“The stakes are real in this place now. Real consequences,” says the Man in Black (Ed Harris) during the opening episode of season two of “Westworld,” now airing Mondays on both HOT HBO and Yes Oh at 22:00. And that’s something both his sociopathic character and viewers can be grateful for.
When Michael Crichton made the original “Westworld” film in 1973, his story offered a very literal depiction of man fighting to avoid being replaced by machine. The 1976 sequel, “Futureworld” (a cheap spin-off unconnected to Crichton), focused on an evil corporation trying to replace people in positions of power with its own robots. And that motif was revisited four years later in the short-lived and truly dreadful TV spin-off “Beyond Westworld” (“Beyond Belief” would have been more apt).
The question that haunted season one of HBO’s “Westworld” was: Whose story was the show most interested in telling? That of humans behaving like monsters (either as guests at a theme park or as business executives driven only by profit), or of robots achieving consciousness? It’s a question it’s finally answering in season two.
The show took a long time to reach the small screen – for an indication of quite how long, HBO had promoed the first season on Vine (ask your parents) back in 2015, two years after work had started on the reboot – but I must admit to feeling underwhelmed by most of the first season.
Clearly, no expense had been spared: The show cost a reported $10 million per episode (by comparison, the original film cost about $1 million, or $6 million in today’s money). Yet while it looked fantastic, with its extravagant sets, locations and visual effects, there was something lacking.
The series veered from the original film concept to such an extent that the only thing remaining was the Wild West amusement park where androids (known as “hosts”) are the “rides” – Sex Flags, if you will – and the wealthy get to indulge their bloodiest and basest desires. The decision to focus exclusively on a Western setting (the original film also gave us Medieval World and Roman World, while the sequel gave us the prosaic-sounding Spa World) was probably the first season’s smartest move. Season two’s may be to expand it to others (such as Shogun World, as hinted at in season one).
The show initially seemed too content setting riddles both for its characters and viewers, specifically the “maze” quest that two key characters embarked upon. (The creators promised to rein that in, yet Harris’ character is told straightaway to “find the door” in the second season.) It gave us a plot as sprawling as those Utah landscapes, but one that often felt like an intellectual exercise. It was a show to admire, but not love. Indeed, everything felt as engineered as the hosts themselves – and lacking the very thing they need: soul.
The fact that a Nolan brother, Jonathan, is involved (along with his wife and fellow producer, Lisa Joy) should have alerted us to the fact this is a story that will play fast and loose with timelines – after all, this is the man who co-wrote “Interstellar” with brother Christopher and penned the short story upon which “Memento” is based.
My initial ambivalence to the show ended (SPOILER) when the big reveal came that the park co-creator’s right-hand man, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), was himself a host, thus sparking a whole, er, host of new avenues for us to explore. Any time spent watching Wright onscreen is never a second wasted, and he provides the show with much-needed emotion.
The show also became far more interesting as two other hosts became “woke” – a concept that would have been particularly alien to Hollywood in the early 1970s. And their stories are very much to the fore in the new season.
The most compelling is that of Maeve (Thandie Newton, who must have set a record for onscreen nudity in season one), who passed up the opportunity to escape Westworld for the chance to try to find her “daughter” somewhere in the theme park. It’s particularly fascinating to see the “fictionalized” Maeve disappear, to be replaced with what may (or may not) be her “real” character.
Then there’s Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the farmgirl-turned-killer whose meandering journey to find “the maze” ate up far too much screen time in season one. Now, though, she’s leading the host rebellion, aided by dreary host boyfriend Teddy (James Marsden). While Dolores still has to say clunky lines like “I have evolved into something new, and I have one last role to play myself,” she also gets the best scene in the opening episode as she mulls whether to kill some of the park guests.
“Survival, that’s your ‘cornerstone,’” she tells a guest, using the term hitherto reserved for hosts’ backstories. “But that’s not your only drive, is it. There’s part of you that wants to hurt, to kill. That’s why you created us, this place. Be prisoners to your own desires but now you’re prisoners to mine.”
Also returning for the ride are the scheming humans: Harris’ character, whose backstory was revealed in a twist toward the end of season one that managed to be both implausible yet satisfying; Delos executive Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), whose character is still especially short-changed by the scripts; and Lee Sizemore (Simon Quaterman), the whiny writer who created the scenarios for the theme park and finds his work coming back to haunt him in season two. If Wright brings the emotion, Quaterman delivers the humor (there are some especially enjoyable scenes between him and Newton in the season opener).
There is one gaping hole at the heart of season two, and that’s the absence of Anthony Hopkins’ park creator, Dr. Robert Ford. A young version of his character returns, but the Welsh actor will not. This is particularly depressing as it gives him more time to make trash like “Transformers: The Last Knight,” which is the kind of thing that should see someone stripped of their knighthood.
Despite the clear craftsmanship on show here (and those enjoyable player piano renditions of Radiohead songs that littered season one), “Westworld” still has a way to go before it can be considered a classic. Indeed, I prefer the Channel Four-AMC drama “Humans,” for the simple reason it’s rooted in reality rather than sci-fi spectacular.
Still, there’s no denying the epic scale and ambition of “Westworld,” or that season two is most definitely an upgrade on the first. It’s fun to watch the lunatics taking over the asylum, even if they are only wresting it from another bunch of crazies.
It's clear now that Crichton's "Westworld" was never the main source of inspiration for the TV show; that honour goes to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." The question is whether man or machine is the greater monster.