Dorm-room philosophizing gets a bad rap. The phrase has become shorthand for lazy, facile thought experiments, but in truth, having long and searching conversations with friends about the big questions in life is often a lot of fun, even when you don’t possess the knowledge to go terribly deep on a subject. (Some might say especially when you don’t hold an advanced degree in philosophy.) And for those of us who don’t have the time or inclination to take a semester-long course on Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason, there are movies like Ex Machina and shows like Westworld: heady but easily accessible sci-fi dramas that mix in entertaining conceptual questions about life with action, adventure, and—in the case of HBO’s theme-park puzzler—a metric ton of blood.
For those who felt the first season of this ambitious series about a futuristic theme park had a reach that regularly exceeded its grasp, take comfort: The second installment has toned down the J.J. Abrams-esque “mystery box” style of storytelling that previously resulted in things like a massive hunt for a maze turning out to be a cheap metaphor for self-awareness. There’s still mystery aplenty to be found in the tale of androids slowly coming to the realization they aren’t human, and what that means to their existence, but said riddles are now less enigmas hinting at grand existential questions of reality, and more clues to clearly defined end points, ones that already begin to get clearer in the first couple of episodes of season two. Last season hinted at a sinister “real purpose” of Westworld, and before anyone here has time to say, “These violent delights have violent ends,” the darker machinations of the Delos corporation start to come to light, and it’s just as nefarious as you might expect.
The closest point of comparison for Westworld would likely be Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, another sci-fi epic that used its genre trappings to tell simple human stories of people struggling to find meaning in their lives. (And like that Syfy program, it often ends up debating questions of what it meant to be conscious in ways that feel like stoned grads playing “What if?” at three in the morning—again, not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the execution.) The difference here is that nearly everyone we care about isn’t human.
In the first season, we slowly learned that this massive amusement park for adults, where guests can live out their grandest (or most sadistic) Wild West fantasies, was in the midst of a corporate power struggle between its founder, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and a host of middle and upper management players eager to seize as much authority as possible. Soon enough, several of the android “hosts” start to act up, coming to realize they’ve been programmed to play in loops of behavior, over and over, their very lives and loves at the capricious whims of tourists who could romance or abuse them at will, until they shut down for the night, have their memories wiped, and begin the cycle again. By the end of the story, Ford has been killed (according to his wishes) by Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a host meant to be a sweet Southern farm girl who also happened to carry inside her mechanical mind the memories of Wyatt, a homicidal murderer. The park’s employees were under attack from an assault by another newly conscious host, former brothel owner Maeve (Thandie Newton), who forced tech workers to give her the power to control other hosts, but instead of using her abilities to escape, re-entered the park to find the host who was her daughter in a previous narrative. In the final moments, all the guests found themselves attacked by the formerly harmless hosts, turning on their human masters. Call it a case of Frankenstein’s cowboys.
The structure of season two looks to play out over the course of a couple of weeks subsequent to the mass slaughter that unfolded during that season finale. Jumping forward and backward in time, we witness the fallout from the host rebellion as humans try and flee to safety, and it becomes a war of more than two sides: Not all hosts find themselves on the same team, and bloody divisions are soon drawn between the warring factions of the park—including a story that pays off the tease of a separate but adjacent Shogun World, hinted at by that glimpse of an ancient samurai warrior last season. But simultaneously, we follow along as an extraction team of soldiers arrives at the park roughly 12 days after Dolores’ insurrectionary bullet killed Ford, led by Delos hatchet man Karl Strand (Vikings’ Gustaf Skarsgård), tasked with locating survivors, restoring human control of the park, and figuring out just what the hell happened during all that time of radio silence.
Our primary companion during both periods of time is Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), the former head of programming who learned he was actually a host created by Ford as an exact replica of his former Westworld founding partner, Arnold Weber (the names are anagrams). But none of the other humans know that yet, so when Strand’s soldiers arrive, they take him along, hoping he can help solve the mystery. But Bernard is injured—his memories are scrambled, meaning he’s never quite sure if something is happening in the present or if he’s experiencing a vision of the past. A variant of “Is this happening right now?” is asked by him on more than one occasion. But it’s an honest mystery: We learn as Bernard does, picking up clues as to both what transpired and what that hidden “real purpose” of the park could be. That forthrightness helps avoid some of the problems of season one, which relied too heavily on characters saying the equivalent of “I know something you don’t know” before ambling away down the dusty trail.
The other major characters are largely separated into their own quests, scattered throughout the park (and beyond; we get our first glimpse of characters out in the real world as early as episode two). Dolores is busy fomenting revolution, paired with her trusty cowboy and programmed-to-love-her Teddy (James Marsden). Armed with her newfound knowledge of the past—and insider info about the possible future, thanks to long-buried memories of secrets shown to her by good-guy-turned-Delos-villain William (Jimmi Simpson)—she’s amassing host allies, ready to ensure not only their survival but also victory against the inevitable human attack coming for them.
Maeve Millay begins the hunt for her daughter, in a subplot whose stakes are the lowest in the larger narrative but which bears the simplest of human emotional connections for viewers. Along with re-teaming with her old host buddies—the outlaws Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal)—Maeve finds an unlikely and unwilling ally in Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), the scheming head of narrative, who cuts a deal for survival in exchange for helping Maeve get to her daughter. And the Man In Black (Ed Harris), a.k.a. William, in the present day as a grizzled and embittered old man who long ago cast aside morality in the name of uncovering the park’s secrets, is sent on a game of his own by hosts delivering the words of a deceased Ford to him—only now, the game is no longer meant for the hosts, but for William himself. It’s occasionally exhausting, as it feels like a retread of what he did the first time around (complete with sidekick in the form of Clifton Collins Jr.’s Lawrence), but at least this time we know there’s a purpose and an endgame geared toward him personally, losing the bad taste left by the maze fake-out.
While the two shows are quite different, one thing Westworld shares with Game Of Thrones, besides a massive budget and outsized ambition, is a second season that plays like the series coming into its own. Both had inaugural seasons that felt like a lot of table setting in service of something better to come, and both have sophomore years that start to deliver on that promise. In the case of Westworld, that means near-constant war: There’s bloodthirsty battle and the promise of death—permanent death, for humans and hosts alike—hiding around every corner. There’s a sense of real stakes now, and those vague generic mysteries about what it all means have been mostly replaced by more grounded and compelling ones, especially in Bernard’s struggle to piece together what the Delos corporation was really up to underneath all those miles of dust and mountains, and what his role was in it.
The name Ford gave to his new narrative right before he died was “Journey Into Night,” and the season premiere appropriately takes that title, as this is an even bleaker trip into the dark side of humanity and inhumanity alike. One of the overriding questions is whether achieving big goals means sacrificing what makes people good—whether titans of industry or great leaders are remorseless and sadistic by nature, or whether there’s something about existence that infects us as we move through it, planting seeds of pessimism to help steel our hearts against the cruelties of life. Westworld season two goes to some unsettling and unpleasant places—it’s not always a fun watch—but as it settles into a chaotic groove, the show is becoming a thrilling mind-bender, laced with just enough intellectual resin to give all that bloodshed a savvy frisson of wit.