Entertainment

'Westworld' season finale can't escape the maze it's created

Posted June 21, 2018 5:01 p.m. EDT

— The following contains spoilers about the "Westworld" season 2 finale.

"Westworld" closed a chaotic second season with a finale that encapsulated it -- combining operatic highs, thoughtful dialogue and time-bending twists. The ungainly mix of those elements, however, has made the HBO series near-impenetrable -- a show that's alternately too blood-soaked, convoluted and cerebral to keep its elaborate machinery running smoothly.

The 90-minute episode, written by producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, felt like an effort to provide closure on some fronts while hitting the reset button on others, and benefited from drawing together several key characters who had been scattered throughout the year. But in terms of heightening interest in Season 3, for this critic -- who has come to view watching the show with a greater sense of obligation than enthusiasm -- the finale's big swings didn't hit it out of the park.

If the first season dealt with the dawning consciousness of the robot hosts -- after having been cruelly exploited as the playthings of the human guests -- the second moved into a new phase, as those characters pursued their independence and rebelled.

Too many detours and digressions, however, made the series less compelling -- and more significantly, reduced the incentive to invest the time and brain power seemingly required to contemplate its various turns, beginning with the reams of analysis and speculation devoted to them.

The last episode focused heavily on Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her determination to escape her amusement-park prison; and the fate of Maeve (Thandie Newton), operating on a different part of the faux frontier. (What might be called the running of the mechanical bulls, in the latter's arc, was easily the most arresting moment visually.)

"I don't want to play cowboys and Indians anymore," Dolores told Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). "I want their world. The world they've denied us."

Toward that end, Dolores even enlisted the ruthless Man in Black (Ed Harris), allowing him to survive, although not without experiencing some of the pain that he's inflicted repeatedly on others.

The main problem with this second season was that it had too much going on at once, without the moral clarity that informed the first season. The questions of digital immortality -- humans created shells to cheat death -- also feels considerably less fresh than the way the show initially flipped the script on its source material, turning humans into the monsters.

Part of the larger plot -- dealing with Delos' corporate plan to create replicas of humans and let them "pour your minds into our form," as Dolores put it -- owes a debt to "Futureworld," the 1976 sequel to the original movie. In that film, leaders and dignitaries were being secretly replaced by perfect clones as part of a more nefarious plot.

Violence has been another major part of "Westworld," and the finale was no exception. But in the finale -- and indeed, throughout the season -- too much of that action was directed at characters who barely registered, while the dramatic impact of deaths involving major players is tempered by the fact they might come back, in one form or another.

In one of the episode's best lines, Dolores said, "We were born slaves to their stories, and now we have a chance to write our own."

"Westworld" will have a chance to write more chapters, and based on the cryptic nature of the finale, there's a wide array of options that the narrative could potentially pursue.

Despite that, the HBO series feels as if it has wandered too deep into a maze of its own creation, blunting its appeal. While the show has its loyalists, the finale reinforced the sense that it hasn't established a clear path forward to make "Westworld" the must-watch obsession that -- with its star-studded cast and intriguing subject matter -- it had the DNA to become.