Here we are: the end of Westworld’s second season. The ninety-minute finale was as twist-laden as its premiere, solving riddles in unexpected, sometimes left-field ways and making huge, vague promises about the future. It was too jam-packed and time-jumpy to do a beat-by-beat breakdown (not that the latter quality matters; its two timelines told a single story in tandem), but there’s plenty to talk about nonetheless. I, for one, loved a lot of what “The Passenger” did - just not always how it did it.
Inevitably, “The Passenger” brought all of Westworld’s characters, via gorgeous travel montages, to a confrontation at The Forge - the Delos Corporation’s secret underground bunker full of data on its guests. Four million guests, actually, all collected in a liquid-cooled server facility - and in a virtual library of punch-card books. Turns out, the human brain isn’t all that complicated by Westworld standards - memories and knowledge take up space, of course, but functionally, our consciousnesses are just over ten thousand lines of algorithmic code determining our every action.
It all comes back to James Delos (welcome back, Peter Mullan). Through examining Delos’ memories and in-park activities, Westworld engineers and their computers sought to distill a more perfect simulacrum. What was Delos' driving force, his deepest source of guilt and insecurity? Of course it was his son Logan. Of course a manifestation of his darkest shame is what keeps Delos' digital consciousness locked away. That the project's goal was to find the true reasons people made decisions - not the reasons they told themselves - feels remarkably true to the park’s (and show’s) obsession with digging into its guests’ ids.
Guest data wasn’t all Bernard and Dolores found in the Forge. All season long, the “promised land” sought by the hosts was implied to be the guest data repository - the key with which the hosts would gain access to the outside world. But this “virtual Eden” was, in fact, an entirely different thing: a wide-open expanse of digital land in which hosts can live pure, unfettered digital lives. As Dolores notes, of course, it's just another gilded cage - but one she decides is good enough for her brethren, at least until she can prepare the real world for their arrival.
Digital Eden manifests itself in a truly bizarre way: as a crack in the world, a gateway seen only by the hosts, through which they can pass into their digital afterlife. It doesn’t make sense - it’s a very strange way to transfer data - but it makes for a memorable scene, with hosts racing to get digitally Raptured before a hacked Clementine rides in making everyone kill each other. Everyone gets a final moment of badassery or emotion before they’re either gunned down or transported into the ether - Akecheta; Armistice; Maeve; even Lee, triumphantly spouting dialogue he once wrote.
“The Passenger” ends with a vastly altered status quo - a status quo that would sound like nonsense a year ago. Most androids are dead or living in Host Heaven on a satellite somewhere. Many of the human characters are also dead. A re-built Bernard now lives in Arnold’s now-completed garden house in what I assume to be Hong Kong, joined by two Doloreses whose intentions may be at odds with his. One of those Doloreses occupies a replicant body of Charlotte Hale - the rug-pull being that this is presumably the same Charlotte we saw in the “two weeks later” timeline throughout the season. Westworld itself is, unbelievably, restarting operations in spite of its colossal disaster, probably to nefarious ends. And oh yeah: Stubbs, it is heavily implied, is probably a host.
And then...that post-credits scene. Taking place years, maybe decades or even centuries after the rest of the show, it introduces "William" entering a ruined version of Westworld’s hybrid facility, where testing continues. This Aperture Science analogue’s equivalent of GlaDOS* is a host version of Emily; its test subject, this host version of William. How many times have different versions of William trodden wearily into that test chamber, realising they’ve been imperfectly reincarnated? How many times has he maintained that he has a choice, even as the testing system endeavours to perfectly predict his actions? Given the apparently post-apocalyptic setting of the scene, it's a chilling thought.
Taken on its own, “The Passenger” is kind of a jumble of late-game left-turns. No doubt, it will be divisive, and I genuinely believe that some of its storytelling is a result of the showrunners trying to outsmart Reddit sleuths. But as a capper to the season, it ties together its stories in a thematically-relevant bow. I’ve seen debate online over whether Westworld is a clever, intellectual science fiction show or a pulpy, muddled mess. Realistically, it sports elements of both. But over the course of its second season, Westworld has also become something else: a surprisingly emotional show about existential despair.
The most obvious source of despair is the season’s tug-of-war between free will and programming. Dolores spends the season trying to break others free of their preordained loops. Maeve takes matters into her own mind, literally reprogramming others. Bernard spent half the season being ordered about by a simulated Robert Ford, before erasing him and ultimately craving the safety net of Ford’s control. William smirkingly believes himself to be locked into one of Ford’s games, questioning his free will to the extent that he doubts his very humanity - something he clings to even upon digital resurrection. And in replicants/hybrids Delos, Bernard, and eventually William, we see programming expressed as “fidelity” - being doomed to behave exactly as a pre-existing human once did.
There’s also a strong throughline in season 2 of broken families. Maeve searches for her lost daughter all season long, only to find her under the care of a new mother. Akecheta loses his love to Westworld’s host recycling systems and builds a new, faith-based family longing to reunite with their own lost loved ones. Dolores struggles to rescue her father when his mental state deteriorates. Delos stubbornly disowns his son when he needs him the most, ending up in an endless, lonely hell of reincarnation and decay. And most tragically of all, William’s dark side pulls him away from his family, ultimately driving his daughter to bitterness and his wife to suicide.
Westworld’s view of humanity is a pessimistic one. Like Alien: Covenant, Blade Runner 2049, and Ex Machina, it sees humanity as a selfish, limited race, looking instead to its artificial progeny for a more enlightened future. Humanity, locked into a cycle of self-destruction, rebirth, and recreation, is not capable of the change and self-improvement that the hosts are (or at least, that the text leads us to believe they are). Westworld envisions human beings as mere passengers on an algorithmically-determined collision course with destiny, merely possessed of the illusion of self-control. In a show dominated by video game analogies, perhaps that’s the most potent one of all: we think we’re making our own decisions, but the story was mapped out for us all along. We are not the authors of our own stories, but perhaps our creations can be. Heady, borderline-stonery stuff, but explored thoroughly here.
How in the world can Westworld continue after this? What will Dolores, Hale-Dolores, and Bernard get up to in the humans’ world? Was all that guest data really erased? What will the park do once it gets up and running (presumably following the world's spinniest PR tour)? Will the hosts living a pastoral existence in the cloud ever return? What will they be like after spending time together in a purely digital existence? Will anyone notice exabytes of data suddenly appearing on their satellite? What happened in all the other Delos parks? When does that post-credit scene take place - and will the main narrative ever catch up with it?
These questions and more will have to plague us - and likely the writers of Westworld - until next year and onwards. Until then: it’s been a heck of a season. Peace and long life, folks.
* Of all the video-game similarities, who would've thought Westworld would spring for an allusion to Portal 2?