“Beautiful way to watch the sun rise, glistening off the intestines of the recently mutilated,” says Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), Westworld’s skeezy narrative director. But he sums things up rather well, and like almost every character in the series, he’s gone through a major transformation in Season 2. While the show’s first season was largely about the mystery and wonder of discovering Westworld (both in a meta sense and the world of the park itself), Season 2 builds off of that imparted knowledge to create something very different. We know the players, we know the game, but everything has been turned upside down. It’s a new world that in many ways feels like a new show.
There are actually a lot of things that Westworld now shares with its HBO cousin Game of Thrones; the series is at its best when episodes focus on just one or two narratives for its vastly spread-out cast, and even better when it investigates different character pairings. One of the most unique things Westworld has going for it, though, is what everything looks like now, after what I’ll call The Awakening. Creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy cleverly include a number of visual and narrative inversions to the first season, especially in this season’s first episode back. There are callbacks to specific sequences and dialogue, and some delightfully fun reunions and alliances.
But also like Game of Thrones, the show has become mired in relentless brutality. The first few hours (of five episodes made available for critics) are particularly bloody. In the aftermath of The Awakening, the humans in the park — as well as their would-be rescuers — are being slaughtered en masse, and as time passes, their corpses are left to rot and fill with maggots in the hot desert sun. Almost no scene in those early hours takes places without death or a background full of it, yet it’s not particularly interesting or provocative. It’s clear that, for humanity, this has become an unrelenting hellscape. But what is far more interesting is what the hosts of Westworld choose to do with their new lives and this new freedom aside from mass (and sometimes very creative) killing.
One thing that is clear from the start is that they are not necessarily unified by their non-human status. The most bloodthirsty among them is the good ole rancher’s daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who has become a military leader focused on world domination (and not just of Westworld, but “The Valley Beyond”). It’s the opposite for dogged tactician Maeve (Thandie Newton), who sets her own, more personal quest to find her daughter, revolutions be damned. Thanks to Newton’s soulful portrayal, Maeve remains the most compelling host in the park (especially since Dolores is now essentially a dead-eyed killing machine), but she’s nearly matched here by Bernard (Jeffery Wright), who passes well enough to survive in both the company of humans and hosts, while searching for the end-game behind Ford’s design in the same way the Man in Black (Ed Harris) has and continues to do.
And ah yes, the mysterious Man in Black, a.k.a. William, who turned out to be Jimmi Simpson-gone-rogue. Simpson is back as part of a dizzying number of timelines (more on that in a moment) that help establish Delos’ early interest in Westworld, and what it offered them. The corporate timeline is a particularly relevant one, as it delves into taking user data without permission in service of advertising dollars. There is also more to Delos’ plans than that, which is one of the show’s few mysteries to start this season. Yet Westworld is not interested in dragging things out this year; if a question is posited (“how did this tiger get into the park?”) then it answers it quickly. As such, Delos’ true plans for what it has been getting out of Westworld doesn’t take long to be revealed, and yet, like any good revelation, it leads to even more possibilities. It also illustrates how the series has become less of a puzzle box in favor of more introspection. Season 1 showed what humans, given total freedom, choose to do. Season 2 does the same, but for the hosts — and Sizemore’s quote gives a pretty good sense of where their choices lead. At least, to start.
The most telling line of the series so far, though, is an early question from Bernard: “Is this now?” An injury (with a revealing cause) is giving him a case of time displacement, which we as viewers suffer from as well. Westworld is playing with a myriad of timelines again, with some mystery attached to them. But the personal reveals within them are far more satisfying, with particularly great work done by Peter Mullan as William/The Man in Black’s father-in-law James Delos, and from Wright as an ailing but crucially awakened Bernard. The stakes are high here, as Bernard is a key player in uncovering Ford’s game and more mysteries of the past specifically for us.
That game has also spilled over into Shogun World (with hints of other parks as well) as the series spends some very well-considered time there. Westworld’s greatest narrative device is its playfulness with loops, the idea of destiny, and the nature of choice. The trip to Shogun World (which is mostly in Japanese) works so well because it gets to the heart of what the show is all about, again mirroring and subverting Season 1 scenes, and also revealing important changes for certain hosts. That hour, and the one before it, start to focus in on key stories rather than zooming across time and space to check in with every major character as early episodes do. It allows a deeper consideration of both action and consequence, one that reveals a possible way forward for humans and hosts together.
The series is smart to never set a hard line between humans and robots — that has a simple end. After the chaos of the Awakening, alliances between hosts and humans begin to form in natural ways. There is also, slowly, true intimacy that develops between the hosts themselves, things that aren’t scripted into their code. It’s a reclaiming of the exploitative way they were designed to serve humans, as they reach a new level of consciousness that allows for love and friendship. That evolution is a rare but important positive in what can otherwise feel like a continuous descent into hell. The violent ends have only just begun.
Westworld Season 2 debuts Sunday, April 22nd on HBO.