HBO’s wild west androidapalooza Westworld is back for its second season, and we’re here to talk about it.
Jason and I weren’t in love with the Season 2 premiere, for reasons we got into on a special bonus episode of Kotaku Splitscreen. You can listen to our whole chat here:
You can download an MP3 here. Below is a lightly edited transcript of a couple points in our conversation where we talked about how the show runs into trouble when it plays too coy with character motivation.
Jason Schreier: The thing that I don’t like about Westworld is that it feels like a show where you have to watch it multiple times in order to actually understand what’s going on. I really like shows that are subtle and leave clues for you to find, and have these hidden connections between episodes. I think The Sopranos is really good that. The Leftovers, to stay with HBO, is also really good at that.
But I think the biggest difference between those shows and Westworld is that those shows have coherent storylines that are not hard to follow, whereas Westworld requires you to follow all these breadcrumbs in order to even understand what’s happening in the first place.
Kirk Hamilton: So I agree with that take in general. The primary difference, I think, is with the characters. On The Sopranos, you get to know the characters over time, and you get to understand their motivations better. But they make sense as characters from pretty early on. You just get to understand these greater depths, as time goes on.
With Westworld, a lot of the time you don’t understand someone’s motivations at all because you don’t understand them as a character. Sometimes you don’t know [the answer to] these fundamental questions about whether they’re human or not. Or at the very least, you’re kept in the dark as to their motivations, or who they’re really working for, so there’s a lot more mystery played with the characters themselves.
Jason: Sometimes you don’t even know who they are! You don’t know if you’re looking at Bernard or Arnold.
Kirk: Exactly, so it’s a lot harder to relate. [Which makes it] come down to the actors. Which, you know, the actor who plays Bernard and Arnold, he’s really good. Jeffrey Wright is fun to watch on screen. So that works [in that way], but it’s not the same as, you know, you get to know Tony in this way, Tony Soprano or whoever.
Jason: I feel like this show really suffers from just having to force-feed you all of these mysteries. You need to let the viewers in on some of this stuff at the beginning of your season, otherwise it just is confusing.
Most of the time I was watching [the premiere] I was just confused. I was like, alright, so he’s doing this because… this? Or what? Why is Dolores doing this? Why is this happening right now? It’s one thing if you are setting up mystery when it comes to plot and setting, and even characters’ identities. But when it comes to characters’ motives, that’s when you lose the reader, or the listener, or the watcher.
Kirk: It’s a risky game to play, messing with character motivation.
Jason: It’s really risky, because motive is the most important part of a story. You need to know why the characters are making the choices that they’re making, otherwise you have no investment whatsoever. And there are very few motives that are clear in this story, which is tough.
Kirk: The motivations that ultimately defined season one were the motivations of Arnold and Ford. Which were the two most interesting motivations, I thought, especially Ford. The motivations of a man who made a huge mistake and realized it, and is trying to undo it? That’s cool.
Jason: But we didn’t find that out until the finale.
Kirk: Oh, that was fine. That wound up being interesting to me, anyway.
Jason: But I’m saying, there was no reason to be attached to Ford until then. And similarly until now, if we’re not gonna find out the motivations of half these characters until later on, it’ll be very frustrating.
Kirk: Absolutely, and it’s season two! You have all of these characters who are established, in season two you kind of need to establish the motivations of the other characters. They can’t do [what they did in season one] again, and have it yet again be about the motivations of these two sort of Godlike creator characters.
Jason: I think that’s why I left the show feeling so frustrated, and being like, “I don’t know if I liked that or not.”
Despite those criticisms, we didn’t hate the episode or anything. There was a lot of stuff we liked! For the rest of our chat, listen to the full episode. And by all means, let us know what you thought of the premiere in the comments.
As usual, you can find Splitscreen on Apple Podcasts and Google Play. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions. We’ll be back with our usual video game-centric episode later this week.