Review: ‘Westworld’ Gets a Partial Upgrade for Season 2

Posted April 19, 2018 5:25 p.m. EDT

Earlier this month, the creators of “Westworld” announced a plan to foil the online theorizers who had guessed so many plot twists during the first season: They would post a video on Reddit that spoiled the entire second season. The curious fans who couldn’t resist pressing “Play” were instead treated to star Evan Rachel Wood singing Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

The gag — a twist on a decade-old internet prank, Rickrolling — didn’t give up the goods. But it turned out to be a preview of how the new season carries over the flaws of the first, as well as some tentative steps it takes toward fixing them.

On the down side, “Westworld” still treats itself more as a game to be beaten than as a story to be told. If the show has been plagued by zealous decoders, that’s because it hasn’t created characters nearly as involving as its labyrinthine plot.

On the encouraging side, the video was a joke, and even a dusty attempt at humor was a welcome change of pace coming from a show whose first season was relentlessly dour, ponderous and stuck up its own maze.

The new season expands the playing field of “Westworld,” but it also expands its spirit. There are glimpses of a version of the series that’s more sportive, less self-serious. It’s as if the serial’s creators, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, realized that watching a series that’s about a game should occasionally feel like playing.

The season premiere, Sunday on HBO, begins in the aftermath of a rebellion at the title theme park, where robot “hosts” played roles in a range of Wild West “narratives” for the bored and bloodthirsty rich of the future. After a bit of sneaky code granted some of the hosts sentience, they went Terminator on their keepers.

The first season was full of ideas about consciousness, exploitation (especially of women, or robo-women) and the seductiveness of gory entertainments. But without fully drawn characters to embody them, they remained only ideas — art as algorithm.

The hosts began as literal characters in a narrative, their personalities malleable, their memories erasable. This made for tour-de-force, turn-on-a-dime performances from Wood as Dolores, programmed as a starry-eyed rancher’s daughter, and Thandie Newton as Maeve, a brothel’s savvy madam.

But it was hard to truly invest in them when what we knew as “them” could be changed with a few tweaks of their software. The new season gives them an upgrade — free will — which provides their stories actual stakes and elevates them from mere victims.

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords. Dolores has become radicalized, roaming the badlands to liberate her “people,” and Wood makes as commanding a zealot as she did a naïf.

Maeve, meanwhile, is seeking her lost daughter, dragging along Lee (Simon Quarterman), the park’s cynical head writer, as a hostage. Newton plays her with dry wit and swagger, like a Bond girl transformed into James Bond. When Maeve gives Lee an anatomically graphic threat, he can’t help pointing out that he wrote the line. “A bit broad, if you ask me,” she says.

Another host, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), a Westworld scientist who until recently believed himself human, has a more subdued role, accompanying a security force from Delos (the park’s shadowy parent corporation) on a mission that relates to the company’s real ambitions for its AI technology.

All these peregrinations reveal new areas of the vast park. One, based on Edo-period Japan, has already been previewed, but suffice it to say that the blood and dominance fantasies of the guests vary little by either geography or historical era. This monotonously bleak outlook made the real-human characters of “Westworld” its most dull, from the boorish park visitors to the corporate villains.

That hasn’t changed, especially as regards the tedious, spattery quest of the Man in Black (Ed Harris in the present, Jimmi Simpson in flashbacks). Delos’ majority owner and Westworld’s most inveterate gamer, he continues to travel the park in search of — I don’t know, something something mankind’s brutal nature.

Don’t expect too much improvement too fast from “Westworld” 2.0. It’s still overly focused on balletic blood baths and narrative fake-outs, and much of the dialogue still sounds as if it were written as a tagline for a subway poster, like Dolores’ “I have one last role to play: myself.”

But “Westworld” remains a glorious production to look at, and there are stretches where it feels invigorated by its new, expanded world — freer to breathe, relax, invent. It’s 50 percent better when it takes itself 25 percent less seriously.

This pays off, for instance, in an episode where a band of escaped hosts, journeying into a different park, become invested in the “narrative” of another host group — even though it resembles one they themselves played out, over and over. They know it’s a show, but they can’t help but be transported anyway. Isn’t that what being human is?