June 25, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Westworld”


For all that HBO’s WESTWORLD is deliberately obscure and oblique, one thing has become increasingly clear through the course of its second season:  series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy expect viewers to decide for themselves what aspects of the show are features and which are bugs.  Most obviously, Westworld has no interest in any conventional notions of character development.  This isn’t an inevitability of many of its protagonists being robot “hosts,” because to give one current example, AMC’s excellent Humans features a full cast of wholly inhabited characters, some of whom are robots.  Westworld has chosen to revolve around a constant game of making viewers guess who is a host and who a human, and in either case, the character’s actions are usually governed by pre-programmed rules, the nature of which are often themselves unclear.  This is intentional, of course, tying in with Nolan and Joy’s larger themes about the limitations of free will and the existential question of what it means to be human, but it’s difficult to feel any emotional connection to characters whose emotions and choices are predetermined, especially “death” is mostly a temporary condition for any given character.

This is all compounded by Westworld‘s narrative style.  Nolan and Joy don’t so much play their story cards close to the best as clutch the entire deck for dear life, revealing only the slightest bits and pieces, and frequently obscuring them with timeline trickery.  It’s often impossible to tell what the basic goals of the characters are, or the stakes of their actions.  Again, none of this is accidental, but the combination of these factors means that we also can’t really be sure what the creators’s point of view is, which distinguishes Westworld from the work of other “cold” filmmakers like, to name the obvious, Stanley Kubrick.

Tonight’s season finale, written by Nolan and Joy, and directed by Frederick E.O. Toye, was forced to cough up some information.  Much of it confirmed fan theories throughout the season.  The “Valley Beyond” was indeed the massive server that contained the duplicate brains of every guest who had ever come to the Delos park.  (In an oddly charming touch, they were stored in the form of printed books.)  The “Door” was a pathway that led hosts to an Edenic virtual reality, if they weren’t killed first by the cruel psychic powers of Clementine (Angela Sarafyan).  The Man In Black (Ed Harris)… well, we’ll get to him.  The mega-twist of the finale was that during the week between the season’s main two timelines, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) killed the original version of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) but then placed Dolores’s consciousness into a new host version of the evil Delos executive Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), and host-Hale left the park for the real world, with a copy of Bernard’s brain in her bag.  (And a non-evil version of Charlotte?)

Westworld is literally nothing without its mysteries, and its favorite carrier is the Man In Black.  A post-credits sequence showed him as a host (with a host version of his dead daughter as his tutor), but appeared to take place a long time after the events of Season 2.  Did that mean he’d been a host all along?  That he becomes a host sometime in the future?  For what reason?  Perhaps Season 3 will provide answers, and perhaps not.

Westworld is a gorgeously made piece of work, with all the production values HBO can buy, and the cast performs its multiple-layered gnomic pronouncements with commitment.  Occasionally, an actor even manages some emotional contact, as has been the case this season with Maeve (Thandie Newton), whose character is currently dead, and Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), currently in virtual paradise with Maeve’s daughter.  But there’s only so much the actors can do with roles that bind them into narrative loops.

Is technical proficiency and endlessly tantalizing storytelling enough to make Westworld a satisfying series?  (Particularly since it almost never even tries to locate a sense of humor.)  The show feels, weirdly, both necessary and disposable, fascinating and forgettable.  Like most of its characters, human and host, Westworld provides a notable simulation, in its case of entertainment itself.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."