Westworld is finally back for its second season. I reviewed the first five episodes in general terms a while back, and I have specific (and spoiler-filled) thoughts on the premiere coming up just as soon as I throw the line you wrote back at you…
The first season of Westworld was a series of concentric circles, with characters — human and robot both — repeating the same patterns, living out the same stories, again and again, sometimes across decades, because their emotional conditioning or synthetic programming made them. It was an interesting collection of round trips for some, a frustrating one for others (myself included).
Season two, on the other hand, starts out more as a pair of straight lines that are destined to intersect, and that have to keep moving forward as they do. There are still oblique clues, still hints about things we don’t understand, like “the valley beyond,” or why so many hosts (including, it seems, Teddy) wound up dead and floating in the water together, but for the most part we are following two clearly-delineated timelines:
1) The immediate aftermath of William Ford launching the final story of his career and life, with Dolores trying to conquer the park, Maeve searching for her daughter, and Bernard, Charlotte, William, and others just trying to stay alive and make sense of it all;
2) Sometime in the near future, when Delos reinforcements have finally arrived at the park to clean up the mess Ford made.
This being Westworld, some temporal games still have to be played, which means we open the season not in either timeline, but with Bernard — or maybe Arnold? — in the lab with Dolores again, talking about dreams, then get a series of rapid-cut flashes of Bernard’s recent past and impending future that include him uttering the line, “Is this now?”
What in this story is a dream? What is happening in the present? Will there be another not-so-hidden timeline, akin to Young William’s adventures with Dolores in the first season? There are clues you can sniff for like premium cable truffle, and theories you can put on your whiteboards, but the most satisfying aspect of “Journey Into Night” is how easy it is to take most of what happens at face value, because there’s an actual story being told, involving the robot uprising and its consequences, and thus the series is free to spend long stretches letting things actually play out, rather than leaning on cryptic teases and circuitous narratives to nowhere.
It’s a role reversal season, and much of the premiere flips season one’s sadism quotient on its head, as now Dolores and her gang are the ones who get to enjoy terrorizing and killing wealthy humans instead of the other way around. This is a far cry from the nice girl going to the general store in Sweetwater, and it’s the latest testament to Evan Rachel Wood that you can see elements of all her prior incarnations — including vicious cult leader Wyatt — bubbling up as Dolores asserts her new power and slowly learns what’s been done to her.
Maeve, meanwhile, already knows all about her own powers, and thus she gets to spend much of the premiere demonstrating them to Lee Sizemore, whom she recruits, along with Hector, as part of the Suicide Squad-style team she’s assembling to locate and liberate her daughter. Sizemore is dumbfounded that even a self-aware Maeve would have any interest in a child she had in a long-ago story arc — as a writer/producer of the show that is the park, he doesn’t think Maeve was right for the prairie mother role, so why should Maeve think otherwise? — but Maeve, like many of Ford’s creation, is proving to be far more complex than people like Sizemore assumed, and it’s fun watching the tables be so utterly turned between the writer and one of his characters. There were plenty of times when season one could feel like a joyless slog, and while there’s plenty of darkness throughout the premiere as we watch Delos board members plead for their lives to no avail, there’s a very welcome lightness to this new duo. And Maeve, like Dolores, is helped enormously by having a clear goal to pursue as the season moves along.
William’s goal at the moment is mere survival, but that in itself is a step up from a lot of what Ed Harris was given to play last year. He’s a superb actor, but so much of his material was meant to illustrate both the horrors of the park and, in hindsight, the steep moral descent of the younger William once he gave in to the possibilities of the place. Now, William is the underdog — and can, for that matter, be referred to by his own name, because the show no longer has to protect a twist that much of the audience saw coming, anyway — and the appealing gleam in Harris’ eye we saw late in the season one finale thankfully remains here.
Tessa Thompson and Jeffrey Wright were among season one’s most underutilized resources: him because he was also part of a big twist that the audience solved ahead of schedule, she because she came late and the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with her. Here, they’re teamed up, and while Wright is mainly playing the physical symptoms of Bernard’s problems (remember: he shot himself in the head late last season, which isn’t great even if you’re a robot), Thompson is better-served by the new material about Charlotte as point woman for a secret Delos project to spy on the guests. The drone hosts — robots that don’t have to look exactly like people, since they’re not part of any park storyline — are suitably creepy, and the idea that Delos is exploiting the guests as much as the robots makes sense: what successful corporation wouldn’t try to use every part of this particular buffalo? (Not to be confused with the robotic buffalo that briefly spooks Lee Sizemore.)
The premiere’s concluding scene suggests the rebellion will end poorly, but we have a ways to go before we’re there, and it feels reassuring that Nolan and Joy would even put that end point in front of us so early. There’s still plenty of room for trickeration, but also for us to simply find out how the robots got from Point A to Point B, and what that means going forward. Some things have to be real, in whatever timeline they’re happening in, and that gives greater weight to everything.
The opening scene finds Bernard/Arnold and Dolores debating the difference between what is real and what is a dream. He explains to her that what is real is “that which is irreplaceable.” To this point, the robots have been by far the more irreplaceable part of Westworld, but they’ve lacked agency and they’ve lacked any clear narrative goals. Now, they have both. And a number of the humans like William and Sizemore and Charlotte are in more interesting circumstances than a season ago.
All in all, not a bad start.
Some other thoughts:
* Nolan and Joy have said that Anthony Hopkins was only signed for one season, and the shot of Ford’s maggot-infested corpse effectively shoots down any theories that Ford, like Bernard, was secretly a host himself. Which doesn’t mean the character is wholly gone, as William runs into the little boy version of Ford, who speaks to him as the adult would — including, at times, with Hopkins’ own voice laid over the actor playing the boy, since Hopkins agreed to do occasional voice work as needed.
* More details about the park start filtering in. The location is on an Asian island that’s been leased to Delos by the local government, and there are at least six parks, since the Bengal tiger corpse discovered inside Westworld is from “Park 6.”
* Hey, it’s Stubbs! Remember Stubbs? Good ol’ Stubbs. Wait, who is Stubbs again? I suppose I’m glad for Luke Hemsworth that he remains employed, but he remains the most inessential character on the show, especially now that we’re adding even more Delos staffers, including Gustaf Skarsgård as Karl Strand and Fares Fares as programmer Antoine Costa, who has to figure out what Ford did to reprogram all the hosts, while Bernard is recovering and Elsie is elsewhere.
* I don’t currently plan to write about the show weekly this season, but I’ll play it by ear, depending on whether a given episode gives me something new to say. In the meantime, our Brian Grubb and Keith Phipps will be having conversations about each episode. Their discussion of the premiere will be online tomorrow.
What did everybody else think?