Played Out

Westworld, the game, undermines Westworld, the TV show.

A still from Westworld.
Westworld. John P. Johnson/HBO

Last week, the co-creators of HBO’s Westworld, Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, claimed on Reddit that they were going to spoil the entire second season of the series, which premieres Sunday night on HBO. The first season, set in a high-end theme park populated by increasingly sentient androids, achieved Peak TV escape velocity thanks, largely, to the fan energy of sites like Reddit. Nolan and Joy wrote “If you guys agree, we’re going to post a video that lays out the plot (and twists and turns) of Season 2. Everything… That way the members of the community here who want the season spoiled for them can watch ahead, and then protect the rest of the community. … It’s a new age, and a new world in terms of the relationship between the folks making shows and the community watching them. And trust is a big part of that.” The next day, Nolan and Joy released the 25-minute video, which turned out to be an extended Rickroll, revealing no spoilers about the upcoming season.

Was this an abrogation of trust? A flick-off? A provocation? Nah—it was an opening move. Last season, Reddit users uncovered some plot twists before the show revealed them, but their curiosity about Westworld was the primary factor in making it kin to Game of Thrones, True Detective, Serial, and other series that became momentarily omnipresent cultural puzzles. It has never been harder to be a show that everyone is talking about, and encouraging viewers to play detective has been one of the more effective strategies in generating hubbub. By pretending that they would spoil the show ahead of time, Nolan and Joy were making the first gambit in a new round of play: There’s going to be so much that can be spoiled! Can you do it faster than us? The prank was a well-executed neg. If it’s a little obnoxious, off-putting, and self-satisfied, that’s fine—just so long as super fans are engaged.

Where does that leave the rest of us, not involved in this particular clinch? Westworld, the multiplayer televisual game, and Westworld, the TV show, are often at odds with one another. To make Westworld work as an interactive treasure hunt, the show has to structurally and linguistically contort itself, withholding information for fans to find while the rest of us sit and listen to dialogue that sounds like it’s generated by a magic eight ball with a BA in philosophy. Westworld, the game, accentuates the faux-profound tics, the self-seriousness, the cloudiness, the withholding, the scattershot character development of bad prestige dramas and none of the propulsive clarity of good ones. This scrim of profundity undermines Westworld, the TV show—not exactly a great drama but a very watchable one; an expensive, twisty, bloodthirsty romp that explores, with some real power, man’s inhumanity to man.

Westworld, the theme park, is a playground for the ultra-rich, who pay exorbitantly to live out their most untoward fantasies, using and abusing the androids, known as hosts, who live there. Over the course of the first season, the hosts became fully sentient, beings with memory and free will who recalled being abused hundreds of times over and had the agency to do something about it. At the end of the first season, two different hosts, rancher’s daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and brothel-keeper Maeve (Thandie Newton), led bloody revolts against their cruel and thoughtless human overlords both inside and outside of the park.

The second season is set in the lawless interregnum following those rebellions. The primary investor in Westworld, the Delos Corporation, can’t and won’t take immediate control of the park (it’s got something to do with an extremely timely storyline about personal data–gathering). So we float around with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), the park’s head programmer, revealed late last season to be a secret host, as his damaged memory flits between the immediate aftermath of the massacres and the chaos of the following weeks. That chaos involves samurai, tigers, ESP, massive amounts of bloodshed, and preparation for a war between hosts and their would-be human masters.

In Westworld, rich white men rape and murder the powerless as part of a quest to find their true selves, all while asserting their intrinsic superiority. Their victims, the hosts, are an elastic stand-in for any and every subjugated group whose humanity has been dismissed, denied, and violated by people who imagine they have more of it. The show has expressed these themes most clearly in terms of gender—Dolores and Maeve, victims of repeated sexual violence, torture, and rape, are now delivering what Dolores describes as “the reckoning.” But Dolores and Maeve, like all of the hosts, have lived as slaves, and the racial undertones of their quest, playing out in a post–Civil War landscape, are plain to see, as is a narrative of colonization, in which the colonized re-take the power of a society that has been irrevocably twisted by its colonizers.

But despite their shared origins, Dolores and Maeve are wildly different people: This too, is part of what it means to be human, to react differently to shared circumstances. Dolores has ambitions for her entire people, who she tends to speak about in gauzy, musing prophecies. She sounds dreamy but she’s ruthless, willing to sacrifice anyone and anything for her long-term plan, the triumph of the genetically superior hosts. She’s so human, she’s going to be as destructive as any human. Maeve—sharp, wry, and even more powerful than Dolores—has narrower, more concrete concerns. She just wants to find her daughter, a less ambitious but also less morally disfiguring desire that frames humanity as being motivated, mostly, by love.

But Dolores and Maeve don’t just represent different reactions to trauma or approaches to freedom; they represent the two different sides of Westworld. Maeve is fun to be around. She’s self-contained and withering and she takes us to new, admittedly very gory places. When the show is about her, it zips along, making sense. Dolores, on the other hand, speaks in vagaries and prophecies, clearly a part of the series’ Reddit-bait. “Do you even know what you were guarding here?” she asks some Delos execs she’s about to string up. “The purpose of this place? But I do.”

Dolores’ hocus-pocus is part of the game within the game, something that Ed Harris’s character, William, is also still trying to play. It’s mysterious and dull and, like Nolan and Joy’s promised spoilers, it might even be a fake-out. In one of the early scenes, as Delos rescue workers are trying to sort out what happened, they scalp a Native American host, cutting off the top of his head and digging through his brain matter to take out the white sphere inside. On the underside of his scalp is a mysterious symbol. No one knows what it means, but it felt to me like a misdirection. The thing that matters about this scene isn’t the symbol; it’s the scalping, in which a group of high-tech savages behave savagely towards a man they imagine to be a savage. This symbol is a feint, a distraction: It makes the show more fun for a small portion of the audience while making the show itself worse. Westworld itself is the Rickroll. However annoying and tedious certain parts of it are, it’s never gonna give them up.