'Westworld': Robots, Revenge and One Serious Season 2 Software Upgrade

HBO's puzzle-box sci-fi show returns, bloodier and better than ever thanks to a #MeToo reboot and Evan Rachel Wood unleashed

Rob Sheffield on 'Westwood' Season 2: How HBO's puzzle-box show just got bloodier and better than ever

Welcome to Westworld, the futuristic cowboy-themed amusement park where the robots rise up in arms to rebel against their human masters, while the programmers suffer the bloody vengeance of the creatures they designed. HBO's puzzle-solving drama gets a major upgrade in its second season, just because the avenging robots give us somebody to root for in a show full of jerks. At one point, Thandie Newton, as Westworld's resident whorehouse madam Maeve, confronts the man who programmed her with a violent threat: "I'll relieve you of your most precious organ and feed it to you, not that it would make much of a meal." He can't help pointing out he scripted that line for her. She retorts, "A bit broad, if you ask me."

Marianne Moore famously defined poetry as "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," and that's what Westworld is. Creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy take delight in building a maze full of overlapping timelines and double identities. The Wild West theme park is a futuristic A.I. resort where rich human tourists pay thousands of dollars a day to play cowboy with robot slaves, or "hosts," who usually end up abused or killed. But neither human nor android can be sure whether they're real or whether they're just following a programmed script. The mad scientist behind Westworld, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), says, "Everything here is code," which applies to the show as well as the park.

Like so many TV dramas of 2018, Westworld has a #TimesUp theme of resistance – the female robots like Maeve and Evan Rachel Wood's Dolores, after suffering abuse at the hands of male humans, are fighting back, even to the point of giving salty reviews to their scripted zingers. The first season had loads of the HBO staples – bloodshed, nudity, more bloodshed – along with abstract existential musings, but not a lot of narrative drive. That changed at the finale, as we found out that Dolores, the angel-faced sweetheart of this rodeo, was also the bloodthirsty Wyatt. She then gunned down her creator Robert Ford, and the wild "west" suddenly got a lot wilder. The robot revolution is here. Now, Dolores says, "I have one last role to play – myself."

Wood is still the best thing about Westworld, the ghost in the machine, the android sex kitten who goes off script and breaks free. Now that she's a renegade killer cowgirl, she gives the show an emotional kick it lacked the first time around. Before, she kept getting abused or murdered by human visitors, then sent back to the lab to get reprogrammed, her memory wiped, to start the cycle again. Before sending her back to fembot duty, the technicians would ask, "Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" Dolores always gave the right answer – yet we always knew she was holding on to more memories than she let on. She was developing a consciousness, finding her voice and realizing she was trapped in somebody else's game. Now Dolores flips the question, asking her human victims, "Did you ever stop to wonder about your actions? The price you'd have to pay if there was a reckoning? That reckoning is here."

Westworld still has the Lost-like appeal of a week-to-week puzzle. At the end of Season One, one of the most sympathetic human characters, Jeffrey Wright's Bernard, was revealed to be not just the park's head programmer – he was also an android, built by Dr. Ford to encase the human soul of his former partner. Another likeable human, William, turned out to be just a younger version of the Man in Black, before he broke bad. The Man in Black is still Westworld's most repulsive human, played by Ed Harris as a sadist in a Stetson. He's the park's most devoted guest, one who refuses to leave until he gets to the center of the maze – a human who's a creation of the park as much as any of the replicants are. Maeve searches for her lost daughter, the one memory she managed to hang on to after all those reprogramming sessions, yet she's told her daughter isn't real – she's just a story the writers scripted for her.

All the androids come alive as characters now that they're flexing some free will – Dolores, Maeve, James Marsden's Teddy, Angela Sarafyan's Clementine. But Wood remains the heart of the show, and the main reason why Season Two is such a huge improvement. There's an element of Frankenstein to her story – some of Dolores' speeches this season could come straight from Mary Shelley's novel, as the monster, rejected by the human society that created him, chooses evil over good. But now that she's waking up from her robot sleep, she seems more human all the time. As she informs a group of men, right before she kills them, "You're in a dream – MY dream." Nothing in Westworld is as dangerous as a female robot who figures out who her enemies are and gets her revenge.