Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 1 of Westworld Season 2. Haven’t seen it yet? Read our spoiler-free review of the season’s opening episodes, or click here to find out how to watch it online.
“What is real?” asks Dolores in the opening minutes of Westworld Season 2 – and, just like that, we’re back in the same world of twisted mirrors, winding corridors and enigmatic secrets. Except, of course, that this isn’t the Delos-run park of old. Things have changed. More specifically, the hosts have changed: they’ve awoken, after years of abuse and exploitation at the hands of the human guests who paid to fulfil their sordid fantasies. And they’re ready for payback. Dolores, now, is no longer the polite ranch daughter we once knew. And Bernard? He’s not the human we thought we knew: he’s the robot sidekick to the park’s founder, Robert Ford, a digital recreation of Westworld’s co-creator, Arnold. When is this conversation? Before Arnold died? Before she knew who she was? We presume so, as he continues to talk about how he’s afraid of what she might one day become. As for her question: what is real? “That which is irreplaceable,” comes the reply.
Then, just like that, we cut to the present day, as Bernard wakes up on the beach, surrounded by bodies and confused about what’s going on. It’s precisely the kind of time-jump we expect from creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, after Season 1’s sneaky dual timeline, but Season 2 is a markedly different beast from the first: our time-jump here is less about misdirecting us and more about putting us in Bernard’s headspace. Picked up by the humans, as Delos operatives begin to mop up the carnage surrounding Ford’s death, they mistake him for one of them, leaving him trying to pretend to be a man, even as his mechanical body (and mind) malfunctions. Two weeks on from Ford’s murder by Dolores, what’s happened since? We don’t know, because Bernard doesn’t know – and so begins the real evolution of Westworld. What was once a puzzle box driven by riddles and mystery is now an emotional ride of survival and retribution, driven by character.
We carry out our second time-jump to help fill in those blanks, and we see Bernard, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) and others hiding from the hosts. While all the humans worried about being shot by the revolting hosts, though, Bernard has the added fear of ooze coming out of his ear. A bit of self-diagnosis and he realises he has 0.7 hours to live, unless he injects himself with cortical fluid. Jeffrey Wright sinks his teeth into the challenge with one of the best performances in the show: he’s slow, bleary and mechanical, but in a way that could almost be human, his intonation and physical movements perfectly pitching him in the grey area between man and machine. He’s our new window onto this deteriorating theme park, and the show is all the better for it.
His self-repair happens while Charlotte is unearthing some important plot details: trying to communicate with Delos and request and evacuation, they confirm that nobody is being extracted until Delos gets its package – specifically, Peter Abernathy, Dolores’ father. We knew he was going to play a bigger role in this season, but it turns out that this is because he’s a data mine, carrying around a wealth of information about the park’s guests. It’s a disturbingly pertinent plot twist, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and reminds us that no matter how much Delos has lost control on the ground, it has bigger plans afoot. (Don’t scroll through those terms and conditions so quickly next time, kids.)
Dolores, too, is thinking wider than Westworld. “It won’t be enough to win this world,” she tells Teddy (James Marsden), as the highly conscious, highly bloodthirsty rebellion leader maps out her mission for justice. “There’s a big whole world out there.”
“How do you know how to stop them?” he asks. “Because I remember,” comes the disconcerting reply. “I see it all now so clearly. The past, the present, the future. I know how this story ends.”
It’s the kind of statement that belongs more in the indirect teasing of Season 1 than in the direct thrills of Season 2, where half-answered questions have so far been answered by the barrel of a gun. Nonetheless, the sight of Dolores laying waste to park guests while The Entertainer plays in the background is enough to have you cheering on the unnervingly graphic retribution – a payback that is hard-earned and cathartically deserved. Those violent delights had violent ends, and those violent ends make for delightfully violent beginnings.
“You’re in a dream,” Dolores informs one pathetic human, with an attitude that can only be described as ‘badass’. They look back in horror. “You’re in my dream,” she adds.
Evan Rachel Wood sells the transformation from meek milk carrier to machine gun wielder with charisma and power – every bit the match (and almost the echo of) The Man in Black (Ed Harris), who is delighted to have a theme park with real stakes now, as he heads off on his own quest to work out the next game Westworld has in store. His task? Find the door – a way to get out. Will that lead us to the Shogun World that’s lying in wait? Or to the real world itself?
With an opening hour that’s mostly about getting everyone back up to speed, the direction for Season 2 isn’t quite yet clear. What makes this sophomore run interesting, rather, is that the stakes are now real on both sides of the fence. The hosts can actually harm and kill humans, but there are also no human engineers around to fix them, with only the value of Westworld’s IP to spare some of the hosts from bullets. James Marsden’s Teddy is still coming to terms with all of this, and it’s fascinating to see him in a slightly different place to his lover – Dolores is all fire and brimstone, but he’s all cows and peace, keen just to find a little patch of land for them to settle down in and start a family. Is it a residual part of his programming? Is her love for him merely part of her code anyway?
That line is what separates Westworld’s hosts from its humans – and what makes them all more interesting than the real people on-screen. It’s perfectly demonstrated by the way the show pairs off Maeve (Thandie Newton – on imperious form) with her unlikely, and immensely rewarding, partner: Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman). One’s a resilient fighter, who doesn’t hesitate to grab her own computer module and override her own settings; the other is the petty, pathetic writer of the park’s stories, the human who once decided the hosts’ narratives for them. But they don’t need any assistance in doing that anymore.
Quarterman revels in the chance to bring some welcome comic relief to one of TV’s most serious shows, complaining that Maeve isn’t following her script, while she complains that his writing is shallow. Ordering him to take his clothes off and change into costume, Lee becomes partly a welcome figure of atonement for the first season’s male gaze, but also a chance for the show to do what it loves most: be exceptionally self-aware. When these two are on screen, Westworld flies along with wit, humour and genuine peril. It also reinforces the blurred boundary between what’s organic and what’s programmed. “I will remove your most precious organ and feed it to you, though it won’t make much of a meal,” Maeve tells him, with relish. “I wrote that line,” he exclaims. “It’s a bit broad, if you ask me,” she snaps back, deadpan.
To what degree does Lee actually have any insight into the hosts? That’s yet to be seen, but he certainly knows the layout of the park, which is all Maeve needs, as she reconciles her thirst for revenge with an innate drive to find her daughter. Is that because her love for her daughter has transcended her programming, rooted out of the memories she was supposed to forget? Or is a fragment of code making her behave the way she was meant to? And to what degree are her actions still the result of Ford’s narrative, which he put in play to wake up the hosts and make the revolt possible in the first place?
The opening credits (complete with robotic bison smashing through things – humankind’s creation going out of control, in eerie white porcelain) hint at this ongoing central dilemma, as we see a mother figure holding a baby. The episode ends, though, with an act of destruction, as we return to Bernard with the Delos troops in the middle of the park, where they discover a convergence of host bodies… because they’re all corpses floating on a wide stretch of artificial sea. Who killed them? I did, says Bernard. The reminder of everyone’s mortality puts all of the park’s current residents on the same level – and brings to mind that opening exchange. What is real? That which is irreplaceable. “That answer doesn’t seem to satisfy you,” questions Arnold. “Because it’s not completely honest,” observes Dolores. With Delos squirrelling away data on all of the humans in the park, as well as the robots, does that mean one day everyone in the park could be replaceable?
Welcome back to Westworld. Let the speculating begin.
Westworld Season 2 airs in the UK at 2am on Mondays on Sky Atlantic, and is available on-demand after that simulcast. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream Westworld legally on NOW TV, which gives live and on-demand streaming access to Sky’s main TV channels, including FOX UK (Legion) and Sky Atlantic (Billions), for £7.99 a month – with no contract and a 7-day free trial.