The first season of HBO’s Westworld ended Sunday night with a high-budget bang that had people debating its twists and arguing its cliffhangers. Did they really kill Ford? The Man in Black? Is next season just going to be hosts running rampant, hunting for revenge on humans? And that’s perhaps the most interesting question right now — what does next season look like?
Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy turned a cult sci-fi film from the ‘70s into a television labyrinth, taking us so deep into a maze of twists that it’s almost impossible to know what season two, which won’t premiere until 2018, will look like. While there are a lot of practical questions, like the fates of Ford, Logan, and even Abernathy, these are more general thoughts on the tone and trajectory of the show. In many ways, the first season was a high-wire act that can’t be replicated. If Westworld keeps going down its own rabbit hole, it could become Heroes. How does it avoid such a fate?
Stop living in the past.
One of the main takeaways from the finale for this writer was the realization that this season has been almost entirely prologue. It’s really a primer on the history of Westworld, defining Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) and Ford’s (Sir Anthony Hopkins) roles in the creation of the park, laying out the rules of the place, and detailing the hosts’ journey towards awareness. Even one of our few likable protagonists, William (Jimmi Simpson), was a character who existed only in flashback and that we are unlikely to see again (at least in his youthful form). Now that we can sit back and reflect, so much of season one of Westworld is about the past, which is appropriate for a season that emphasized memory and grief, but is certainly something that can’t be maintained forever. We need our drama to have momentum, forward progress, and characters who grow (or refuse to) over the course of a season. The impression that much of the first season of Westworld was mere setup is what I think is at the core of a lot of people’s frustrations with the show — the sense that we’re not getting anywhere and only treading water in a sea of manipulative editing and shocking twists. The main thing we’d like to see the show do is make what’s happening next to these characters more interesting than what happened previously.
Have some fun with it.
Who would have guessed that a show about sentient robots would be so dour? While many fans embraced the deep, philosophical discussions inherent in the first season of Westworld, there was definitely a sense that the show took itself a little too seriously, especially in the back half. And this lack of pure enjoyment was highlighted by that fantastic scene in the center of episode seven, “Trace Decay,” in which Maeve (Thandie Newton) realizes the extent of her new powers during the town shoot-out. With a contagious spring in her step and glimmer in her eye, Maeve commands the sheriff to let the daily fracas continue, while she brings Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) into the saloon. The way the scene is shot, edited, and performed by Newton is almost playful, and typified what was missing so often from season one of Westworld — fun. It would also be nice to be reminded why people pay a fortune to come to Westworld and to break up the philosophical quandaries with moments of joy or laughter every now and then.
Ground it with characters.
The fact that the only relatable human protagonist from the first season (William) was also the show’s villain leaves us with a huge black hole in terms of character. The age of the TV anti-hero has taught us that we don’t have to necessarily like the people we watch every Sunday night, but there does need to be something relatable and grounded in their journey for us to care. Westworld could easily become a series of rug-pulls. Like this character? He’s really dead! Like this character? He’s really a host! And the problem with that kind of writing is it has a short leash in terms of viewer patience. It could be argued that Westworld needs a character like Jack from Lost, who we feel like we know and trust. He doesn’t have to be a white knight, but he or she does need to be consistent and not merely a cog in the plot-device machine.
Don’t tip your hand quite so much.
It turned out that we saw most of the first season’s twists of Westworld coming from pretty far away. After the second episode, we were already theorizing about the Man in Black being William and Bernard being a host. While those played out in dramatically satisfying ways, one could easily argue that they were telegraphed too directly. The best magicians do something with their left hand while you’re looking at their right hand, but Westworld was all right hand. It would be nice for the second season to include a twist or two that comes completely out of left field, and only makes sense after further explanation or upon deep reflection of more subtle hints. For example, if you’re bringing Ford back in the fifth episode of season two (if that was, as theorized, a host version shot at the end of season one), don’t drop clues for the first four episodes. Just spring it on us. Keep viewers off their game in a way that makes Westworld feel like more than just a puzzle demanding to be solved.
Break the door.
We saw a glimpse of a potential other park (Samurai World) in the season finale (as well as the fact that Maeve’s daughter is in “Park 1”), and there’s been an incredible amount of speculation about the world outside of the confines of the theme park. Which is why I think we need to get out of Westworld more to understand its importance in this society and its allure in the next season. Imagine if the season premiere took place entirely outside of the Old West setting — either in another world or the “real one.” There’s a sense that Westworld as a concept lacks a greater human context. That was clearly purposeful and effective in season one, making us prisoners of the park as much as the hosts, but Westworld as a place could gain a much more satisfying depth if we knew a little more about the world around it.