Westworld - Season 2
“This season, the power belongs solely with the women.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 2
Creators: Original story by Michael Crichton 👨🏼🇺🇸, TV show by Jonathan Nolan 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Lisa Joy 👩🏻🇺🇸
Writers: Original story by Michael Crichton 👨🏼🇺🇸, TV scripts by Jonathan Nolan 👨🏼🇺🇸(6 eps), Lisa Joy 👩🏻🇺🇸 (6 eps), Halley Gross 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), and various (5 ♂ and 1 ♀)
Reviewed by Monique 👩🏾🇺🇸
Click here to read the Season 1 review of Westworld.
Last year I gave Westworld a hard time, but now I’m changing my tune. I enjoyed most of the second season, especially the concentrated focus on why the characters act the way they act. We already know the park inhabitants are trying to define “life” for themselves, but this time around, we get to see how the gift of free will actually comes with a lot of grey areas.
For some, like Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a self-defined life means burning everything to the ground and launching an attack on the human race, rejecting everything about her prior narratives and motives. But for others like Akane (Rinko Kikuchi), life means not forgetting familial ties, even if that means rejecting the “truth” about their reality because for hosts like Akane, family is the only reality that matters. In between the two, other hosts like Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) recognize the unsettling reality of their fragile state, but resolve to use their robotic advantages to save their families and find peace.
If there was any weak link this season, it’s how much the series is committed to keeping the audience confused about the timeline. Throughout the season, we’re shown that events in the park are not happening in any chronological order. Perhaps this is meant to reflect the fact that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) scrambled his own memories to keep Delos Inc. from figuring out what he did and when. But for a viewer, it makes the story hard to follow and can become frustrating. This, along with the numerous confounding reveals such as The Man in Black (Ed Harris) and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) being hosts themselves, made things so unnecessarily complicated that a lot of critics came out of the season finale feeling angry. As Rolling Stone’s Sean T. Collins writes:
"It's hard to escape the sense that all this storytelling flim-flam has a core drive of its own: to obscure the show's countless weaknesses and dilute its few undeniable strengths."
Luckily, it’s precisely the season’s strengths—the linear episodes that focus on a host’s emotional journey—that keep this season from falling apart into a pile of robotic parts.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test: YES
I’m so relieved at the removal of scenes that depict humans raping robots. Instead, this season we focus more on female power, particularly the feminine wills of Dolores and Maeve. The two women drive most of the host-centric storylines, and while they don’t particularly belong to the “same side”, neither do they become enemies. This neutral relationship subverts the stereotypical treatment of women by not pitting them against each other, Mean Girls style, and instead allows them to flourish in all their complexities. (To be clear, Mean Girls is one of my favorite films, so don’t take this analogy as me tearing down a classic.)
I found Maeve’s story more gripping than Dolores’, who is simply out to kill the human race. Maeve, on the other hand, is fighting to regain her daughter from her previous life, and that emotional core keeps her story chugging along nicely. Dolores does have emotional ties too—her father and Teddy (James Marsden)—but sometimes her motivations can come off as one-note and, at worst, repetitive. How many times can Dolores talk about leaving “this world” and tearing down “their world” within one episode before it becomes a drinking game? Also, her decision to change Teddy’s personality puts Dolores in the hot seat for tampering with robots without their consent, the very thing that fuels her revolution.
Akane (Rinko Kikuchi) is also allowed to be more complex than I originally assumed she would be. I was unsure how much stereotyping would go into a host who is supposed to be a Japanese geisha, an occupation that has been highly fetishized by the West. Thankfully, Akane is hardly a wilting flower, instead acting like a boss as she kills the men who go after her ward, Sakura (Kiki Sukezane). She is resolute, and even surprises Maeve in her decision to stay inside Shogun World rather than joining Maeve and her band of revolutionaries. Akane’s reasoning for staying is just as compelling as Maeve’s reason for rebelling; both are driven by maternal love for their daughters. While Maeve journeys to find the daughter that has been ripped away from her, Akane stays inside the park to be near the shrine housing Sakura’s ashes.
As far as humans go, the women are a little less complex. The executive Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) at Delos Inc. is just as unlikable as she was last season, and while her character is meant to be unlikable, she remains uninspired and sketchy. She’s a Villain with a capital V, much like the Man in Black, and the only thing she is given to do is to set up the big reveal that she was formerly killed by a host version of herself—a version that is actually Dolores’ consciousness in a different body. Now that Hale is no longer the real Hale, though, it will be interesting to see how her characterization develops next season.
Bernard’s friend and tech Elsie (Shannon Woodward) is also underutilized. Whereas in Season 1, when she was a bigger figure in the grand scheme of the park’s day-to-day workings, she becomes relegated to being Bernard’s sidekick, only to get shot dead by Hale. Other women in the series, like the wife and daughter of the Man in Black, mostly serve his tragic storyline. They also end up dead.
So how do things look for the men of Westworld? Surprisingly, they are less defined than they were last season and on one level, it’s frustrating. I’m writing about Bernard in particular. At least 70 to 80 percent of each episode features Bernard looking confused, halting in his steps, and taking forever to say the simplest things. In the first season, The Man in Black was an intriguing villain because he seemed like an examination of how someone can lose touch with reality. But once it’s revealed that he is a host, The Man in Black suddenly becomes less interesting as audiences wonder if his actions have been his all along, or if they were all a part of Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) last game.
Teddy is also reduced to a character who doesn’t have much to do, despite having a complex arc. Even though there wasn’t any graphic sexual rape this season, Teddy’s trauma from Dolores still serves as an echo of the same non-consensual leanings the show had in its first season. Of course, this is meant to show that Dolores has become just as much of a monster as the humans she’s trying to kill, and Teddy’s eventual death via suicide is meant to be a punishment for her. But it would have been nice to see Teddy reclaim his own free will, reprogram himself to how he was before, and go after Dolores instead of crumbling into a powerless heap.
However, this treatment of the male characters in Westworld could be interpreted as gender role reversal. Whereas the women are in charge of most of the action and emotional focus, the men are left flailing with little sense of direction. A throughline for most of the men, in fact, is not knowing who they are or how they fit into “this world.” Teddy, in particular, is written much like how a damsel in distress would be, a continuation of his characterization from the first season. Meanwhile, Hector (Rodrigo Santoro), Maeve’s lover, recognizes that he will always be second to her mission to save her daughter and sacrifices himself so that Maeve can live. Hector’s Japanese counterpart, the ronin Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), also falls behind Akane, supporting her on her mission to reach the shrine to honor Sakura’s ashes. This season, the power belongs solely with the women.
The cultural aspects of Shogun World and the Ghost Nation are treated with the utmost care. For the Ghost Nation in particular, the show has come a long way. I wrote of Season 1:
“The Ghost Nation, the only Native American characters in the series, are barely characters. Instead, they are broad stereotypes of Native Americans with no lines of dialogue. They are only there to yell and kill.”
Their characters get fleshed out in Season 2 and if you let the showrunners tell it, the big Ghost Nation reveal was in their plan all along. I don’t know if I buy it since the decision to portray the characters as savages in the eyes of humans and hosts alike for an entire year is a very long and arduous con to undertake. However, the gap between seasons provided the writers a grand opportunity to finally give us a fresh take on Native Americans in the Western genre.
Much of that new story comes in the form of Zahn McClarnon’s Ghost Nation leader Akecheta, the first of the hosts to fully wake up. His episode “Kiksuya” goes down as the best episode of the entire season, and possibly the best piece of television in 2018. Akecheta is sensitive and haunted as he realizes who he is and how his life has been changed. Also, while he is personally motivated by lost love, as many male characters have historically been, his story expands far beyond “reclaiming his prize”. Instead, his motivation expands from reuniting with his love Kohana (Julia Jones) to finding the new world—The Valley Beyond—where every host can be free.
Along with McClarnon (Lakota, Irish) and Jones (Choctaw, Chickasaw, African-American), the Ghost Nation are populated with Native American actors who infuse their characters with heart, regardless of how little time their characters might have on screen. Notable actors include Irene Bedard (Inupiat, Yupik, Inuit, Cree and Métis) as Ghost Nation leader Wichapi, Booboo Stewart (Blackfoot, Scottish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean) as Wichapi’s son Etu, and Martin Sensmeier (Tlingit, Koyukon-Athabascan) as Akecheta’s right hand man, Wahanaton. The Ghost Nation is, to be clear, a made-up tribe unique to the park. But Westworld grounds the community in realism, such as having them speak Lakota instead of using a fictional language. As McClarnon said to The Hollywood Reporter, the team’s intent was to “get things right”.
He explains, "We brought on Larry Pouier as a Lakota adviser, and we had Cordelia White Elk, who did a phenomenal job with the language." McClarnon himself contacted his mother to make sure the Lakota sounded correct. "[The Westworld team members] were very open to Larry's points of view and my points of view. I find that's the case nowadays with most productions. They want to get things right, especially when portraying a specific tribe. It's not like the old days, when they're making up stuff and casting white people as natives. They're bringing real natives in for native parts. It's a beautiful thing. We've progressed quite a bit."
Similarly, Shogun World is treated less like a mish-mash of Asian stereotypes and more like a well-researched depiction of feudal-era Japan. Each character is properly fleshed out to the point where I wished there could be a Shogun World spinoff. In fact, the only episodes to rival “Kiksuya” for the top spot are the Shogun World episodes, “Akane no Mai” and “Phase Space.” And for fans of Japanese cinema, Shogun World is delightfully populated with prominent, recognizable actors who are famous in their native country. Alongside Kikuchi, Sukezane and Sanada are Tao Okamoto as the arrow-slinger Hanaryo, Masayoshi Haneda as Musashi’s former lieutenant and current rival Tanaka, and Masaru Shinozuka as the evil Shogun. Again, like with the Ghost Nation, there aren’t any handwaved deviations from the culture. Asian ethnicities are differentiated between the Chinese, the Japanese, and from a Chinese American man as well.
Maybe it’s because there was a real exploration of character beyond racial and cultural tropes. Maybe it’s also because these episodes were the most straightforward and removed from the confusing core plot, involving Bernard’s mixed-up memories. But whatever the alchemy happened to be, the best episodes this season were the ones that existed outside of the American West.
The only cultural weak point happens in a completely different park, The Raj. It’s a complete, white supremacist joyride through colonial India. The racist overtones aren’t without their reasons; the entirety of Westworld is based on the racial fantasies of the “Wild West,” pervasive still in the Ghost Nation and Shogun World.
Yet the latter two parks can be seen as a larger commentary on how America is still in the grips of its imperialist roots, while The Raj is a different story. The episode neglects to comment on the racist allure behind a park based on a subjugated India. Instead, it leans into the racism in a way that’s not only uncomfortable, but antithetical to the entire idea of Westworld which aims to pull back the layers of human psychology. Thankfully, we only stay in this park for about 15 poisonous minutes, but the damage is done.
Westworld casts openly LGBTQ actors, such as Evan Rachel Wood and Tessa Thompson who are both bisexual. Their inclusion helps this score, which would have otherwise been rock bottom.
Onscreen, however, LGBTQ characters are massively mishandled. Last season, bisexual character Logan (Ben Barnes), the son of Westworld park owner James Delos (Peter Mullan), was a promiscuous bastard last season and continues to downward spiral, leading to his eventual overdose in Season 2. Elsie, who shared a kiss with another woman, remains underserved throughout the season only to get killed in the final episode. In fact, at the end of the last season, we were led to believe Elsie had died, so to have her die again—this time for real—is gratuitous.
Moreover, Woodward (who plays Elsie) tweeted that the same-sex kiss wasn’t meant to be sexual. “There was a part of the scene that was cut, where Bernard said they had worked on her upper lip to make it the softest thing in the world. Elsie was like, prove it. It's intention was never sexual, as far as I ever understood,” she wrote.
Mediaversity Grade: C+ 3.56/5
Westworld is a lot more palatable this go-round. At times, it’s even revelatory. It’d be great if we could spend more time in Shogun World and with the Ghost Nation in future seasons. Above all, I hope we’re done seeing Bernard stare off into space, confused about his existence.