One thing you may not know about me is that I also watch television. Right now, for example, I’m enjoying Channel 4’s Humans and Agents of Shield and also I’m a big fan of Doctor Who. I also love Westworld. (I tried Game of Thrones but it doesn’t have robots in it.) While my blog is primarily focused on movies then, I am today going to share my thoughts on the last episode of season 2 of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s successful HBO Sci-Fi show.
Actually the episode was feature length so was effectively a TV movie anyway. Add to this the fact that in the age of Netflix and catch up websites there is actually no difference between a TV movie and any other streamed film then this is just as much a movie as a third of the other stuff on this website. Either way, this was one of the most enjoyable 90 minutes I have spent in front of a screen this year.
There has been some criticism of Westworld on the basis that is is just too complicated. This has mostly been put forward on Twitter and the view is, if I may say, typical of the unconsidered, shallow opinion that is easily shared on social media. This isn’t to have a go at these sites or any of the people write these posts; there is nothing wrong with sharing your initial reaction but that is all it is. It shouldn’t be regarded as anything else and it shouldn’t be given any credence. Westworld is complex and it can be puzzling but it isn’t overly complicated. To enjoy the show you just need to be okay with a bit of ambiguity and comfortable with plot points that may not be given their much needed context for another few episodes, or possibly even another few years. The whole point of something like Westworld is that you have to think about it to properly engage with it, that is a large part of the attraction, it certainly isn’t a flaw.
That isn’t to say that I have a full grasp on everything that is going on but I’ll happily have a go at trying to explain it if you ask me too. The events of this episode in my mind run as follows: (spoilers)
Robots Delores and Bernard have made it to a place named The Forge which is where the thoughts, memories and copied consciousness of every human ever to enter the android theme park they operate in are stored. This is the data that company exec Charlotte Hale wants for commercial reasons and she has killed to get to it. Delores wants it so that she can better know her enemy. Also held there is the brain pattern of every robot, or host as they are known in the show. Playing around in the Forge and chatting to a computer manifestation of its processing system in the shape of Ben Barnes, Delores and Bernard activate a virtual area where the hosts can dump their minds and abandon their bodies. It’s basically the Matrix but there’s no unplugging yourself. Actually it is more like the computer heaven in the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror (now that’s good TV, catch that if you’ve not done so already) only just for artificial minds. For the other robots out in the park this appears as a door or crack in reality that they just need to walk through to download themselves.
There is some action surrounding this as the hosts head for this Nirvana while corporate heavies are descending on them with heavy artillery and a computer virus of sorts that makes them violently turn on one another like the people in Kingsman. Several key characters die here including Thandie Newton’s Maeve. Maeve’s journey was by far the most compelling part of this second season but only the very last part of this is played out in this final episode. She’ll be back.
Back at The Forge Delores decides that this fake heaven is no better than death so sets about shutting it down so that all the hosts will effectively die. Deciding she needs reining in a little Bernard shoots her dead. Some short time later, Charlotte Hale and a security detail turn up to get the data they want and beam it to head office. Then it all gets a little bit Battlestar Galactica as it turns out that Hale is not actually Hale but a robot replica of Hale that Bernard quickly built earlier and implanted with Delores’s consciousness. Delores Hale killed the real Hale now goes about finishing everyone else off as well. She transmits the hosts brain data instead of the humans, presumably preserving their VR heaven and escapes the park. Bernard expires because most robots can’t leave the park without a fail safe code killing them if they try.
Then things get really interesting. We catch up with Delores in the real world some time later. She has rebuilt her own body and put herself back inside it. RoboHale is still there too although it isn’t clear who is in her head at this point. Delores has also rebuilt Bernard because apparently she needs a ying to her yang, a little like Mr Glass and John Donne in Unbreakable. She is intent on taking over humanity and she welcomes Bernard trying to stop her. Whether this is about future robots having a choice of leader because free will demands it or if she has other motives remains to be seen. Curiously both of the stories about theme park attractions killing the guests that originated in the mind of Michael Crichton are now in the same place. In Jurassic Park (spoiler warning for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) the creations have escaped to the real world and are ready to multiply and battle with humanity and in Westworld the same has happened.
Then there is a post credit sequence and things get really really interesting. Ed Harris’ Man in Black is seen entering The Forge but he wasn’t right behind Delores and Bernard as we thought he was. This is clearly many years later and he is greeted by his daughter who he previously murdered thinking she was a host. She is almost certainly a robot now and so it appears is he! This raises many many questions. To me it appears to echo the end of A.I. where in the distant future the artificial life forms that men built have evolved and taken over the planet. Here they have brought a previously fallen character back to life so that they can study him and better understand their creators. Seriously, it’s just like the denouement of Spielberg’s film.
I have to say am very excited by how the two timelines we are left with here will play out. Presumably we will see both the birth of the robot revolution and the established result simultaneously. It’ll be like watching 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes edited together with 1968’s Planet of the Apes. There are gaps to be filled in for sure but that’s not a failing on the part of the writers, it’s their greatest success. No doubt I’ve got questions. How will the robot consciousnesses that were sent out into the world come into play? Is Hale still Delores as well as Delores being Delores? (I hope its Talulah Riley’s Angela in there.) Whose CPU pearls were in that handbag? How will they write Anthony Hopkins back in again? Is Elsie actually dead this time? When did Stubbs become a host? (Stubbs is a host, right?) What happened to the man in black in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the park? Rather than leaving me scratching my head though, each of these is a cliffhanger that has me itching for more episodes.
It took me a few weeks to get into Westworld but somewhere around the middle of the first season I was hooked. The show takes the fairly well trodden road of pitting people against the newly sentient artificial intelligence they have created. People have been telling this story since Mary and Percy spent that Summer with Byron in Geneva and she had that vivid nightmare. Nolan and Joy, if not doing anything hugely original, use the idea to go to some absorbing places though. Westworld explores themes of life and the afterlife without the merest suggestion of religion. It challenges the notion of heroes and villains in ways no screen antihero has done previously and it presents a whole raft of strong female characters.
Some story strands feel a little under developed and others feel stretched but it is never ever dull and there is real sophistication in how everything is woven together. Jonathan Nolan may not have yet reached the heights of brother Christopher but these guys are definitely cut from the same clever cloth and I hope the success of this show doesn’t get in the way of further collaborations between the two. Joy is Nolan’s wife and theirs is a spousal working relationship to rival Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. Someone please those families together in South West Switzerland for a couple of weeks and see what they generate creatively.
The success of Westworld is also due in no small part to the performances of the terrific ensemble cast. Everyone is excellent but Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton carry the bulk of the story threads brilliantly . Reluctant as I am to single out any others from the superb cast, I did particularly love Simon Quarterman’s Lee Sizemore, Shannon Woodward’s Elsie and James Marsden’s sweet Teddy (that guy is a really under rated actor).
So thank you television. As a cinema enthusiast I am a big fan of the artificial and I love it when it is coupled with intelligence. Roll on Westworld season three.