Remember the legend of the minotaur, the mythological half-man half-bull beast at the center of a labyrinth, ready to kill all comers? Even fiction’s most famous maze had a monster in the middle. So maybe everyone making their way through the mysteries of Westworld – human, “host” and audience alike – should have seen the carnage coming.
Thanks to Dr. Robert Ford, the mercurial mastermind behind the futuristic retro-Western theme park that gives the show its title, both organic and robotic characters spent the first season of this sci-fi thriller trying to uncover the secrets of the “maze” he’d constructed. Now Ford’s a corpse, the robots are running the asylum and all hell has broken loose. Tonight’s Season Two premiere, titled “Journey Into Night,” is a guided tour of that inferno – and a promise of much worse to come.
On a plot level, the action is surprisingly straightforward. It centers mainly on Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), the head of the park’s Programming Department, who discovered last season that he’s actually an android duplicate of the site’s cofounder Arnold Weber. After a jittery “dream” that shows glimpses of his past, present and future, Bernard awakens on the shore near the site of the bloody uprising. He’s found by a human security force whose most familiar face is Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth), last seen getting jumped by a “Ghost Nation” Native American host. Joining him are several newcomers, including Karl Strand (Vikings‘ Gustaf Skarsgård), the team’s commanding and condescending leader; Maling (Get Out‘s Betty Gabriel), his gun-toting right-hand woman; and Costa (Tyrant‘s Fares Fares), a technician with a permanent what-the-hell-happened-here vibe. Together they set out to find the countless humans and hosts who’ve gone missing since the rampage began, killing off any robots unlucky enough to cross their paths.
But Bernard’s primary storyline is set in the recent past, immediately following the outbreak of hostilities. Hooking up with Delos bigwig Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson, the breakout star of Thor: Ragnarok and those red-hot Janelle Monae videos), the duo to a secret outpost only she can access. Inside, creepy skeletal “drone” hosts conduct a series of experiments on the park’s androids, extracting recordings of guest experiences … and guest DNA. Cambridge Analytica, eat your heart out.
Inside this high-tech hideaway, we find out her secret mission: fill the host named Peter Abernathy with information, smuggle him out of the park and into the hands of its overlords at Delos Incorporated. The robot should have made it by now; Charlotte learns that he hasn’t and that until he does, the board won’t send any rescue squads to extract anyone. Bernard also discovers that his body has begun the “death subroutine,” which will erode his brain and motor functions, and (intriguingly) cause “time slippage” until his demise. Only by surreptitiously injecting himself with some kind of fluid extracted from another host can he stave off the inevitable.
Meanwhile, inside the park’s corpse-strewn command center, renegade host Maeve (Thandie Newton) continues her transition from pre-programmed madame to free-willed mother. Hooking up first with obnoxious human Narrative Department chief Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) and her sexy android-bandit lover Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), she’s searching for the long-lost daughter she had during a previous storyline, the memories of which began haunting her as she approached sentience last season.
The final pieces of the puzzle are the park’s true killing machines: the host leader Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) and her human nemesis – and Westworld’s majority shareholder – the Man in Black, aka William (Ed Harris). Dolores and her constant companion Teddy Flood (James Marsden) are on their way to the mysterious “valley beyond,” leaving a trail of human corpses behind them. Elsewhere, the MiB narrowly evades dying at the hands of some hosts – much to his delight, since he’s been searching for a real life-and-death narrative in the park for over 30 years. He eventually encounters the android replica of the young Robert Ford, who informs William that he’s solved “the maze” and has now begun a new stage of the game, designed expressly for him. Now he must make his way back out by finding “the door.” The ‘bot gets a bullet to the face.
This being Westworld, the episode ends with a twist. To help Charlotte track down Abernathy, Bernard uses the “host mesh network,” a subconscious connection through which the androids pass information back and forth to others nearby, “like ants in a colony.” From there the show cuts back to the present, as Lowe and the security team track the hosts’ location en masse to a previously undiscovered sea inside the park. The kicker: all the hosts are dead, drowned in the waters (including poor Teddy Flood – get it?) But in a world where consciousness is transferable and humanoid bodies are mass produced, “death” is a relative term.
Some improvements over last year’s model are already apparent. Season One of Westworld malfunctioned mainly when it got lost in its own puzzle-box plot. Sure, all the secret identities, shifting timeframes and “what is The Maze” guesswork were great if you were in the market to watch 30-minute YouTube theory videos. If you expect something more out of a series than a code to be cracked, though? You were fresh outta luck. The show always worked best as a pulpy horror/sci-fi/action mashup, and both Dolores’s genocidal rebellion and Charlotte’s Gigeresque drones are a step in the right direction where that’s concerned. It’s true that Li’l Robert telling William “Everything is code here” is a worrying sign, but if the Man in Black’s response – blowing the ‘bot’s face off – is a metaphor for how Season Two will work, we’re off to a good start.
As drama, however, Westworld still needs a serious tune-up. Working off the first season’s template, co-showrunner Lisa Joy and her co-writer Robert Patino have once again created a world in which everyone’s an asshole and no one likes anyone else. Even aside from the actions of obvious villains like the Man in Black or Dolores – who kills hosts and humans alike if she feels they don’t fit into her grand plan – you’ve got Lee trying and failing to sell Maeve out to human security forces the first chance he gets; Maeve keeps him around and alive out of necessity, but that’s about it. Ditto her utilitarian affection for Hector: She’s got a kid to rescue, and she needs a gunslinger to do it. As for Miss Abernathy, her promise that she and Teddy will be together till the end apparently winds up floating belly-up alongside the poor cowboy himself.
On the human end of the spectrum, Sizemore and Charlotte react to the deaths of dozens, if not hundreds, of people primarily as an annoyance, both of them slipping back into their usual sleazy subroutines without missing a beat. Strand, the domineering Delos thug who “rescues” Bernard, treats everyone he meets like dirt; it’s enough to make you miss the as-yet unseen dirtbag Logan from Season One. Even the offsite company higher-ups are willing to let all their friends and financial backers die gruesome deaths until they get what they want; considering the real-world class solidarity among the One Percent, this is even harder to believe in than the existence of killer robots in cowboy outfits.
Whatever else it is, Westworld is a workplace drama. (The office may be overrun by rampaging androids and the drama mostly consists of dodging bullets and accessing robotic brains, but still.) If everyone we meet is a sarcastic creep who’d sacrifice everyone they know to achieve their goals, the workplace can’t function and the drama can’t engage or enlighten. For conflict to mean anything, there has to be some kind of genuine cooperation and affection for contrast. Unless and until that emerges, the guns of Westworld will never quite hit their marks.
Previously: Exit Music