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The Mysteries of ‘Westworld’ Are Far More Than Hype (Column)

At the beginning of the season, “Westworld” looked like a show that might come to serve as a replacement for “Game of Thrones,” the other HBO series that catalyzes fans with its spectacular imagery and compelling, archetypal characters.

It remains as close to serving as methadone for “Thrones” addicts as any other show on the air. But the show it’s actually come to resemble most, as its second-season finale approaches June 24, is “Lost.”

In “Westworld’s” second season, the plot, always baroque, has become challenging even for those who intently watch each minute; if “Thrones” fuels the last vestiges of recap culture by depicting a far-flung universe of characters with well-delineated individual histories worth parsing, “Westworld” does so by necessitating the fan theory. Moment-to-moment, it can be flat-out unclear what’s happening, even as soaring emotional beats carry the viewer along.

That the plot defies understanding is “Westworld’s” weakness, even as it’s evidently a purposeful choice. (A show this well-made in so many other particulars doesn’t slip into incomprehensibility by accident.) But that the show has the power to move us even in spite of its plot being quite so occluded is its great strength.

What’s gripped me in this show about androids coming to discover something like personhood within themselves, ironically, are the actual humans. In the show’s first season, the degradation of William (Jimmi Simpson) into the Man in Black (Ed Harris) as he grew obsessed with Westworld’s mysteries was a slowly unfolding tragedy; that the two men were one and the same in different narrative timelines was perhaps the most heavily telegraphed of the show’s twists made the story transfixing. It was the viewer’s way in.

Season 2 has kept William as our tie to literal humans but erased the humanity; it’s gradually built out the story of William after he embraced a life tinkering with the technology behind Westworld, and lost himself in a second life within the park. In the season’s ninth episode, we see that his obsession indirectly cost him his wife, who drowned herself in alcohol to avoid contemplating who her husband had become. He goes on to kill his daughter, convinced she’s a robotic host impersonating his last loved one, realizing too late he was wrong.

William’s story is both a rebuke and a sympathetic embrace at once. This man is so tangled up in narrative that the world around him is meaningless; preferring fantasy, he’s blandly watched as his ties to the real world fray and ultimately break. “Westworld,” cleverly and vexingly, knows storytelling in the digital age can be an anesthetic that numbs us even as it adds on more narrative fripperies to keep us hanging on. In an era during which few top-tier dramas dabble in real mystery (what about “The Handmaid’s Tale” or—to choose an extreme example of concretely literal storytelling—”The Crown” rewards theorizing?), “Westworld” knows what we want to watch. And it wonders why.

So much of the story works in metaphor, or in a code we haven’t yet cracked. Maeve’s story in season 2 has been transfixing, as she’s found herself taking part in a version of her own life in a totally new setting (the Westworld-goes-East “Shogun World”) and then, perhaps, come to share a body-and-soul-sharing bond with her daughter (through whom she seems to be learning the life story of the Ghost Nation warrior Akecheta). That William’s story unfolds in as close as the show gets to plain English is a moving, interesting choice, and one that proves “Westworld” knows what it’s doing.

William, more than any other major character on the show, is trapped within his own subjectivity. The future is happening all around him, as the show’s hosts modify their consciousnesses. He’s stuck being himself. As such, he can only see a small corner of the seismic change roiling the world; his choices carry enormous weight for Westworld and, likely, for the world at large, but he’s blinkered by the burden of being human. He can only see a tiny part of the story unfolding.

For now, so are we. And for now, that’s enough. “Westworld,” like “Lost,” demands answers to its questions eventually; perhaps unlike “Lost,” which needed most pressingly to explain what the island was, its most intriguing questions lay beyond the literal. When the story of “Westworld” is written, it will be okay (by me, at least!) if we never really find out what Delos’s mission was, but I hope to find more clarity about, say, what Maeve’s journey represents for all of us. These aren’t twists that are revealed in a seismic moment; they’re earned yard by yard as the show grinds on. And I eagerly await much more of this show.

So much TV seeks to begin by explaining. Along with FX’s intriguingly post-literal “Atlanta,” “Westworld” works its magic by suggesting that some things are beyond us. It’s a show for an era in which the progress—or regression—of humanity is happening at a pace none of us can comprehend, a show for lifetimes into which irreversible change has entered. As its second season winds down, its fascinations are more than just theorizing, or hype; for now, it’s an odd treasure, in the glimmering moment between the competently-executed and sharp drama it was and the statement—in some direction known only to its creators—it’s working towards becoming.

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