When you take a step back and look at the elements that form Westworld, it amounts to a lot of very interesting ideas, some excellent performances, individually stunning episodes and a surprising amount of violence and bloodshed. What’s becoming more apparent the longer this season goes on, is that all of these elements don’t necessarily amount to a great TV show. Make no mistake, Westworld is big. In scope, in ambition, in status, in cast, it’s capital B big. But, barring a couple of truly excellent episodes in this second season, it’s frustratingly less than the sum of its parts and that deficit is becoming more and more noticeable.
Last week’s ‘Phase Change’ was easily the weakest episode of Season Two, but its successor ‘Les Écorchés’ suggests that a good deal of its issues stemmed from some necessary place-setting for what was to come. In essence, ‘Les Écorchés’ is Westworld in a microcosm: rambling monologues about humanity followed by brutal violence. At one point this week, we even get both at the same time. The change of pace is welcome, as Dolores, Teddy, Angela and co. unleash hell on the Delos goons in the Mesa, thankfully disposing of Coughlin – whose gruff machismo was tiresome from the first word out of his mouth – and tracking down Dolores’s father.
Up until this episode, it seemed that Dolores and Maeve were on similar paths, albeit via very different methods. Maeve was driven by her need to protect her daughter, even though she was now awake and knew that the connection was just a construct. Dolores’s bloody quest for ‘the valley beyond’ ran in tandem with her inability to let go of her attachment to her father – being used as a big ol’ USB drive by Delos. It’s only now we see that despite Dolores genuinely caring for her father, she wasn’t desperately tracking him down out of sentimentality or attachment, rather she wanted the same thing Charlotte Hale does: the information locked away in his brain.
While Dolores and her gang are breezing through the heavily armed team at the Mesa, Bernard is inside the Cradle with Ford, discovering the nefarious goings on behind the scenes. Delos haven’t been trying to make the hosts more human, they’ve been trying to make humans more like the hosts, reaching for immortality by imprinting actual human consciousnesses onto hosts, much like the failed attempts on helping Jim Delos live forever. This is quite the revelation, and one that earns a more genuine gasp of surprise than the show’s previous big reveals, but it just serves as a segue into more lengthy discussions of mortality and humanity.
Out in the park, Maeve and William cross paths when both get tangled up with the Ghost Nation. Maeve turns William’s host buddies on him, even awakened Lawrence, who she prompts to remember all the suffering he endured at William’s hands. The ensuing bloody shoot out ends with William taking more than a few hits, only to be saved from death by Lee and some more Delos goons. Lawrence gets obliterated and Maeve is gravely wounded, saved herself by Lee’s intervention. I’ll admit that while Ed Harris is always watchable, William’s arc has lost any sense of engagement. If there is some deeper meaning to his quest, beyond finding ‘real stakes’, the show has kept it quiet for too long.
It’s hard not to compare this episode to Game of Thrones. William takes about five shots. I think Maeve gets two. Charlotte Hale is cornered by Dolores with a brain saw. All three escape with their lives, for now. In Game of Thrones, at least one would have been wiped out, but Westworld doesn’t seem at all willing to sacrifice its main characters in order to upset the natural order or shake things up. We lose Lawrence, Coughlin, Peter Abernathy and Angela, but no one of real consequence (sorry guys!). If Westworld wants to genuinely surprise and grip its audience, it needs to find its own real stakes. Otherwise we’re just philosophising and murdering and not really getting anywhere.
Questions, questions, questions
- William’s a host, right? That’s got to be this season’s badly kept secret.
- Sad to see Clifton Collins go. He’s one of those character actors who is always a joy to watch, even in the smallest parts. Check him out in Tigerland and Sunshine Cleaning.
- Call me a cynic, but violence and philosophising don’t tend to achieve much. Is that the show’s message? That all this killing and discussing humanity is just an endless, pointless loop? If it is, that’s pretty meta, right?
- Reading back, this review sounds a lot harder on this episode than it warranted. It’s an entertaining hour but there’s a definite sense of fatigue setting in.