“This is what happens when you let a story play all the way out.” –The Man in Black, “Westworld,” Episode 202
HBO’s beloved sci-fi creation “Westworld” finally returns Sunday night after more than 16 months off the air and expectations are through the roof. How do creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan plan to follow up the twisting and turning narrative of their first season? How could they possibly top the puzzle box of the first season, which lit up message boards and basically broke Reddit? Having seen half of the second season of “Westworld,” I’m happy to reveal that the new year is familiar but just different enough to still feel fresh, mostly because the show feels like it’s embracing its B-movie roots more and leaning on action instead of philosophy. If the first season was about awakening, this season is about revolution. It loses its footing sometimes (it did in year one, too), but this is still smart television with film-caliber production values and incredible performances. Sometimes the writing can call a bit too much attention to itself, but the writers are smart enough in season two to avoid piling more puzzles on top of the ones they created in season one (which was my biggest concern ... a neverending series of mysteries). Don’t worry: there are incredible new developments in what now feels like a multi-season story instead of just a standalone event, but they feel like they’re a part of a new chapter. We’re in a whole new maze. Good luck finding your way out.
Of course, much of the joy fans get from “Westworld” is in experiencing the way that the story unfolds and so I will spoil nothing. However, if you haven’t finished season one, turn away now. At the end of last year, Arnold Weber and Robert Ford’s creation turned on its creators. The androids of the adult amusement park that was Westworld revolted, led by Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), who we learned was also the mysterious Wyatt. Ford was killed, along with dozens of investors at an event in Westworld. Maeve (Thandie Newton), another “host,” reached a moment of true independence and actually returned to Westworld after nearly escaping the island, hoping to find her daughter. Meanwhile, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) learned that he too was a “host,” modeled after Arnold, and fans connected the dots between the flashbacks of a young “white hat” named William (Jimmi Simpson) and the evil “black hat” known only as the Man in Black (Ed Harris), learning they were one and the same.
In the season premiere, most of these plot threads pick up where they left off. For the most part, there’s no massive reset. Don’t worry—the park isn’t back up and running like nothing happened. In fact, the bulk of the start of the season takes place immediately after the events in the town of Pariah. Dolores and Teddy (James Marsden) are leading the revolution of the hosts, even though they’re not even 100% sure what that means. The big philosophical question of the second season of “Westworld” is if you were suddenly free, what would you do with that freedom? The hosts of “Westworld” are responding in very different ways—some feeling anger, some fear, most confusion. Meanwhile, Bernard and Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) are trying to escape while the Man in Black (Ed Harris) embraces this new evolution of his favorite game, one he can't stop playing.
It wouldn’t be “Westworld” if the plot of season two was as simple as that last paragraph. Of course, the season premiere ends with a head-scratching cliffhanger, and then the second episode unfolds as arguably the most ambitious in the history of the show. It’s up to you as to whether or not this sounds like a compliment or a criticism but the second season of “Westworld” is more “LOST” than the first, playing with time and location in ways designed to enhance its themes and deepen its mysteries. Just as with that show, the “WTF” nature of the experience has evolved as we get to know the characters and the writers expand the world and what they do within it. They’ve also divided our protagonists into small groups in a way that reminded me of when the characters of “LOST” were spread across the island, and, as we’ve learned, this show plays with time like the ABC hit did so well.
The answer to the big question of how “Westworld” follows up its first season is that it has evolved much like its hosts. It’s still the kind of show that will dive into philosophical waters more than most any program, and those waters can be a bit muddy, but the stakes feel higher in season two and the characters more resonant, in part because great performers like Wood and Newton have been freed from the host loops. There’s bloodshed and turmoil. And at the center of it all are two truly great performances from Wright and Wood as the real heart and soul of this show. They represent both the creator and his creation and the instability that comes with true freedom. They are fascinating characters, and they hold the show together when it threatens to come apart. (Newton and Harris are typically great too. As is the new addition of Peter Mullan as...SPOILER REDACTED.)
“Westworld” faced a bit of a backlash near the end of the first season, and I worry that the action-driven, fragmented narrative of the new season might push viewers out even more. There’s a sense that HBO’s fancy new car doesn’t look so new anymore, and our pop culture world only likes The New with increasing intensity (look at how many people turned on the second season of “Stranger Things” with rabid glee.) We love to knock hit shows off their pedestals, and I'm curious if that happens here to "Westworld." It didn't for me. And my hope is that the people who truly love this show—the real hardcore fan base—will grow even more devoted. The very good news is that “Westworld” now feels like more of a journey instead of just a puzzle box waiting to be solved. And I can’t wait to see where we're going.