HBO’s labyrinthine robot western Westworld returns April 22. If the first five episodes are any indication, it’s going to be a multilayered bloodbath and we’ll love every minute.
Early reviews for Westworld Season 2 point to a show that’s more sure of itself, less tied down by the obligation to shock and surprise (though it may still do that), and fascinated, as always, by what makes humanity tick.
Read on for spoiler-free Westworld reviews.
This season is about character
Though the characters’ paths are different, they’re ultimately all on the same quest: To master the reality of their choosing. Woven through these narratives — which take place in timelines I managed to identify as “past,” “present,” and “???” — are subplots that deepen our understanding of the core group and the world they inhabit.
Just like last season, the most compelling plot is Maeve’s, and Newton continues to turn in career-best work as the park’s most conscious host, turning her emotions on a dime and making her sometimes-less-than-ethical character sympathetic and appealing.
The Man In Black, in particular, begins to evolve from the show’s scary heavy to more of a rounded – but still terribly flawed – individual. This gives Harris a lot more to do than scowl and act scary, and the actor is clearly relishing the additional character material. Harris has a thousand-yard-stare that’s hard to beat, and there are several moments where the camera pushes in on his grizzled face and we get to watch the the conflict in his eyes as he mulls what to do next…
[Wood] continues to deliver one of the best performances on television, and here we’re witnessing a whole new, very deadly Delores. Wood’s greatest gift on Westworld is her stillness – she’s able to remain inhumanly stationary while somehow exuding energy. It’s almost impossible to pin-down, but Wood makes it look like second nature.
It’s more meta than ever
Season 2 assumes viewers already know that multiple timelines are part of the show’s DNA, and uses the structural trick to cover decades of story, diving into perspectives and events that were never even hinted at in the initial season. At no point does it seem to be used as misdirection, either. On the contrary, the show makes a consistent point of setting up connective tissue throughout each timeline so viewers can almost always be sure of when and where they are. It doesn’t play as a dumbed-down version of the show, however. It plays as a series that’s confident in its characters and doesn’t need to rely on trickery to keep the audience interested.
Nolan, Joy, and their collaborators seem to have multiplied the number of self-referential lines that speculate on the nature of Westworld and Westworld. More than in last season, the park’s key staff members stand in for the writers, directors, and producers of Westworld, and the robots for the show’s cast — actors who were once required to play whatever role was handed to them, no matter how difficult and despite any objections they might have had to the material, but who now demand some say in how their faces, bodies, and emotions are to be used. Maeve delivers a kiss-off line with relish, then criticizes it as “a bit broad.”
Perhaps the best part of the new season, at least in the five episodes made available for review, is that it’s far less of a frustrating puzzle. While plenty of fans enjoy analyzing each scene for big clues, it’s only made Westworld stronger that the writers don’t seem all that interested (at least not yet) in pulling one over on the audience. Of course, there are mysteries and twists galore, but they feel more in tune with the overall narrative than, say, all that timeline trickery in Season 1.
Different timelines are still prevalent in season 2, but unlike season 1 – which played coy about admitting one of its storylines was set in the past – we’re aware of what’s past and what’s present in season 2. Unless we aren’t.
Westworld still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, and the term “time slippage” comes up more than once.
There are times where losing that patina of never-ending mystery hurts the narrative. When it’s never clear when or where something is happening, there’s a perpetual safety net in place. If a scene falls flat or an episode feels long, it’s easy to assume it will work when revisited within the context of the final reveal. That boost is missing here, and in a few stretches where a prominent character is reduced to an exposition delivery vehicle, the show starts to feel clunky rather than sleek and refined.
Expect the unexpected
Watching the second season can sometimes feel like stepping into the shoes of the hosts themselves, and having some very basic assumptions about the nature of the world and its characters ripped out from beneath you.
What’s ultimately most surprising about Westworld season 2 is its unapologetic air of melancholy. This was never a feel-good show to begin with, but season 1 attempted to balance its sadism with bursts of entertainment. Season 2 has a few of these moments – one character’s death caused by drinking nitroglycerin is ghoulishly funny – but the show has settled into a much more somber vibe overall. This may turn some viewers off, but I was quite taken with how sorrowful huge portions of season 2 feel.
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.
Westworld Season 2 premieres April 22 on HBO.