Best of Spring

“Westworld” Is Smarter and Better, but It Demands a Bloody Price


You can switch off the news, take Twitter off your phone, and turn on HBO, but even then, these days, pure escape is hard to find. The creators of the latest popular entertainments du jour don’t seem to want us to forget our troubles — or, in the case of Westworld’s Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, to let us off the hook for wanting that in the first place. You might strive to immerse yourself in another world for an hour or two, but here’s what you get for craving a little R & R: robots terrorizing you in a luxury theme park from which you cannot escape.

Welcome to the second season of Westworld, which begins on Sunday and is a lot more fun than the first. When it premiered back in the fall of 2016, Westworld enticed viewers with a fantasy setup before digging into thought-experiment philosophizing: What would it be like to pay a visit to a vast park designed to look like the Old West and populated by lifelike robots — “hosts,” in the show’s parlance — that cater to your every whim, be it fucking or fighting? And on a chillier note: What if those hosts developed independent consciousness?

By the end of that first season, we got the inevitable answer: They would rise up against their human tormenters, of course. After ten episodes of tedious exposition, often delivered via endless soliloquy by Anthony Hopkins as the park’s co-founder Dr. Robert Ford, Westworld’s first year ended on a rampage as Ford, on the verge of a forced retirement, programmed the hosts to turn on the guests — after arranging for the oldest host in the park, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), to kill him first.

The second season benefits from Ford’s absence. Westworld no longer feels, as it did in its first year, more like a lecture series than a TV drama. (I believe the word I used to describe it then was bullshit.) Now, though, the show is both more focused and more expansive, its title destination a playground for all the ideas the writers spent so much bandwidth expounding in its first round.

The new season finds Maeve (Thandie Newton), the host who played madam to Westworld’s bevy of robot whores, scouring the park for the daughter she was given in a previous “narrative” — a scripted story the hosts are programmed to play out on a loop — and who continues to haunt her dreams. She takes Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), Westworld’s “story director,” as both hostage and guide. Accompanied by the foxy bandit Hector (Rodrigo Santoro), they (and we) explore new areas of the park — realms beyond the Wild West fantasy, like Shogun World.

Meanwhile, after literally pulling the trigger on the robot uprising, the apple-cheeked rancher’s daughter robot Dolores isn’t so sweet anymore. She’s increasingly convinced that the hosts have no choice but to defend their world against intruders, and she leads a team of them across the park, terrorizing humans in their wake. Based on the five episodes I’ve seen, Dolores’s arc this season appears not unlike that of William (Jimmi Simpson) in the first. William was introduced as the young, earnest, soon-to-be brother-in-law of Logan (Ben Barnes), whose father owns the park; at first, William is turned off by Logan’s drinking and in-park robot whoring, but his skepticism soon gives way to curiosity — and then nihilistic delight. By the end of that season, he’s slaughtering hosts with abandon and taking Logan as his prisoner.

The first season ended — spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen it and are somehow still reading this — with the revelation that William’s scenes were flashbacks, and that he is the same person, separated by thirty years, as the Man in Black, an enthusiastic veteran parkgoer played by Ed Harris. This season we watch as Dolores undergoes a similarly cynical evolution (Breaking Bad, what have you wrought?). Through flashbacks, the new episodes illustrate how the ruthless William wrested control of Westworld’s parent company, Delos, from his brother- and father-in-law. And we learn that William’s true evil lies not in his delight in all the raping and pillaging he gets to partake in at Westworld, but in a more dryly sinister drive: to corral human beings into an impossibly tempting spot, then use their innermost desires for business ends.

In retrospect, Westworld’s first season was a lot like Game of Thrones’ — it turns out both were mere prologues to the real meat of their respective stories. That’s not the only similarity between this buzzy prestige drama and Game of Thrones, a series whose imminent end no doubt sends shivers down the spines of HBO’s executives: Both are complex, world-building fantasies that practically require viewers to comb through one of the many entertainment blogs that have recognized the click potential of a Monday-morning explainer piece. Both of the shows’ blonde-haired, blue-eyed female leads play ingenue characters that in short order become warriors, building up armies by earning the loyalty of skeptics in order to enact bloody revenge. Even their names — Dolores and Daenerys, Game of Thrones’ dragon queen, played by Emilia Clarke — echo each other.

And of course, both series prominently feature — I’d go so far as to say are predicated on — the promise of gratuitous (female) nudity and violence. While the new Westworld episodes are mercifully light on the former (especially in comparison with the first season, when naked robots played by human women were so often casually splayed upon technicians’ tables), they’re heavier than ever on the latter. As with Game of Thrones, there are far too many scenes of mass carnage in which I can barely tell if I’m supposed to cheer or lament the piling up of these particular cadavers. When did television become a blood sacrifice?

In its second season, Westworld seizes some of the queasy themes that Black Mirror has so effectively claimed: the idea that infinite possibilities are a nightmare, not a dream; and the ways in which technology doesn’t free us, but enslaves us — or rather, enables us to enslave one another. It’s an appropriate theme for a TV show that invites viewers to imagine what it might be like to live inside a TV show — and reveals that it would, in fact, be an unspeakable nightmare. You want the Wild West? Here, choke on it! There are moments when I resent watching a show that seems to want to punish me for enjoying it. But as far as punishments go, you could do worse.

Westworld season two premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.


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