'Westworld' Season 2: TV Review

Big changes, big thrills, mostly done well.
4/22/2018

Fast-moving and ambitious changes fuel a thrilling start to the second season, but the first hour stumbles before taking off.

The second season of HBO's breakout series Westworld, marked by ambitious twists that lay the groundwork for future seasons while setting up a strong female empowerment storyline, still isn't likely to convince those who were on the fence for season one to jump on the bandwagon. But on the basis of five episodes, the intriguing groundwork it lays for the future should more than satisfy fans from the first go-round. It might even hook newbies who wander into the genre-bending drama for a peek at what all the fuss is about.

With a thrilling sense of possibility and a fleetness in telling multiple stories, the new season's first five episodes grow exponentially in appeal. And even though there are instances when it's justified to perhaps question what new powers might be in play — beyond the series' exploration of "the bicameral mind" — there's never a sense that Westworld has tripped up, run out of ideas or reverted to some kind of redundancy. On the contrary, the series offers revelatory possibilities and pursues them in massively entertaining fashion. 

Unfortunately, there are a few early glitches in the code of the series, much as there are in the code that powers the artificial intelligence of the "hosts," who, at the end of season one, had staged an uprising (with a little bit of help from their creator, played by Anthony Hopkins, whose voice is still in play). If season one had an underlying theme of discovering the rot in the human soul, revealed beneath a cloak of assumed secrecy — rich people come to the Westworld theme park to make their various fantasies come true, whether they are legal or amoral or fetishistic — season two is set up to explore what karma looks like. 

But at least in the first episode, the series tries to be too broadly inclusive. Series creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (and likely HBO) have added a lot of expository patches, no doubt to bring new viewers up to speed and, theoretically, to remind fans of the first season what has transpired since December 2016, when the season finale aired. Indeed, that's a long time between seasons. But maybe a longer "previously on" recap would have been a better way to bridge the gap. The exposition makes for a clunky start. In later episodes, there are periodic flashes of this explanatory impulse that are, at the very least, impressively aggressive about the deeper backstory of the Westworld theme park and its creators, while employing a sometimes daring bit of time shifting. The exposition in those instances can be easily forgiven, but the first hour is sure to provoke a few eye-rolling sighs.

Fans of the series and anyone who has glimpsed HBO's recent trailers for its return will expect a season that is basically Westworld: The Reckoning, as the machines rise up. It's the smart evolutionary play, but the way it's addressed is a little too on the nose. "Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) asks of some of the surviving Delos company guests and executives. "Did you ever stop to wonder about your actions? The price you'd have to pay if there was a reckoning?"

Dolores and the other hosts are on the precipice of a new beginning. But Westworld could do better than have her say this: "Under all these lives I've lived, something else has been growing. I've evolved into something new. And I have one last role to play." Thankfully, that's about the worst of it, and the writers get better at planting the seeds of the series' structural change, such as when the Man in Black (Ed Harris) says, "This is what happens when you let a story play all the way out."

Much better. And Westworld gets exponentially better from there as it grows more expansive, particularly with the arrival of the previously hinted at Shogun World, one of at least four other "worlds," or parks, that could be explored.

Credit goes to Joy and Nolan for eagerly embracing the possibilities of the series. In the five episodes offered for review, they (and the writing staff) have abandoned a sense of cautious plotting and raced into the future (and back to the past, sometimes toggling between the two, frantically). Along with the new narrative directions is a long list of new characters. With the show's creators emboldened to juggle a number of storylines simultaneously and trust that the audience will follow along, Westworld shifts toward the more dense world-making of Game of Thrones, a choice to welcome and wholeheartedly endorse.

Wood is clearly embracing the "new" Dolores, and she's featured extensively in the season's early going. But so is Maeve (Thandie Newton) and management badass Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), which gives Westworld a trifecta of strong female characters, two of them women of color — and when Shogun World begins to reveal itself as a nearby park, the series expands its roster of Asian cast members (Joy, who is part Asian, has said this was important to her).

Largely suffering at the hands of men in season one, the women in Westworld get to be in charge for a change, and they haven't forgotten what happened to them. Revenge is not something that's going to be slow-played here.

As Westworld moves forward, the storytelling it tackles is impressive (and partly worrisome because of its complexity). With Dolores and Maeve running two different storylines and Charlotte representing the company angle, there are also layers and layers of William (Jimmi Simpson) and thus the Man in Black, which requires a considerable amount of time-jumping. Added to this is the fact that most of the storylines also run through Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), whose continuing evolution takes a few eye-opening turns. And that's all before the series takes on Shogun World in later episodes.

In many ways, this is precisely what Westworld should be doing — running full-speed into the future (while peeking back, and even further ahead). Will there be stumbles? Maybe. One of the show's central ideas is, of course, an old one for sci-fi, one that novelist and filmmaker Michael Crichton pursued in the 1973 Westworld feature: artificial intelligence advancing from learned responses to free will and mind/soul awareness. At its best, the series tries to understand the human condition, to explain the darkness and leave a little room for the surprisingly kind elements. If it were just man vs. machine, Westworld wouldn't be successful or take advantage of its deeper narrative opportunities. The writers are moving all the hosts in this new, evolved direction, but clearly Dolores and especially Maeve, being more advanced, will lead a redefinition of what we know about their characters' capabilities (which will no doubt spark debate).

All that forward momentum is, collectively, thrilling and filled with potential. Here's hoping that after a strong early start, Westworld can maintain that level of storytelling for the rest of the season and beyond.

Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, Jimmi Simpson, James Marsden, Tessa Thompson, Rodrigo Santoro, Luke Hemsworth, Clifton Collins Jr., Simon Quarterman 

Created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy

Premieres April 22, 9 p.m. HBO

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