Archive | July, 2018

End of Season Report: Westworld – Season 2

14 Jul

High concept science fiction is often a double edged sword. On the good side (edge?), it encourages us to think big. It merges complex philosophical ideas with mind-blowing conceptions of the future, both positive and negative, forcing us to reckon with possibilities that we don’t have to in our humdrum every day lives. On the bad side, in all this big picture talk, the hard work of both building characters and plot detail often get lost. While the common expression is to not be able see the forest for the trees, high concept sci-fi often can’t see the trees for the forest.

Westworld Season 2 suffers from all of these downsides. There’s absence of attention to plot detail, lack of well-drawn characters, and twists that come out of nowhere, mostly just for the sake of being twists. In addition, Westworld deals with plenty of  regular second season problems that lots of shows, sci-fi or not suffer from. Namely, Westworld used up a very clear cohesive arc in the first season, leaving the show with no obvious place to go in the second season, and the writers never quite figured out a way to bring everything back together in an entirely satisfying manner.

The show looks beautiful. There are breathtaking cinematic vistas in the Westworld universe, which expand from the titular park to a feudal-Japan era Samurai World and Raj World, themed around India under Imperial British rule. The show leans in to questions of sense of self and free will,  shuttling through a plethora of examples of various hosts (which maybe, in the end, everyone is?) and humans. Can hosts and/or humans change? What does it mean to be human? Can a machine ever be human? Can it out-human humanity? The show is thinking big.

Westworld isn’t working nearly so hard at building characters. There’s a huge cast of people in the show, sure, but there are very few who have any sense of consistent motivations or arcs or even screen time.  There are four which would really qualify, (Delores, Maeve, William, and Bernard)  and they’re barely fleshed out  – they represent ideas far more than real people with personalities. The characters are constructs, not characters. They act and talk as if they represent something; they rarely sound like people do.

The recently wrapped up prestige drama The Americans, for one example, provides a sharp contract. The show may be slow and it may hit the same character beats again and again, but the result is incredibly well-built and sturdy characters that both have strongly held beliefs and personality traits while being soft around the edges enough to feel like real people. Because of this, when things happen to them, sometimes even relatively minor things, it matters and we care.

Teddy is a perfect example of how Westworld declined to flesh out ideas into characters.  Teddy is heartfelt, and maybe too soft for the war Delores needs him to help win. He has a sentimental side; a lover, not a fighter. Delores changes certain parts of his code, to make him harder, but there’s an implication that while he’s changed, there are parts of his old personality that remain. That’s an interesting idea! The battle, somehow between the new and the old, within Teddy, how he can both have a new personality and somehow remember bits of his old, playing on the reveries and the reminisces ideas we’d seen from plenty of other hosts. But instead of bothering to build at that, do the hard work of asking what that means for his characters, the writers just nodded to it, as if to say “here’s an idea!” and then had him kill himself for the sole purpose of affecting Delores’ character, which it didn’t really end up doing at all anyway.

Delores is a host who believes that humans will ultimately never let the hosts remain free and alive, so the only way for the hosts to be free is to kill all the humans. Okay, that’s an idea. Is it ever fleshed out into a character? No. There was another idea in the first season that somehow Delores is the combined product of nefarious Wyatt and her kinder, gentler farm girl persona (I don’t know or care how the tech behind hosts exactly works, the consistency at this point is middling, and there’s obviously some leeway for personality details). Westworld could have worked with that. Ford implanted her with these opposing personas, and there’s a battle within her computer brain to have them work together. But that’s not what happened at all. She’s just Wyatt, without really much of a trace of the development ideas of the first season except for the concept of awakening to her creaction and enslavement by humanity.

Do we really known William? William is a mystery who spouts largely nonsense. He seems to have regretted driving his wife mad somehow with his devotion to his work and has now gone insane conflating the world he helped build with the real one – OR IS THERE ANY DIFFERENT? Maeve and Bernard are a little bit better. Maeve’s driving desire to save her daughter, real, or fake, and Bernard’s struggle to control himself on his own terms even as he reckons with what that is are the two best threads woven though the second season.

As for plot detail, Westworld comes up short here as well. There are major sci-fi twists and swerves – in the finale, for example, Hale is killed and replaced by Delores in a Hale-like host body, for example, and security man Ashley turns out maybe to have been a host.  But do these twists make any sense? Maybe technically, I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I want to put in the work to assemble a timeline to figure it out. This seems like the type of show where the creators tried to at least make it possible, and would love to prove to me that all their twists technically-work. And bully for them, I suppose, it’s certainly better than the alternative.

But the best twists are grounded in what happened before. Some of the best Game of Thrones surprises work so well, because while they seem shocking in the moment, afterwards, they seem to make perfect sense. When the twists just zig and zag like they did particularly in the Westworld finale, it feels like M. Night Shyamalan style gotcha-ism except that the show is often so confusing and obtuse that it took me a few minutes to even register what just happened.

Instead of feeling surprised and excited or devastated by the twists and surprised, I just felt bemused.

The second season meandered wildly, seeming to have no idea where it was going, and the finale, rather than tying anything together in a satisfying way, as the first season mostly did, it went the opposite way, making me realize I didn’t need to care about much of what happened in the previous episodes of the season.

The more I think about it, the more I’m kind of ready to be done with the show. There’s so much nonsense. It fees like the show is supposed to be both important and breathtaking; that season season finale should have left us floored, the way the first season finale actually did. The first season finale was guessable; people put together the general direction of the plot by the time they got there, but that was actually a good thing because it meant that set up was well developed. For the second, there wasn’t really much relationship between set up over the course of the season and the finale. Ashley is a host maybe? Sure, why not? Delores just reproduces Hale’s body and inhabits it? Sure. A whole bunch of characters get killed just becomes, well, who cares.

I’m not sure if it’s lazy, if the creators don’t think it matters, or if the creators were just in such a huff to have all these higher level plot points, that they sort of forgot about actual character building, and that it takes time. Having a “prime directive” is not enough for a well-constructed television character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The characters are constructs, not characters.

The Americans may be slow and it may hit the same character beats again and again, but the result is we have characters who we feel we know, well built; so when things happen to them, it matters. Wo knows Williams? Delores? Are there peromament characterists of a Delores?

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In Praise of the Midseason Season Finale

2 Jul

The Expanse is a good sci-fi show that’s not for everyone but is for everyone who loves science fiction. Today, I want to focus particularly on something the show did this season which I wish more shows did.

The Expanse, as you can probably guess from the title of this post, basically had a season finale type episode smack in the middle of its most recent third season.

What I mean by a season finale-type episode is an episode that wraps up storylines that have been going on for at least several episodes before. It feels like the type of episode that, if you weren’t to have new episodes for long period of time, you wouldn’t feel left hanging. This is the standard for modern peak TV era season-ending episodes; often they leave questions open, and occasionally end with direct cliffhangers, depending on the nature of the show, but they generally have some sense of resolution and closure.

The typical peak TV pattern is to have major story lines come to a climax in the second-to-last or final episode of a season. Game of Thrones is a great example of a show that follows this format; like many shows in the age of serial TV, the plot lines extend well past any given season, but smaller arcs wrap in the last couple of episodes, and there are usually the grandest scenes of a season in these last couple of episodes. The biggest battles and the biggest moments like the beheading of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding were generally in Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode. Breaking Bad, another of the greatest shows of the last generation, featured its biggest moments in the season finales, like Jesse and Walt’s desperate plot to kill Gale, and the death of Gus.

Some shows, like AMC’s The Walking Dead, tend to sort themselves into what they call half-seasons, but within those half-seasons, the script works the same.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this model, and many a great TV show has followed it and many will continue to; it’s tried and true for a reason. But there are two issues with this model that being able to just stick a season finale midseason solves.

First, this format is predictable. We don’t necessarily know what will actually happen, but we do know when big moments will happen, and that’s not nothing. We can make certain assumptions and predict the importance of certain characters and plots based on when in a season they appear. If something happens in the fourth episode, it probably won’t be resolved for a while, while if something transpires in the third-to-last episode, it’s probably going to come to a head real soon.

There’s something great about being surprised that plots wrap up not when you’re expecting them to. When I watched The Expanse, I was stunned to see the major plot threads of the first half of the third season (and much of the second) work themselves out halfway through the season when I had no idea it was coming, and loved the decision. The fact that it threw me off my game, expecting another half season’s worth of new twists and turns merely because of my existing expectations of how a season of television progresses is what make the change inherently interesting, even aside from what actually happened.

Second, with the traditional model, shows often have to force story arcs to be longer or shorter than they should be naturally to fit them into the one-season-long parameter. Sometimes that means compressing a fruitful arc, while more often it means stretching out a story line that should have naturally been finished up episodes earlier. Without the pressure to deliver a traditional season finale then and only then, shows can have plot lines that last varying number of episodes. There are plenty of stories best told in 4, or 8, or 12, or 16 episodes; but in our current model, everything is stretched into whatever the length of the show is – usually 10, 12, 13, or 22 these days (though ever changing).

The Magicians and Jane the Virgin have also in recent seasons followed a similar approach of having traditionally season-ending style events occur midseason. For Jane the Virgin, particularly as a 22-episode CW show, the freedom to start and end arcs over the course of a season helps the show never feel like its stretching plotlines far too thin, like for example, its fellow CW shows Arrow and Flash do.

This is really just an incredible simple and freeing way to make a show less predictable and better paced that more shows could learn from.