[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Westworld” Season 2, including the finale and its post-credits scene.]
So many people died in the “Westworld” Season 2 finale — some even died for the second time.
Think about that for a second: How many times have you seen Bernard (played beautifully by Jeffrey Wright) die? It happened once in Season 1, when Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) orders him to kill himself. It happened twice in Season 1 if you count the flashback to when Arnold (also played by Jeffrey Wright) orders Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) to kill him. And then it happened again near the ending of Season 2, when Dolores — brought back to life by Bernard and inhabiting a copy of Charlotte Hale’s body (Tessa Thompson) — decides Bernard needs to die so he can be rebuilt and set free in the real world.
But he was still shot dead. For a brief amount of time, the audience is meant to believe Bernard is gone, just like they were meant to believe he was gone at the end of Episode 9 in Season 1. He may have died more times throughout the first 20 episodes of “Westworld,” and the fact this ardent viewer can’t remember exactly how many times a major character has been killed indicates a larger problem.
In its exploration of mortality through immortal beings, “Westworld” has made death meaningless.
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Call it a byproduct of the time-hopping story structure or the hosts’ recyclable nature from the get-go, but by the end of Season 2, one thing is clear: When a character dies on “Westworld” — and their death is supposed to matter — the emotional toll is negligible.
Too Many Deaths, Too Often
Though characters dying and coming back to life has been an accepted aspect from the start of the series, things shifted in Season 2. The deaths meant to evoke a response did not, and everyone probably realized it at different times; perhaps it was the lack of earth-shaking anger felt when the once-benevolent Teddy (James Marsden) rose from the dead (again) only to take his own life instead of helping Dolores one second longer. Or maybe it was when Dr. Ford (famously slain in the Season 1 finale) returned only to be deleted as coldly as a typo in your toolbar. Perhaps you noticed that deadened feeling inside when an actual human died instead of a host, like Lee (Simon Quarterman) or Elsie (Shannon Woodward) in the Season 2 finale.
Even with their heroic and horrific ends (respectively), there’s a nagging sense they could come back. After all, seemingly everyone who could come back from the dead has come back from the dead. Be it Bernard, Teddy, Dr. Ford, Dolores, or Maeve, most of the series regulars have died and been resurrected in dramatic fashion. Teddy’s death last week was the climax of the episode, and then there he is, standing in The Valley Beyond, waiting for Season 3 to start. Even Emily (Katja Herbers), who was thought to be an accidental victim of her father’s mad romp through the park, turned up in the finale’s post-credits scene.
“I knew it,” William snarls at the sight of his daughter, alive and well. Yeah, well, the audience did, too, on one level or another. “Westworld” has to go to further and further extremes to prove a character has died. In Episode 9, “Vanishing Point,” when William didn’t cut open his daughter’s arm to prove she was human, it left the door open for her return later on. That’s more than enough to not only suspect she’s OK, but to believe she’s OK. And if viewers believe she’s OK immediately after they watch her die, they’re not going to feel the weight of William’s choice to shoot her. They’ve been taught not to trust the narrative’s most dramatic twists, and that’s sucking the emotional stakes from the series.
The only way to trust someone is truly gone is based on information gleaned offscreen. Fans scour interviews, panel discussions, critical analysis, Reddit AMAs, and more to try to confirm a character isn’t coming back next season. Someone is undoubtedly prowling the internet right now trying to find out if Shannon Woodward is signed on for Season 3. That’s not the way a story should unfold. Anytime a writer has to explain something important in their show — instead of showing as much in the series itself — that’s a bad sign.
Even beyond all those deaths, this idea is what got “Westworld” in trouble throughout Season 2. The idea of killing off too many characters — or, to be more accurate, killing off the same characters too many times — may just be the unfortunate (and somewhat unavoidable) result of writers trying to one-up what began on “Game of Thrones.” Showrunners seem to feel like they can’t just kill off their stars anymore, they have to find more creative ways to shock their audience. Debatable as that may be, it leads to the potential problem facing Season 3: Are Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy running the show, or is Reddit?
Reddit Runs the World
Setting death aside for a moment, Season 2 often felt confusing for the sake of being confusing. Truths were held back in order to preserve twists — like why The Man in Black suddenly wanted to destroy the park and what Bernard had been up to during all those timelines — but those truths also resulted in lengthy, befuddling dialogue. Lots of exposition was needed just to explain what was happening, and not just in the finale. Ford’s return in Season 2 was basically just so Bernard could have a sounding board. He needed to explain what was happening inside “The Cradle” to the audience, so he needed someone to talk to alongside him. This happened… a lot. Just look at how Bernard recaps his thoughts in the finale for O.G. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and later New Dolores (Tessa Thompson).
So much of Season 2 felt like viewers were being asked to keep up the pace, but kept from getting ahead. Some felt this resulted in a season with low-to-no risks. Others were just lost. Still more cited the need to actively engage in “Westworld,” to the point of creating your own substance. Overall enjoyment varied, but these responses are notably different than a complaint facing Season 1, that the audience solved the puzzles long before the series confirmed them. Never mind the twists weren’t the point — these complaints rattled the creators enough that they threatened to reveal all the twists before Season 2 even began.
Rather than turning the infamous RickRoll into a prank, Nolan and Joy may have been better off following through and spoiling the season for fans, if only so the writers didn’t tie the show’s success to its secrets. Despite claiming “Westworld” is about more than its twists, Season 2 felt so over-protective about what’s coming next it spoiled the fun of what’s happening right now. It was so determined to outsmart its audience it forgot to entertain them, and whether that desire manifested in repeatedly killing off characters or crafting an ongoing story so intricate it was difficult to tap into, the latest incarnation of “Westworld” is as cold as a host body still stuck in storage.
Nolan and Joy set out to study the meaning of life and thus the meaning of death. With immortal hosts gaining control and mortal humans craving it, their series is perfectly designed to force viewers to face reality. Instead, Season 2 offered a world where life always finds a way, so death doesn’t matter. It’s the antithesis of where the show began, and marks a disappointing end for 2018.
But if this ending is a low-point, there could still be a rewarding climb out. “Westworld” Season 3 could open up a new door worth stepping through, one with real risks, finite rules, and lives worth worrying about. As long as Season 2 marked the tipping point of TV deaths and future episodes avoid succumbing to Reddit-fueled storytelling, there’s hope. Otherwise, death may be the only escape.
“Westworld” is streaming in full on HBO NOW. Season 3 has been renewed and is expected to air in 2019.