Westworld season 2 spoiler-free review

After seeing the first half of Westworld season 2, our US chums have some thoughts on this wholly different animal in its second year...

When Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy took the stage at New York Comic Con in October 2016, Westworld had not yet even screened its second episode on HBO. Still a fledgling series with lots of expectation and rumour swirling around it, no one was quite sure yet what to make of the series about violent delights and violent ends. Yet even in the halls of a Manhattan ballroom, the frenzied obsession fans were developing was already palpable… as was its effect on the future. Indeed, Nolan himself coyly teased that given his experience of being primarily a screenwriter before Westworld, he had rarely enjoyed the “feedback loop” one finds in television, wherein the performances of actors and the receptions of audiences then influence how you revisit characters and stories years later.

“For the most part, that’s very rare in film, [but] it’s every day in television. That relationship becomes integral. We put material out there and see what comes back… Here, you get to play endlessly with it.”

Now, 18 months later, we can confirm they have indeed played with the form, and Westworld Season 2 is a wholly different animal from the first year. Also, for the most part, that is a good thing. Again by contrasting television to film, the second year about the Delos park inhabited with comely hosts and the illusion (or dream) of grand adventure feels less like a continuation of the first season and more like a startlingly different sequel with its own pace, temperament, and affectation. Prior to season two, Nolan’s only previous “feedback loop” experience had been on The Dark Knight Trilogy, wherein each film had a different thematic interest and narrative gait, sometimes to the surprise of fans. This will also be the case for Westworld.

To use the well-known overlap of another Michael Crichton adaptation, Jurassic Park, season 1 was all about welcoming the visitors to the park while sweeping John Williams music boomed (or at least an out-of-tune player piano’s rendition of Paint It Black); the first half of Westworld Season 2 is, meanwhile, all about the fences being down and the T. Rex having her way with a couple of jeeps. In that sense, for those who thought the first season held back on the bloodletting and carnage of the ever implicit robo-revolution, you can rest easy: the revolution is here, it is televised, and it is grisly.

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In fact, much of the first three episodes deal with the direct consequence of the season 1 finale. Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores is on the warpath, and she is cutting a trail of carnage and death while getting a lot of mileage out of mockingly spitting the guests and Delos handlers’ favourite phrases back at them before pulling the trigger. It is clear Wood and the writers are relishing in the opportunity of transforming the farmer’s daughter into the veiled menace first teased when she swatted a fly on her face. In season 2, the fleeing guests are the flies and every tree branch and rope a swatter.

While effectively shocking, Dolores’ war is also one of the lesser elements of this season’s first act. There is a tangible repetition to her actions, and a vagueness of her goals, that keeps Westworld Season 2 somewhat from having the clarity of vision of the first year. For in season one, there was the implicit dread (or excitement) of the hosts eventually casting off their chains and overthrowing their enslavers that reached a joyous crescendo when Dolores put a bullet in the back of Robert Ford’s head. But here, Robert Ford is definitely dead, and the bullets, heads, and corpses routine has a somewhat diminished return.

Luckily, after the first few episodes, all the narrative threads, including Dolores and Teddy’s, take some interesting turns that should leave fans speculating for many weeks. Because from the outset, the series embraces many a new dramatically rich irony, which from the very first scene promises new “mazes,” new games, and probably a hell of lot of new think-pieces too.

Without giving anything away, it seems much of Westworld Season 2 will rest on the choices made by my favourite character in the series, Jeffrey Wright’s perennially conflicted Bernard. After spending much of season one coming to grips with the fact that he is an android (twice), Bernard’s allegiances and what we believe, or maybe just hope, are his authentic choices are routinely tested. It is no spoiler to say that he finds himself falling back into the lot of humanity, with new Delos security badass Karl Strand (Gustaf Skarsgård) picking Bernard up off a beach and having some pretty fair questions about what the hell is going on. Yet the show invites us to evaluate Bernard’s answers with as much skepticism as Strand has, and to consider the paradox of Bernard being one of the most self-aware and sentient of hosts, and yet the humans who rely on him are utterly oblivious to that fact.

Where the narrative goes with Bernard, as well as Old Man William (Ed Harris), will tease and offer plenty of grounds for speculation, perhaps even more so than season 1. For the mysteries this year appear designed to be more intellectually esoteric and opaque than the season 1 riddles that relied on emotional twists regarding William and Arnold/Bernard’s true identities. But this shift in temperament seems to be for a virtue too, as one episode focuses entirely on these two characters, and it seemed the strongest of the five screened for preview.

However, there is also Thandie Newton’s crowd-pleasing Maeve. As still intentionally the most human character on the series, this synthetic madam is the only one of all these sad sacks who isn’t introverted or filled with either self-loathing or a god complex, and the show intentionally brings that to the fore by juxtaposing her with Dolores. Maeve continues her quest from the end of season 1—to find her daughter—and where it takes her leads to some of the most amusing and spectacular moments of season 2. Also bonus points should be awarded for Joy and Nolan wisely re-contextualising Simon Quartermane’s Lee Sizemore as Maeve’s comic relief sidekick, as opposed to being a narrative irritant.

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There are plenty more secrets that will come like a hail of bullets in Westworld Season 2. Some are expected (yes, we get to see Shogunworld, although I won’t say where, when, or how), and some genuinely left me surprised and with a big dumb grin on my face. The show’s ability to manipulate in the midst of all the intentional chaos is perhaps its strongest element, continuing to make it arguably the smartest genre show on television. However, with all the chaos and mayhem that is going down, it is easy to become wistful for the deft hand of Robert Ford, which gave a guidance to the madness and built to a pitch perfect release of catharsis. Anthony Hopkins’ gravitas is also notably absent.

Westworld season 2 is a different beast that’s more aggressive, direct, and at times unknowable. As a whole though, it is still a delight, if ever an increasingly violent one. And personally, I cannot wait to see how this one’s blood bath will end.

Westworld Season 2 premieres on HBO at 9pm on Sunday the 22nd of April in the US and on Sky Atlantic on Monday the 23rd of April here in the UK.