Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman reviews Westworld Season Two, out now on Blu Ray and DVD…
Westworld Season Two
Produced by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy
Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris
The first series of this science-fiction western was always going to be a tough act to follow – an effort of genuine ambition that wielded sufficient discipline to arrive at a very conclusive finale. The hallmark of that series was its slow and purposeful build, allowing the viewer a gradual, more expansive take on the meaning of existence, and the need to control via creation. It was dialogue-heavy, with Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the theme park’s creator, regularly pontificating about the “hosts” that peopled the world he masterminded while playing cat and mouse with his former colleague and nemesis William (Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris).
Series 2 sees the cast play a ten-episode war of attrition with one another – the theme this time, despite the usual Meta framing, being one of survival. Said theme is rammed home at regular intervals by plenty of merciless, brutal killing, normally enforced by the rogue hosts hell bent on avenging themselves against the humans who had enslaved them for decades. The key figure in this conflict, played out exclusively in the park, is Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) an android of such icily detached conviction that an arc of some sort for her was always somewhat remote.
And indeed, it’s hard to find that many sympathetic characters in this series – one might claim that Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton, brilliant as ever in a career-defining role) softens considerably during the unfolding drama, committed as she is to finding a daughter she knows is a fictional (and expired) construct. And then there’s Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), the martinet who wrote all the hosts’ storylines, finding his previously invisible conscience despite the extreme duress. But the mood of the piece is better summed up by the calculatingly ruthless Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), the park executive who matches the hosts’ uprising with Machiavellian shrewdness.
And then of course we have Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), the host who had been conned into believing he was human by Ford, spending the entire series trapped in a metaphysical labyrinth of uncertainty and wretched anxiety. If anything, the series’ lynchpin character is forced into a more reductive role this time, buffeted in turn by Dolores, Charlotte and Ford to the extent that you wonder what his motivation is to survive. And the timelines surrounding his journey are confusing to say the least.
Initial reaction to the series was equally of frustration and praise –the narrative was laced with dead ends and arbitrary plot points, while the ramped up violence was heavily criticised. One felt that the showrunners wanted to explore the park’s outer limits, but were forced to focus on Dolores and her partner Teddy (James Marsden)’s relentless destruction. New and rather nebulous concepts (The Valley Beyond, an idealised digital world, and The Forge, which represented the series’ endgame) were added to the chase, which essentially is what the series is. On a more prosaic level, the hosts’ often clunky dialogue is both ironic and cringeworthy, as they struggle with their programmed scripts.
But then there are the departures from the main plotlines – the blanks filled in of the backstories that were sketched out in series one. The fate of grizzled, venal park co-creator James Delos is beautifully handled, despite the ever-more timeworn circular narrative – the deft claustrophobia as horrific and bleak as the shoot-em-ups in the later timelines. Even better is William’s story (Vanishing Point), and that rare thing in current television – the ruthless protagonist as both monster and victim, a tragedian revelling nihilistically in his fate despite the residual humanity. A masterclass effort from Ed Harris. And best of all would be Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon)’s tale –featuring the leader of the Ghost Nation tribe’s slow awakening to the fact that all is not as it seems in the blissful idyll that has enshrouded him for a generation. In series one, Akecheta was merely the chimera that terrorised Maeve and her daughter, but in his episode (Kiksuya) he is probably the most sympathetic and noble of all the players who have been imbued with consciousness by Ford. A truly touching, stately and beguiling instalment, and a necessary interval from all the onslaught elsewhere. I would go so far as to say that it is a wonderful distillation of so many antecedents from American television history.
The series often flounders in its pacing, and at times loses focus (the Shogun episode, Akane no Mai, was an interesting but pointless diversion),while the aforementioned timelines often distance the viewer, but that is the price of such a large canvas. Ford’s reappearance as the deus ex machina of the story is not as convincing, nor as welcome as it might have been (Anthony Hopkins’s ambivalently didactic schtick does get old), but it does take the concepts one stage further, as we learn what the real agenda of the park’s creators is.
Perhaps the inescapable problem of having a ruthless android as the motor for the show undermines matters, and the program’s reach often exceeds its grasp, but the scope is greater and the production values are as assuredly excellent as before. And although the arduously long final episode is replete with plotholes as all the cast converge on one place, it’s still reasonably satisfying –the showrunners divesting themselves of the schematic nature of the drama by throwing out the rule book with another overused line about being the authors of our destiny (but it works, sort of).
Overall one cannot deny the uniqueness of this series – a quantum leap for the genre, blessed with a great cast. Granted, it sometimes recedes into type, but this is ground-breaking stuff. Not quite classic, but definitely worthy of attention. Recommended.