Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Passenger,” the Season 2 finale of HBO’s “Westworld.”
Trying to figure out what the hell is going on in “Westworld” has always been the sport of the show. Are there multiple timelines? Where is Elsie? Is Sylvester’s beard real or is it an illusion created by the robot horse in whose mind the entire series takes place? These are the kinds of questions that “Westworld” inspires actual human beings to ask, then answer for one another. The show sometimes feels like a few hundred million dollars spent just to spawn fan theories and Reddit arguments.
But as Season 2 pulled into its final stretch, the plot of “Westworld” leveled-up from difficult to impossible. It became hostile to understanding. But then came episode eight, “Kiksuya,” a straightforward (by “Westworld” standards) story about a tertiary character, the Ghost Nation leader Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon). It was a hard break from the show’s puzzlebox norm, and it led to its own question — what if understanding what is going on in “Westworld” isn’t the point of “Westworld”? What if that doesn’t matter at all?
Season 2 finale “The Passenger” ranks with the show’s most confusing episodes. Much is revealed and many more mysteries are generated. But what impresses most about “The Passenger” is how well particular scenes and fragments of scenes work as character drama. It’s almost as if the Möbius-strip narrative is there not to be understood, but to provide a backdrop against which scenes about what it means to be human (or what it means to be a human-looking robot) pop.
The episode opens with Bernard and Dolores again chatting — and yep, that’s Bernard, not Arnold. Among the many minor truths learned in “The Passenger” is that Dolores created Bernard at Ford’s instruction. No one was better equipped for the task than Dolores, who had spent countless hours with Arnold in conversation and thus knew him better than anyone.
Then a bunch of other stuff happens. To faithfully recount it all feels like a disservice to “The Passenger” and to “Westworld” as a whole. It also feels like a bad use of time.
There is plenty to nitpick in this finale, which is too long (90 minutes) and very ambitious. But there is also so much that works and is worth celebrating. Wright, as always, was fantastic. So too was Evan Rachel Wood, whose Dolores remains the series’ most important character but too often this season was written as a one-note brooding psychopath. Teddy’s death, however, appears to have had a positive affect on Dolores. “The Passenger” appears to be largely about placing Bernard and Dolores where they are at the end of the season — in affectionate opposition to each other, representing two different points of view, kicking off a relationship that promises to be based largely on conflict (the kind that makes for good TV shows).
It was nice to see Wood get to do something other than brood and kill. For the first time this season, we get complexity from Dolores, and Wood successfully reminds us not only why Dolores is so angry, but why that anger is a legitimate, maybe the most legitimate response. “If I were human I would have let you die,” Dolores tells Bernard after he wakes in his new home-printed body. She made him and appears to loves him. That conflicted love feels more real than the love we were told over and over again Dolores had for Teddy and Abernathy — maybe because those relationships were functions of her programming, even long after Dolores had grown beyond her programming. That moment between Dolores and Bernard at the end felt earned.
Less earned was Lee’s (Simon Quarterman’s) blaze-of-glory moment facilitating Maeve and Hector’s escape. But it was still an entertaining send-off for Lee, who was arguably this season’s most complex character. I don’t know that I buy the full hero turn from him, but I almost do. Close enough, anyway, to appreciate what Quarterman and the writers did there and all season long.
The culmination of Maeve’s daughterquest was where the plot delivered best in the finale. Forget all that stuff about satellite uploads. The portal to Host Eden was clever (even if Host Eden just looks kind of like the part in an open-world fantasy video game where you try to get from one town to the next by leaving the road and cutting across a big field of nothing). Seeing Maeve do her wizard thing one more time was satisfying, and unlike Lee’s death, Maeve’s felt entirely appropriate to the arc that she has been on since the beginning of the series. The moment when Maeve saw the wave of Clementine-induced madness coming and then, instead of warning everyone, cut to the front of the line while scanning the crowd for her daughter was the most Maeve thing ever. Clearly Maeve will be back next season courtesy of Sylvester, Felix, and a bodybag. A “Westworld” without Thandie Newton would not be a “Westworld” worth watching. But for now, anyway, Maeve’s was a good death.
(Okay, one nitpick: Felix. Clearly he was put on a shelf this season to facilitate the Maeve-Lee relationship. But it was still sad to see a character who was such an unexpected pleasure in Season 1 be so totally neglected in Season 2. Felix represented a perspective unique in “Westworld” and in television: A working-class person fed up with being exploited by his wealthy superiors, but guided to act against his own interest by a strong morality. More Felix in Season 3, please.)
Finally, there’s Bernard. Like Newton, Wright has been indispensable to this show. Sure, it was fun watching Anthony Hopkins chew scenery in Season 1. But was Season 2 any worse for his absence? Was it any better for his reappearing toward the end? No and not really. Wright is a joy to watch, but also tethers the show, making something abstract and ridiculous feel just a little bit grounded and relatable. He could be better written, on occasion — Bernard’s perpetual bewilderment at what’s happening can sometimes seem to mirror the viewer’s. But the remorse Wright appears to feel when Bernard realizes that’s Dolores wearing Charlotte’s face, that he put her there, and that she’s about to kill a bunch of people is “Westworld” at its best.
Some other thoughts
• Raise your hand if you were really surprised to find that short scene between Mr. Delos and Logan to be surprisingly moving. Another instance of the show turning down the puzzlebox stuff for a moment to yield maximum character effect. Peter Mullan was a great addition as Delos this season, and the decision to bring back Ben Barnes as Logan yielded surprising rewards.
• Zombie Clementine on horseback spreading madness was exactly the weird, cool finale that she and Angela Sarafyan deserved.
• While Dolores turned it around in the finale, MiB-William remains unbearable (sorry, Ed Harris). The post-credit scene where he is shown to be a host did not have the desired effect. No human-is-host reveal can surprise at this point, and MiB-William has been nothing but an annoying dick this whole series, one whose story doesn’t impact any character other than his own — and I guess his dead family members, but who cares? Please make him go away.
• The transformation of Elsie from comic relief in Season 1 to a real character in Season 2 was abrupt, but worth it. Elsie’s death felt like it had stakes.