Westworld season one should have been a slam dunk. A mystery box show at a time when such stories were only just coming back into vogue, and the tale of a robot uprising just as the public paranoia about artificial intelligence was hitting a middle stage, Westworld had enough talent and ideas behind it to become the biggest show on television.
Well, one could argue that, besides another HBO property that shall not be named, Westworld is indeed the most talked about show of the last few years. Not all that talk has been positive, however, and those first ten episodes were marred by increasing amounts of controversy that took far longer to tear down the legacies of shows like Lost and Mr Robot.
From the very first episode there were complaints both justified (the series’ treatment of violence against women) and slightly less so (guessing the answers earlier than the showrunners intended), but as a complete season of television it felt like a bunch of amazing performances and thought-provoking ideas about humanity and evil and one’s capacity to bleed into the other, all buried underneath a narrative that seemed intent on pulling out a rug that was never there in the first place.
But mistakes are just an excuse to learn, and it appears from this first episode of season two that Westworld has done just that. Taking two whole years to return to our screens, maybe it will finally be the show that we all hoped it would be.
We begin the episode revisiting all the things that annoyed everyone about the first season but, like the massive troll that it appears Westworld’s now intent on being, here it’s used to subvert expectations rather than just confuse for the sake of confusion. The conversation between Dolores and Arnold (Bernard?) is different from before in that the audience now knows more than those we are watching on screen, and we can see the tragic irony in their words.
You frighten me sometimes, Dolores.
Why on earth would you ever be frightened of me?
Bernard wakes up two weeks after the events of the first season finale, disorientated and seemingly possessing only flashes of memory from the time in between. Over the course of the episode we get to see these flashes, and it’s the first small improvement of many that makes the episode feel more confident and less obtuse. We see the world in this episode as Bernard sees it, rather than being kept in the dark and second guessing every line of dialogue or sideways glance.
We’re confused, yes, but so is everyone else.
The troops have arrived on the island (by the way, we’re on an island) to mop up after a two-week long massacre led by Dolores and figure out what the hell happened to make the game malfunction so catastrophically. They’re executing hosts indiscriminately, which puts Bernard in a slight bind given that he’s a sentient Host only alive due to his face and job title.
The suits are clearly antagonists at this point, and the characters we met last year now the ones to root for. It’s a neat little change from season one when we were supposed to be on the Host’s side rather than those who were controlling and abusing them, and it’s yet another thing that bonds us more to the existing characters. Others, however, have gone the other way.
Our second timeline takes place immediately after Dolores shot Ford, and sees Bernard, Charlotte and a whole load of red shirts fleeing from the rogue Hosts. It mostly features lingering shots of bodies, ruthless executions at the hands of those we thought of as protagonists and just general, gratuitous bloodshed.
Which begs the question – who’s story is this?
We assumed it was Dolores – season one was essentially her origin story. Evan Rachel Wood is the face of the show, and the main draw for many viewers unsure about other elements. But here she plays much more like a villain in need of defeat, and Bernard as the protagonist straddling the line between human and AI.
But then that changes again in the episode’s last moments, when he declares that he is the reason for all the hosts in the water, apparently dead and in some mass grave at the edge of the park. To be fair, we don’t even know that is Bernard, or how he recovered from the critical failure he was experiencing two weeks ago. It’s all up in the air right now and, rather than being frustrating, it feels exciting.
Me? I’m rooting for Teddy, and not just because he’s played by James Marsden or because he didn’t get his due last season. He’s the most passive player on the board right now, and seemingly there to show how manipulative Dolores has learned to be. He’ll do anything she asks, as Arnold said all those years ago, but his own awakening could put a spanner in the works.
Elsewhere, William has finally gotten everything he ever thought he wanted. The game now has real stakes and he’s going to enjoy it even if there’s no one left in the park to play with. All of his Christmases come at once when a child-robot-Ford hybrid comes to tell him there’s another level beyond the maze that’s been designed just for him.
Finally, he matters, but probably not as much as he thinks.
While all of this is going on, Maeve, our forever MVP, is simply looking for her daughter. She doesn’t disagree with the chaos and bloodshed going on inside the park, but she’s not in a rush to join in, either. She has denied her coding by not escaping the park, which was Ford’s plan along with Dolores’ one woman reckoning, and is free now to create her own storyline.
Who better to help with that than Lee, the in-world showrunner who’s has more to do with who Maeve is and used to be than anyone else. Yet it is what we feel that makes us who we are, and Maeve feels in her deepest core that she is a mother. It’s a sweetly simple quest on a show where literal world domination is on the line, and ironically promises to be the most human thread in the season.
A big talking point of this episode will be the tiger washed up on the beach, if only for the obvious Lost parallels. People still complain about that damn polar bear, and I’d wager that Nolan and Joy know that. I’m pegging this as another massive troll on the theorists, rather than a clue that unlocks the season, but there’s no reason it can’t be both.
Westworld season two has all the right ingredients needed to create a gripping and engaging second chapter, and the writers have had the rare benefit of hindsight in order to marry audience reaction with the stories they want to tell. Strap in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.