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‘Westworld’ Begins Season 2 by Establishing New Ground Rules

Now that the hosts are free, the show is exploring different territory, but with the same confusing narrative devices

HBO/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Fittingly for a show about what is essentially a giant choose-your-own-adventure game, Westworld had some critical decisions to make ahead of Season 2. After a troubled production cycle and some salacious reports from the set before the premiere of Season 1, Westworld became an unexpected blockbuster, airing the most-watched debut season in the history of HBO at a time when the network badly needed another genre behemoth. But cocreators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy achieved this success using tactics that could be as frustrating as they were compelling. Westworld’s first season didn’t just deploy the mystery box structure, popularized by executive producer J.J. Abrams; it leaned into it with unprecedented enthusiasm, scattering Easter eggs like a White House party planner and often prioritizing suspense over storytelling. Ostensibly a main cast member, the titular park’s cofounder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) was barely a character for much of the season because, for the sake of the plot, his primary motivations had to be obscured until its final stretch. Similarly, robot “host” Dolores’s (Evan Rachel Wood) story line verged on the nonsensical, spread over multiple timelines that weren’t laid out for audiences until a dramatic late-season reveal.

In the 17 months between the broadcasts of “The Bicameral Mind,” the first season finale, and “Journey Into Night,” Sunday night’s second season premiere, critics had plenty of time to speculate about whether the first volume’s cliffhanger ending, in which newly sentient hosts massacred a gala’s worth of wealthy guests, had signaled a shift in Westworld’s approach. With viewer interest sufficiently piqued, would Nolan and Joy pivot to a more straightforward style? Or would they stick with what worked so well for them last time around, even though mystery was no longer necessary to draw audiences into a cerebral story about ethics in robot murdering?

Early marketing efforts pointed to the latter. Westworld’s promotional team let no hype-stoking opportunity go to waste, stretching so far as to plant clues in a mere poster. Nolan and Joy then caused a miniature firestorm by rickrolling the Reddit community that’s become synonymous with the show’s avid, amateur-sleuthing fandom.

Before watching “Journey Into Night,” I braced myself for more wheel-spinning in the name of drumming up intrigue. At least at first, I wasn’t proved wrong: Westworld’s second volume opens with yet another cryptic exchange between Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), the head of programming who doesn’t realize he’s actually a robot replica of Ford’s deceased partner Arnold Weber, and Dolores. (Of course, it’s also possible that the flashback goes even further and shows Weber himself, not his future sort-of-twin — a possibility the Westworld writers leave deliberately ambiguous, no doubt to stoke yet more forum debates.) The scene appears to be a flashback to a time before all hell broke loose in the park, and it concludes with a series of violent, disquieting images that Reddit will no doubt have a field day interpreting in the coming days. I believe I caught a shot of some hosts from Westworld’s newly unveiled (to us, at least) sibling park Shogun World laying waste to the underground control room, though I’ll leave confirmation to the experts.

But the ensuing hour pleasantly surprised me in its ability to combine classic Westworld antics with a welcome sense of urgency. In the interest of preserving my impression of the episode in isolation and not spoiling myself on a very spoilable show, I’ve watched only one of the five episodes provided to critics by HBO. Given how much I enjoyed the early installments of a first season I would later become frustrated with, I’m also wary of any initial promise that Westworld Season 2 might show — I’ve been burned before. That said, “Journey Into Night” is a promising start, offering elements to please skeptics and all-in diehards alike. Maybe Westworld really has figured out how to have it both ways.

Aforementioned skeptics, brace yourselves: The multiple timelines are back. This time, however, the parallel narratives are at least laid out explicitly, rather than treated like a surprise several episodes past the point where they’d outlived their use. Post-prologue, Bernard wakes up on a beach two weeks after Dolores shot Ford in the back of the head and inaugurated a full-scale host rebellion. The shadowy Delos Incorporated has sent in a full-scale paramilitary force and its head of operations to rescue any surviving humans, eliminate the malfunctioning — or are they? — hosts, and piece together what happened. But before they can make much progress on that front, the episode flashes back to where “The Bicameral Mind” left off.

The two-weeks-later timeline ultimately bookends “Journey Into Night,” suggesting that Westworld will spend much of this season using the present as a framing device for the near past until it eventually merges them. The structure is an effective generator of suspense: Then, Bernard and Delos board member Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) team up to find a host upon which Charlotte downloaded Ford’s trade secrets, because Delos refuses to rescue anyone until it gets its hands on that information; now, Delos is here and Charlotte is nowhere to be found. Then, Dolores recruits her paramour Teddy (James Marsden) in her quest to bring bloody retribution on “the creatures that walk among us”; now, Teddy is among the thousands of host corpses revealed in the episode’s breathtaking final shot. What happened in between? Tune in next week to find out!

I remain skeptical of the alternating timelines’ usefulness as a vehicle for exploring Westworld’s themes and building its characters, and not just as a way to prompt more questions. Still, the middle stretch of the episode establishes a new set of ground rules rich with potential. “The stakes are real in this place now,” crows the Man in Black (Ed Harris), now confirmed to be the grown-up version of Jimmi Simpson’s idealistic William. “Real consequences!” That gives renewed heft to the struggles of both the humans, now racing to escape the hunted-turned-hunters, and the hosts, now taking full advantage of the opportunity to do to guests what guests have spent 35 years gleefully doing to them. The chaos in the park is a welcome acceleration of the slow awakening that took up the entirety of Season 1, a gradual ramp-up that partly necessitated all the engagement-stoking opacity.

Scrambling the bylaws that govern Westworld also means placing characters in unusual, and often fruitful, combinations. Ruthless Charlotte makes a good partner in crime for the dreamy Bernard, who’s incapable of dropping his professional jargon even when his work has turned deadly. (“They’re off their old loops,” he says of the hosts. “They must be onto some new narrative.” That’s one way to say they’re killing people!) It’s a mystery how Tessa Thompson has time for this show between her thousand other projects, but her character’s steely determination has a grounding effect on a show that can get too convoluted for its own good. Meanwhile, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), the thus-far-superfluous head of Westworld’s Narrative Department, finds new purpose as comic relief when paired with Maeve (Thandie Newton). The clear standout from Season 1, Maeve continues to bring a brusque savvy to her mission, even as she’s switched from a self-interested escape mission to searching for her “daughter” from a past role. Lest we think she’s gone soft or sentimental, Sizemore is there to serve as a punching bag.

Most changed of all, however, is Dolores, the park’s oldest host and Ford’s chosen leader for the host insurrection. At various points, Dolores has been a sweet rancher’s daughter, a sterile android in “analysis” mode, and a killer named Wyatt. (It’s complicated.) Now, at long last, she’s one unified character, a robot messiah making gnomic pronouncements about “the valley beyond” and which hosts do or don’t deserve to go there with her. All this sermonizing isn’t entirely abstract, either. “There’s a greater world out there, one that belongs to them,” she tells Teddy. “And it won’t be enough to win this world. We’ll need to take that one as well.” Dolores is foreshadowing one of the most highly anticipated developments of Westworld Season 2: an exploration of the world that created both the technology that enables Westworld’s existence and the social conditions that condone recreational rape and murder — of robots, yes, but alarmingly lifelike ones.

Nuts-and-bolts exposition continues to be one of the most accessible pleasures of Westworld, offering tangible evidence of its reported nine-figure budget and a tactile stimulus to offset all the amateur philosophizing. “Journey Into Night” doesn’t shed much light on the nature of consciousness, personhood, or free will, but it does finally reveal the physical nature of the hosts’ “minds”: a metallic orb suspended in liquid inside their heads. While we wait for Dolores’s master plan to unfold, the gaps in Bernard’s journey to fill in, and Delos’s endgame to come into focus, Westworld is still a blast to look at and explore. For now, that’s more than enough to keep us occupied.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.