Though it had a notoriously problematic production and plenty of controversial delays on its journey to the screen, there’s little doubt that the first season of HBO‘s Westworld was worth waiting for. From its memorable credit sequence through to its complex post-modern sentient robot reboot of the original Michael Crichton story, it was clear to see that the project triumphed in design, budget and acting (bolstered by the likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris). With some major, unexpected reveals and a truly twisted and ambitious narrative, the sheer scope of the mini-series managed to pull the rug out of many expectations.
The series could easily have gone purely along the ‘action’ route – the premise of killer robots has been a genre staple forever and was good enough for the original film. Equally, it could have become a ponderous, chin-stroking exploration of the human condition and while it certainly edged in that direction to the chagrin of some critics, the balance was largely a careful one – punctuating violent bloodbaths and explicit nudity with some genuinely interesting observations on what people (and robots!) will do to feel truly alive and in control.
Now, a long eighteen months or so later, the second season arrives with a mandate to build on the framework of the first run, pivoting out of the ‘violent ends’ witnessed in the climax and looking at the wider implications of a ‘park-wide’ robotic revolt. Those expecting an end to the non-linear format will quickly have their hopes dashed as we pick up on the range of surviving characters across at least two different time tracks – all apparently taking place at various moments in the wake of the last episode’s events. We see Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) being found, washed up on a beach and plucked to safety by Delos – the park owners – and their military team, apparently nearly two weeks later and saying he can’t fully remember exactly what happened, beyond the obvious – the robots massacred he park’s visitors and senior staff. That PTSD is only partially true as we see him get flashes of the events immediately after the massacre and how he and operative Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) made it to a secret underground bunker where she learned they wouldn’t be ‘extracted’ until they deliver Pete Abernathy, the malfunctioning ‘farmer’ we saw at the start of last season. Charlotte’s too busy to pick up on the signs that Bernard isn’t as human as he appears, though Bernard manages to forestall a premature shutdown. Elsewhere/when… the now totally ‘aware’ and totally ruthless Maeve (Thandie Newton) makes plans to find her ‘daughter ‘ elsewhere in the park, willing to kill anyone who isn’t immediately useful and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) also continues a violent quest across the plains empowered by her new place in the world(s). The older William (Ed Harris) has also survived the massacre and it seems that the unseen Anthony Hopkins’ Robert still has plans for him…
There’s so much going on that a certain amount of guesswork and intuition has to be involved with any review of the opener – there’s a lot that cannot be known for sure as yet – it’s a case of breadcrumbs rather than the entire loaf. The last season did a solid job of dovetailing its many threads by the time the end of the run came around, but the premiere of Season Two (‘Journey into Night‘ – named after Robert’s final scenario for the park) simply throws you in to the mix and expects you to keep up. Unless you’ve watched the first run recently, that’s something of a tall order and it’s likely that even the most die-hard viewer will have moments where they have to think very carefully about who was left where and when, when the bullets flew. That being said there’s some great performances here – particularly from the key female members of the cast. Both Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood are quite phenomenal in their performances, each playing driven members of the WestWorld robotic collective but pushing the boundaries of their individuality – you wouldn’t want to cross either Maeve or Dolores as they seek to put their thumbs on the existential scales and seize the day. Equally, Harris grizzles it up and although we don’t see Hopkins, his presence is felt and heard.
There’s a lot of violence, some out of it inferred with the cold execution of the hosts in the background, some more explicit in the foreground. There’s full-frontal nudity and the mature-audiences language – but with the exception that the full-frontal is of the male variety for a change – there’s no real surprises in the ingredients and the quality of their mix and execution. You really can’t come in to the series cold… you need to have seen the first season… but for those existing, devoted fans, this is likely to work well.
It’s far too early to know whether the second season of WestWorld will live up to its first run, but all the parts are there, all are in working order and the artificial intelligence being shown certainly proves its smarts…