When “Westworld” first arrived in 2016, it seemed like HBO’s spiritual heir to “Game of Thrones.” And from the outside, the two shows looked like cousins, even sharing members of the same production team. The fanbase crossover was also so heavy that two of the biggest fan sites focused on “Game of Thrones” branched out to cover it. But like its android “host” characters, “Westworld’” was mostly surface level imitation. Expensive, dark and violent, the show acted as if the only thing great TV required was an endless supply of harrowing narrative twists. But there’s good news. The second season is taking steps towards deeper dimensions, just as its newly conscious characters do the same.
Derived from the 1973 film of the same name and set in the near future, "Westworld" takes place in a Wild West theme park, an old-fashioned virtual reality landscape that spans hundreds of miles in every direction. Populated by extraordinarily lifelike android “hosts,” guests pay thousands of dollars to be utterly immersed in a pre-programed adventure, complete with pistol-packing sheriffs, highway bandits, fresh-faced rancher’s daughters and saloon dwelling painted ladies.
The endlessly twisting plot was a fun clockwork toy, but just like the safe the park’s robot outlaws are forever trying to steal, once you opened it up there was nothing inside.
The original movie only had two hours to tell its tale of how the hosts gained self-awareness and free will. HBO, faced with ten hours to fill, focused too much on unreliable narrators and endless foreshadowing, without much concern for things like character development once the puzzle was solved. The endlessly twisting plot was a fun clockwork toy, but just like the safe the park’s robot outlaws are forever trying to steal, once you opened it up there was nothing inside.
Season two has more meat. Unfortunately for showrunners, this realization had to be learned the hard way. Their puzzle-first method backfired badly last season, simply because the show wasn’t as clever as it thought it was. Fans banded together on Reddit and with five episodes left in the season had guessed nearly all the twists. Without mystery, viewers realized pretty quickly that there was little else to sustain their interest. This tough love led to some internal bitterness, but the results are worth it.
For one thing, the production seems to have gained awareness of the barbarity of the story its telling. Say what you will about “Game of Thrones,” but its showrunners embraced the savagery and used it to tackle topics like power, politics and the patriarchy — even if viewers didn’t always agree with what they ended up saying. The first season of “Westworld” made offhand references to rape and murder and to a lesser extent slavery, but they missed numerous opportunities to transcend the sex and violence and actually make a bigger point. In our era of powerful start-ups and their “move fast and break things” methods, the showrunners never connected the dots to show the human consequences of heedless manipulation.
This season characters are breaking out of their modest little loops and, with no big secrets to keep, developing character emotions with clear motivation. The character who benefits most from this is Bernard, a host who believed himself human for nearly all of the first season, and who spends the first half of the second season dealing with his new identity as well as with terrifying flashback memories of past misdeeds.View this graphic on nbcnews.com
Along with this, the series is dealing with its brutality out in the open. This makes for more gore, but also more honesty. The premiere episode is especially stark; in the aftermath of last season’s host-lead revolution the tables have turned on Westworld’s human guests. There is retaliation, and it is not pretty. Unfortunately, the show still treats sexual abuse as a means of titillation, but at least now some of the victims are allowed to process their trauma.
Still, “Westworld” is most comfortable when it delves into the existential horror of this world, as characters discover their agency or lack thereof. This is particularly effective when hosts come face to face with other hosts playing their exact “role.”
“Westworld” is most comfortable when it delves into the existential horror of this world, as characters discover their agency or lack thereof.
Moreover,”Westworld” is now leaning into the underlying and interconnected issues of technology and humanity instead of ignoring them, as it did previously. Last season the show liked to throw around a line about the park “working on multiple levels.” This season we actually start to explore what this means, including how the human guests of the Westworld park (and some of the other spin-off parks) have been subjected to a level of data mining, massive scale surveillance and panopticon that Facebook could only achieve in its wettest dreams. This data, as one can surmise, is far more important than any of the park’s other activities.
There’s even a timely #MeToo discussion about turning a blind eye to abuse. The show is definitely attempting to bring gender equality in its story, with several of the primary plot arcs headed up by strong female characters. That doesn’t mean “Westworld” is going to stop the casual violence against women, or its salacious exploitation of them. But in true HBO style the show seems to be trying to achieve some semblance of balance, with at least a few instances of full frontal male nudity.
At this rate, HBO won’t need to make any “Game of Thrones” spin-offs (although they’re already working on script treatments for no less than five potential series) because their next big hit is already here. Let’s hope this season becomes a game actually worth playing.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.