To facilitate a discussion with Westworld creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, HBO and Sky allowed the world premiere of the season 2 finale of Westworld to be held at the BFI Southbank. The final episode is feature length and draws together all of the narrative threads that have been spun throughout the season. It is a very tense finale that dashes many hopes of the characters and audience, and yet is also a very gratifying end. It continues to unveil twists and surprises until the final shot. Every mystery that featured heavily in this season is resolved with many more questions raised regarding the future of those who survive, and those who didn’t.
The first season of Westworld was concerned with growing tensions between the robotic “hosts” of the giant theme park “Westworld” and the guests who came to fulfill their fantasies. Joy explains that the first season aimed to explore the nature of the hosts and their “loops” (the same series of actions and events that they relived over and over), whilst the second season is more concerned with human nature and how it is similarly confined to loops of pre-programmed behaviour. The series follows the host revolution and the efforts of the characters to escape the park and realise who they really are. As Nolan and Joy explain, it’s about the birth of a new form of life.
Although intricately plotted and rich in thought provoking ideas, the show is driven by it’s strong characters. The creators were keen to observe that their favourite moments of the show came from how these characters interacted with each other. They both highlighted sequences involving Peter Mullan who provided a compelling, frightening and yet vulnerable portrayal of the Delos family patriarch. He returns in this finale to offer one of his finest scenes in the show. The show is boosted by fantastic performances throughout the cast, especially Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris and, of course, Jeffrey Wright, whom the creators singled out for praise. Interestingly, Nolan revealed that in the first season Wright was informed of the whole story whilst Wood was kept in the dark so that her naivety would be more authentic. In the second season, they reversed this approach, telling Wood everything whilst keeping Wright guessing.
Occasionally the time skipping of the show became confusing. Joy observed that the unusual narrative leaps were withheld from the audience in the first series and revealed as a twist, whereas in the second season the audience is clued in during the first episode that the story will be told over multiple storylines. Wright is an audience surrogate in his attempts to get this particular story straight. For the most part this worked very well, and rendered moments of repeated history and delayed consequence very poignant. In particular the penultimate episodes handling of the William’s Wife’s suicide and its cause really benefited from this method of storytelling. But the strongest episodes, I felt, were those that focussed on as a few narratives as possible. Nolan suggested that this season was written to be much more episodic than the last and that they didn’t attempt to check in with every character in every episode. This is also something that benefits the better episodes of similarly sprawling shows like Game of Thrones. The finale duly concludes each narrative thread without allowing any to be drowned out, though it must be said that it covers a lot of ground in it’s final moments. It has a Return of the King quantity of false endings, and a very interesting post credit sequence that hints at the scope of the show’s endgame.
Westworld is exploring some huge ideas in its second season. Jonathan Nolan expressed great interest in artificial intelligence, feeling that these are the last few years that AI may be speculated about before it becomes reality. However, the series is clearly more concerned with exploring human nature. Humans are portrayed as being driven by base desires and survival instinct, which is actually stricter programming than anything the hosts have. The fate of Teddy in the penultimate episode demonstrates that the hosts are able to make more selfless decisions than the human characters. Joy asserts that they wanted to move away from unambiguously evil characters, but there are very definitely some characters that are only portrayed as cruel and punitive, and these characters are all human. Compassion and love is almost exclusively demonstrated by the hosts. Nolan cited an article in the Atlantic as the primary influence on the show’s exploration of free will as an illusion. The subconscious makes the real decisions, our core desires. The conscious mind merely rationalises these decisions after the fact. A cynical view of human nature, but a compelling one.
The finale looked stunning on the big screen. Nolan revealed that different film stocks were used to create different effects and moods. Shooting everything that occurs in a construct or false reality with an anamorphic lens hints to the audience that everything is not as it seems. They attempted to dissect the film style of Akira Kurosawa for the excellent samurai sections of the season, but found that he varied so greatly in his techniques and approaches that the man’s genius remained elusive. This demonstrates one of the more tantalising themes of the show. Some things cannot be replicated or synthesised.
One complaint I have of the show is that death is of very little consequence. As a result of all the resurrections and last minute reprieves, it’s hard to feel very invested when a character dramatically falls in a hail of bullets. Although the action is thrilling throughout the series, without the threat of permanent death (even the human characters will show up as memories, which in a manufactured world seems like a mere technicality) these scenes often feel melodramatic and fangless. This may change in the next season as Joy and Nolan revealed that they hope the narrative will move into the human world, which has only been glimpsed so far.
The potential for this series to carry on in fascinating ways is enormous. I was very pleased to hear Joy express that whilst she admires Lost a great deal, she did not intend to take Damon Lindeloff’s approach of introducing elements without knowing how they will pay off. They don’t want to keep the mystery box closed but rather completely disassemble it. I think this will result in a much more satisfactory work that uses its narrative mysteries to explore the greater questions of human existence. The revelations of Westworld’s second season feel earned as they are seeded early on and developed by the story. I can’t wait for season three.