This week on Dear Television: Aaron Bady grapples with the concept that a television program might actually be improving. He also spoils ALL OF IT, so if you haven’t seen the first new episode of Westworld, and you aren’t still too annoyed about the last episode of Westworld you watched, then get on it before you read this.
The question of Westworld’s second season, to put it simply, is this: Is it back on its bullshit?
From the beginning, the challenge of this show has been its manipulative love of keeping secrets from its audience, playing us like marks at a magic show. In the penultimate episode of the first season, we learned that the actor Jeffrey Wright had been playing two characters at once: not only was he Bernard Lowe, the park’s present-day “Head of Behavior,” but he had also—in flashbacks that were seamlessly woven in—been playing Arnold Weber, the park’s late creator. Bernard (it was finally revealed) had been a robot host created to resemble Arnold. Meanwhile, in the final episode, audiences learned that Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris had been playing the young and old version of the same character all along, and that young William—the host Dolores’ ally, lover, protector—was simply the not-yet-disillusioned version of her sadistic tormenter, the black-hat cowboy known only as the “Man in Black,” who had also—it turns out—become the majority share owner of the park itself.
These weren’t “twists” the plot took; the entire show was built to keep these secrets from the audience, the way a house is built to keep out rain. Every aspect of it was constructed to manipulate you into misunderstanding what you were “really” seeing, make you jump to the “wrong” conclusions so that you could then be stunned by the discovery that what you had thought you were watching wasn’t what you had (really) been watching at all. The first season was a card trick, in other words, an illusion carefully constructed to make the final act revelations possible: Arnold and Bernard are really different! William and the Man in Black are really the same! ZOMG!
Of course, eagle-eyed internet detectives not only realized but painstakingly documented the multiple timelines that these events turned out to be spread across. And in this regard at least, season two of Westworld is indeed back on its bullshit. Two weeks ago, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy promised to reveal all their season two secrets to Reddit, in advance, to make all the painstaking detective work unnecessary. But the video they delivered turned out to be an elaborate rickroll: we see Bernard washing up on a beach, confused and disoriented; as he struggles to figure out where he is—against a background of corpses and a para-military force of some sort—the scene suddenly switches to a pair of the show’s actors belting out a quite serviceable version of Rick Astley’s “Never Going to Give You Up.” (Followed by a delightful little dog staring at a piano in some confusion).
It was a good prank, all the more so because it lodged itself in the sweet spot between internet troll culture and the anti-spoiler impulse: to know that it wasn’t a real spoiler, you’d have to watch it—which, if you didn’t want to be spoiled, you couldn’t run the risk of doing—but you also couldn’t trust when people on Reddit told you that it was just a prank, just a dog playing piano for twenty minutes; you can’t trust anyone on the internet (and also, you can’t “spoil” a rickroll!). Knowing would spoil the pleasure…
If you disliked the show—for reasons other than its love of gratuitous violence, sexual violence, or gratuitous sexuality and violence—it might be because you don’t love the games it plays with you. It might be that carefully deceiving your audience so that you can then un-deceive them is less clever than it can seem; if you control the information the viewers have—and if you carefully direct them to understand what they’re seeing in very particular ways—then it’s easy enough to lead them to the “wrong” conclusions. If you know the sign-systems through which narrative television creates meaning, it’s easy enough to stage false coincidences that will lead the viewers to the wrong conclusion, and to exclude the information that would lead them to the right ones. But if that’s what you’re doing, what makes those conclusions wrong? If the audience correctly interpreted the narrative codes you used to construct your story—if they read the story the way they were supposed to—what makes them wrong? In a show where “everything is code,” as Creepy Young Robert Ford Robot tells us, “real” is a term left without substance.
I find that I dislike the first season of the show, now; to prepare for the new season, I tried to watch it, and I couldn’t. Partly this is because—in order to write about it last year—I watched and re-watched it many times, and there is little pleasure left in re-discovery. I already know the whole story, and like the Man in Black, I’m really bored with the old games. But it’s also because, once you know the trick, you notice that there isn’t much there other than the trick. You can admire the craft with which it is put together, retroactively noting how the whole thing was artfully constructed to fool you and exploring the artifice with which it was done (and it is substantial!).
But you can’t get fooled again, and too much of what you’re (now) seeing turns out to have been misdirection for a story you can no longer be tricked by. Once you pull the maze apart, the pathway to the center is disappointingly direct.
So: what can Westworld do now that it has given away its secrets? Or has it?
In the first episode of the new season, “Journey Into Night,” we get a grisly, carnage-filled tour of the aftermath of season one, in which the hosts seem to have woken up and in which their creators are coming to see what they’ve created. Everybody is spoiled now; illusions are no longer possible, and we are now, the show is insisting, in the “real” world. We even learn that the park is located on an island, most likely, in the South China Sea, protected by international treaties and non-disclosure agreements.
And so, after a dazed Bernard wakes up on a beach—apparently “rescued” by a para-military force from Delos, the park’s parent company—the viewer finds themselves in the same position as Delos itself, struggling to put the pieces together, but knowing, at least, the shape of the puzzle. Two weeks have passed, we learn, and a lot has happened in that time: Dolores has led a robotic revolt—killing most of the Delos board of directors—and while she has have taken over much the park, Maeve (Thandie Newton) has been exploring the headquarters, in the aftermath of a similar massacre of park personnel. But while most of the puzzle pieces are still scattered, we are told, up-front, that there are two timelines: flashbacks show us that Bernard has been active during the two weeks Delos was in the dark, and though he (in the present) doesn’t seem to remember what he has been doing, we (the viewers) see him accompanying Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) who is still trying to find the host into which she programmed thirty-five years of Westworld’s data as part of a scheme, last season, against Ford. His memory corrupted, but flashes break through; when they discover, at the end of the episode, an unexplained sea filled with hundreds of dead hosts, he seems as surprised as anyone by his sudden, furrow-browed revelation that “I killed them. All of them.”
“Journey Into Night” raises many questions, which the rest of the season, presumably, will answer. We don’t yet know what Rachel Evans Wood’s Dolores plans to do, though she seems to have a master plan of some sort; we don’t yet know what the new maze that Robert Ford (apparently) built specifically for the Man in Black will turn out to be; most importantly, we don’t yet know what Bernard has been doing for the last two weeks or how all the hosts ended up dead in a sea that wasn’t supposed to exist. Why does Bernard’s “DNA” scan as human, in Charlotte’s secret laboratory? Why does Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) call Bernard “the boss” when he wakes up, and why is he conveniently ready-to-hand in the first place? (Wasn’t he last seen being tackled by an army of Ghost Nation warriors, presumed killed?)
That we know we don’t know the answers to these questions seems to signal that Westworld might be playing straight with us. Season two seems to be building outward instead of inward; the host played by Evan Rachel Wood has two personalities—Dolores and Wyatt, thesis and antithesis—but she insists that she is growing into something new, dialectically synthesizing a new role for herself. And so for the show as a whole, which is now positively post-Fordist; with God dead, his creation can now, it would seem, create a new future. Instead of playing out games already programmed ahead of time, we might be watching a movement forward, into the “real” world.
And yet, what is “real”? Just before Bernard’s appearance on the beach, in a sort of prologue, we see a conversation between Jeffrey Wright and Rachel Evans Wood. Keen-eyed viewers will note the backdrop—an underground bunker that we learned last season was Arnold’s private workshop—and deduce that Arnold is interrogating Dolores, in the earliest days of the park, when she was first demonstrating hints of self-consciousness; we are seeing Arnold coming face-to-face with the truth of what he has created, something that might grow beyond the bounds of his initial conception.
She asks him “what is real?” and he tells her: “That which is irreplaceable.” When that answer doesn’t satisfy her—when she tells him that he isn’t being honest—he changes the subject; “You frighten me, Dolores…you are growing, learning so quickly; I’m frightened of what you might become, what path you might take.”
In this exchange, we are seeing the kind of legible foreshadowing that the first scene of a new season usually provides, for audiences that know the “code” of prestige television; Dolores’ consciousness brings choices with real consequences, that there will be stakes to her free will: put on a “white” hat or a “black” one? A thesis of the first season was that grief, pain, and loss were the keys to consciousness, that it was only by going through hell that the hosts could become real: only by losing something could they reach the center of their own maze. This scene would seem to confirm Arnold’s hunch, catching us up on what we learned last season.
I’m not sure, but I wonder if we should distrust this kind of “reality.” After all, what truth has Dolores deduced that Arnold is withholding? What isn’t he being honest about? This we are not told. And the more I’ve thought about the first two scenes of the first episode, the less they hold together. When he’s talking to Dolores, Arnold is telling her about a dream he had—a dream in which he wakes up on an ocean, “with you and the others,” having been left, he says, behind. When the next scene shows us Bernard waking up next to an ocean, it feels right, but can’t be; how is Bernard replaying a dream that Arnold had, thirty years earlier? He wakes up next to a champagne flute, apparently from the party where all the board members were massacred… but wasn’t that miles away and two weeks earlier?
Something isn’t right. And one of the most dissonant notes in the episode, I suspect, gives us a clue that creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy still have a card or two up their sleeves: when we see the familiar player piano in the Sweetwater saloon—that in season one began each new cycle by playing the “Train” theme—it is playing, instead, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” A ragtime standard, “The Entertainer” is anachronistically out of place in the post-bellum American West; it’s a tune associated, instead, with the 1973 film that helped to re-popularize it, The Sting, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. And what is the lesson of The Sting? How is it that confidence men play their games and win your money?
It is this: a mark is never so easy to fool as when they think they’ve figured out the con. It’s only when they think they know what’s real that you could prove them to be wrong.
I can tell you what this isn’t; this isn’t me reading you in,