Per FTC obligations: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this post. The opinions I share are my own.
Over the course of another ten episodes, series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy consistently continue to craft one of the most impressive explorations of what it means to be human that wasn’t spawned by the mind of Philip K. Dick.
SPOILERS FOR SEASON 1 AND 2 FROM HERE ON OUT
When we last left the park, newly-awakened host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) had just put a bullet into the head of park founder, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and kicked off a violent revolution. At the same time, another newly-awakened host, Maeve (Thandie Newton) had decided not to escape the park and instead return to track down her daughter from a previous narrative life. We also discovered that Westworld’s head developer, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) was also a host without even knowing it, and modeled on Arnold, Ford’s original co-creator.
It was also revealed that the enigmatic Man in Black (Ed Harris) was actually William (Jimmi Simpson) in flashbacks and he now owns the park and is present when the hosts begin murdering everyone they can get their robotic hands on, as is corporate head-honcho, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson). Needless to say, things look grim.
And bloody as hell.
To be perfectly honest, I watched the first episode or two of this when it aired and had to give up on it. The weekly doling out of information and advancement of plot was too slow for me to keep a handle on the variety of storylines and timeframes. Every single episode is densely packed with plot, character development, existential angst, mystery and beauty. If there was ever a show made for binge watching, Westworld is it.
Sitting down with the Blu-ray set has been a dream. There are literally at least four separate stories and three different times to keep track of. Even watching it in five-episode blocks like I did this weekend, I still sometimes forgot just which storyline was the most current and which was from the two weeks prior to the opening of the season.
While the first season was a deep dive into the world of the hosts, with an emphasis on a handful of characters and their individual journeys into sentience, the second season expands its focus to examine in more depth some of the human characters and what drives them. It’s very interesting that the artificial humans are driven by love more often than not, and the actual humans are more driven by ego and brutality. It’s in the brutality that both find their common ground this season.
At the same time, Nolan and Joy have crafted an exploration of the notion of Free Will that aligns with my own beliefs (which might explain some of my exuberance when discussing this show) while never forgetting that Westworld has to be entertaining as well. When they actually throw in some metatextual criticism of their own work, it’s like catnip for me.
I don’t want to dive too far into the details of the plot, but I do want to reiterate what I said about the first season:
It’s a beautifully shot series that captures the grandeur of the western United States and classic filmmaking. At the same time, the show explores some of the most complex philosophical themes about the social constructions of identity that I’ve seen in any science fiction series. Hell, any television series regardless of genre.
This time we can add classic Japanese filmmaking to that with a two-episode stretch in Shogun World that is beautifully shot and provides the filmmakers with the opportunity to humorously comment on the central in-text narrative of Westworld – the park’s writer cribbed the main characters and plots of Westworld for Shogun World and we get to see our protagonists interact with what are essentially alternate-reality versions of themselves.
I haven’t really seen a lot of online buzz about Westworld, and I’m surprised. This is some of the most intelligent and philosophically engaging science fiction television I’ve ever seen. It never seems to stumble no matter how difficult the concepts it’s exploring and it even throws ninjas and gunfights into the mix in case you might think it’s going to be dry and boring. It’s difficult viewing because you have to pay attention. There’s constantly a lot going on. It’s not casual viewing. You can’t turn your brain off and let it play in the background and expect to get anything from it.
Westworld is about as good as television science fiction can get. And it gives most science fiction a run for its money, no matter the format.
I seriously can’t say enough good things about this show. Not without giving away the plot, that is. Just buy it. Watch it. Wrap yourself up in it. Question whether or not you really make choices in your own lives or whether you’re just following your base programming. Really think about what it is that makes you You and see if you can find motivations for your behavior that rise above simple survival drives and the satisfaction of your individual egos.
Do you have Free Will or are you simply responding to base impulses and social programming? Is what you think of as Free Will just that or a complex conglomeration of biological and sociological triggers that you can’t really control?
And don’t forget to watch the post-credit scene after the final episode!!
The Truth Behind Delos: This featurette focuses on the general themes of Season 2 with special attention paid to the character of James Delos, played to perfection by Peter Mullan. Delos is the father-in-law of William and he invested heavily in the park at William’s urging. But not because he was a fan of fantasy or the future, but because of the special project that William has in mind: the harvesting of data from the park’s human customers with an eye toward immortality.
This data-mining plot development turned out to be more prescient than Nolan and Joy had anticipated and gives the season a darker, more believable aspect that may have been missing from the pure science fiction of Season 1. With Season 2’s focus more on the human characters, this helps make Westworld all the more relevant in its exploration of what it means to live and find meaning in the modern world.
These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends: This featurette pays attention to way our almost primal appetite for violent entertainment effects and informs us on an individual level. We get to see that the human characters are just as trapped in their narrative loops as the hosts, reveling in the expression of violent acts that have no place in their real lives. The dehumanizing and victimization of the hosts was the focus of Season 1, but here we get to see how that effects the people visiting the park.
Most interesting is how we as an audience are made to address the emotional impact of watching characters who had been brutalized – characters we had been wanting to see rise up and fight back – take their freedom to the extreme and rain that same brutality down on their own victims. Characters we had been rooting for as protagonists suddenly become dark and violent antagonists with agendas and actions that force us to question our own connections to the narrative.
Teddy (James Marsden) becomes crucial to this thematic thread as he loses his original personality and identity to become what Dolores thinks will be necessary to survive the coming conflict. His arc becomes an exploration of what happens when one embraces violence – even in the name of revolution – while at the same time recasting Dolores and reframing what she is willing to do for the sake of Freedom.
- Reflections on Season 2: Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, and Jeffrey Wright share memories of working on the set in an entertaining, if light, bit of fun.
- Of Love and Shogun: Thandie Newton, Simon Quarterman, and Rodrigo Santoro share memories of working on the set in an equally entertaining bit of fun.
- Journeys and Technology: This time out, it’s Luke Hemsworth, Ben Barnes, and Angela Sarafyan, share personal stories of making Westworld.
Creating Westworld’s Reality: Each of these short featurettes explore the making of their individual subjects and are interesting from both a filmmaking and from a fan perspective. “The Valley Beyond” is the only one that really provides any insight into the central themes of Choice and Free Will as well as emphasizing the biblical aspect of the show. All of them are worth a look.
- The Drone Hosts
- An Evocative Location
- Fort Forlorn Hope
- The Delos Experiment
- Shogun World
- Inside the Cradle
- Chaos in the Mesa
- Ghost Nation
- Deconstructing Maeve
- The Valley Beyond
Overall, Westworld Season 2 is very much worth having on your shelf. Season 3 was recently announced and you’re going to want to be caught up for this. I have some concerns about where the third season could go, as it is going to have to be a very different show based on where Season 2 ended. But if these first two seasons have proven anything, it’s that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy can be trusted to put together a brilliant piece of science fiction that doesn’t hold back from embracing both complex philosophical concepts and down and dirty violence and gore.