twists ahead, the creators made an incredible offer via a Reddit post: “If you guys agree, we’re going to post a video that lays out the plot (and twists and turns) of season 2. Everything. The whole sordid thing. Up front. That way the members of the community here who want the season spoiled can watch ahead, and then protect the rest of the community, and help to distinguish between what’s ‘theory’ and what’s spoiler."

I was blown away. This is a game changer of an idea, one that places the responsibility of protecting the storytelling with the fans themselves, just like with adaptations of beloved books. Those who had read the Game Of Thrones books, for example, did not give away forthcoming highlights like “The Red Wedding" for those of us who like Peter Dinklage but find George R.R. Martin’s books too long.

The concept also holds explosive impact against our currently amplified spoiler-culture, where television and films are consistently ruined by people recklessly posting spoilers online—as if seeing a show first makes you better than those who come to it later, behaviour that needs to be shamed—as well as by creators who make their shows dependent on the spoilers ahead of the storytelling.

Much of the blame for this what-next hype and secrecy, I believe, lies with J.K. Rowling, who made killing off characters an act of marketing, after which “who died" became the headline instead of how good the book was. It is something everyone uses now, from Marvel—that is the exact question driving advance sales for Avengers: Infinity War, releasing this Friday—to the Game Of Thrones, where paparazzi stalk actors to observe the length of their hair, all for the internet to dissect hungrily.

This stunning Westworld move was, alas, a gag. The video the creators released is nothing but a smug joke, and the show is back and trashier than ever. This is not entirely a bad thing, as it allows the creators to tackle their human-versus-robots battle without pretension, luxuriating in lavish but loony storylines and all too many characters speaking in parables—a better turn-up than season 1, where they spoke in parabolas. The first episode of season 2 came out on Sunday on Hotstar, with new episodes out every Monday, and having watched the first five episodes for this review, I think it is clear that the show, like its increasingly sentient creations, has gained self-awareness: It now knows how pulpy it is.

As guilty pleasures go, Westworld works. There is less to question and more to marvel at, and even though the one-dimensionality of the premise wears thin—this is a misanthropic show pitting Artificial Intelligence versus artifice, so all the AI is interesting and all the humans disappointing—there is still fun to be had in watching tigers strut as tea is served while a sitar-heavy cover version of Seven Nation Army plays in the background. The cast is among television’s best, with Evan Rachel Wood calling the shots as a character rewriting her narrative, Ed Harris finally finding stakes high enough to ensure his interest remains real, and Rinko Kikuchi—who can do anything, as seen in Babel and The Brothers Bloom—playing a geisha.

There is, however, too much of it. Most episodes weigh in over an hour, and that is exasperatingly long for a world where an outpost is called “The Fort Of Forlorn Hope" and characters say things like, “You’re not even a thing, you’re a reflection," in all seriousness, the irony deafening for a show so infatuated with itself. Heads are sliced open sadistically, and while some of the episodes open on an intriguing note, the song remains the same. The tech looks great—and there is a Spielberg-ian level of detailing to the user-interface and some of the rules—but the fundamentals are on flimsy ground. “Nobody’s watching them, nobody’s judging them, that’s what we tell them," says one character about collecting user data from guests at the theme park, but we don’t know why anyone would naively believe this assertion.

The show is now dorm-room science fiction, where the creators and characters wonder aloud about lofty concepts like the idea of freedom, but do so without depth or insight, preferring instead to give us a cliffhanger every now and again. It is a show that shows us tribes of different minds chanting “One of us! One of us!", like that classic scene in the film Freaks, except nobody here quite knows who they are.

Oh, what might have been. We were teased a season assured enough to lean less on spoilers and rely on actual narrative, but critics were instead given screeners of episodes with strict instructions not to mention the name of an actor in episode 2. Ah well. Gimmicky delights have gimmicky ends.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

He tweets at @rajasen

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