From its first season, “Westworld” has been defiant. Right from its premiere, it has turned audience expectations on their heads. There have been labyrinthine plot twists and tropes that have been played with and manipulated like putty. The first season was a risk, but it was successful — the audience loved being hoodwinked so cleverly.
By the second season, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have had to contend with an audience that was onto them. Every second of every episode now greets a deluge of speculation from particularly analytical fans. Instead of shying away from these fans, though, Nolan and Joy have again subverted expectations by catering to them. The result of this decision was a densely plotted season, one heavy on both action and character development. And while this density has resulted in creatively excellent episodes such as “Akane no Mai” and “Kiksuya,” it has also proved to be a drawback, as the show’s plotlines have grown increasingly convoluted.
Especially demonstrative of the skillful characterization this season was William’s (Ed Harris) storyline. The entire first season was spent learning about his descent into the corrupt Man in Black, who came to tirelessly torture and torment audience-favorite hosts. This season, without quite apologizing for his crimes, the writers of “Westworld” expertly frame his descent into madness with insights into his background. As a result, a character who is on paper a cartoon villain instead becomes a fascinating study in self-awareness and human depravity.
Such a narrative would be implausible without a strong actor to back it, and Harris carries the storyline with skill. In the nuance of his performance lies the transition of William from an open-faced innocent to a crazed killer, and it never feels like a logical reach.
The host storylines are also powerfully wrought both by the writers and by the cast. Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, Thandie Newton as Maeve and Jeffrey Wright as Bernard each had the challenge of capturing a growing sense of consciousness. Their naturalistic performances and the tight writing behind them drip-feed the audience views into their psyches. As a result, their characters feel incredibly organic, even if they’re anything but.
Also delightful is this season’s foray into Shogun World in “Akane no Mai,” an episode that is equal parts emotionally intricate and visually stunning. Not only does this chapter provide complexified world-building, but it is also a refreshing nod to the creative debt spaghetti Westerns owe to Japanese films, especially those helmed by masters such as Akira Kurosawa.
At its best, this season performs strongly enough to even undo some of the first season’s greatest weaknesses, one of which was the contrived depiction of the Native American Ghost Nation hosts. The season’s eighth episode, “Kiksuya,” serves to dig deeper and reverse some of that harmful portrayal by humanizing Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon). Within a season so concerned with plotting, “Kiksuya” is mostly concerned with emotion and connection, serving as a moving break in the season’s relentless action. The episode’s strength can largely be credited to McClarnon, whose emotionally raw portrayal of Akecheta’s journey transforms the host from an enigma to an audience favorite.
Given the inarguable strength of the performances that accomplish the difficult feat of bridging largely unrelatable characters and the audience, it’s disappointing that the obsessive plotting of this season almost makes it entirely inaccessible. The season finale is especially opaque in its ambiguous jumps between universes and timelines. “Westworld” is an intelligent show, but intelligence and intelligibility shouldn’t be mutually exclusive — the multiple timelines that made season one unique make season two inscrutable.
But plot confusions have the benefit of further seasons to explain them. Without convincing performances and dialogue, even the best plotting would be entirely lost to the audience. With its consistently powerful characterizations, found in both the writing and the performances, the second season of “Westworld” rises above its confusing plotting, cementing the show’s status as still one of the best on air.