Westworld season 2 is brutal, ambitious and completely absurd
*This is a spoiler-free review of Westworld's forthcoming second season, based on the first five episodes provided by HBO. There will of course be spoilers for Westworld season one*
The first season of HBO's audacious sci-fi saga Westworld was a refreshing, intelligent and mystery-laden take on the old 'do androids dream of electric sheep?' question. At a time when pop culture explorations of artificial intelligence are at a renewed high, it more than held its own as a gripping and thought-provoking example; as well as being a startling commentary on humanity's darkest impulses.
This second outing, however, is a full on slaughter and survival-fest. Here, the theme park-gone-wrong, robots rebelling premise of Michael Crichton's original 1973 film is rendered in sprawling, savage and vastly more expansive fashion.
The "lunatics have taken over the asylum", as one character puts it. That comment could also sum-up the showrunners' complete lack of inhibition when it comes to scale, story and gleeful self-indulgence.
Spun amid a tangled web of splintered sub-plots, detailed flashbacks and bloodthirsty violence, the results are both staggeringly ambitious and - at times - bordering on the absurd.
'Dead isn't what it used to be'
At the end of season one, the park's AI hosts - led by a newly sentient, self-aware Dolores - had begun a gory rebellion against their human oppressors.
Now, we see the ongoing consequences of Ford's masterplan, as the hosts set about hunting down and eliminating any unfortunate guest or employee they can get their hands on.
William's past and present provide some absorbing moments (Photo: HBO/Sky)
With brutality sometimes bordering on the Blood Meridian esque (if you've never wanted to see train tracks being made out of people, look away), it makes for uncomfortable viewing.
Against this backdrop, several characters are on Heart Of Darkness style journeys through the chaos.
Ed Harris's Man In Black is as riveting as ever, and probably the only human in the park actively delighted by this horrifying turn of events. Now, finally, he has a game worth playing.
And then there's brothel madame turned uber host Maeve, on the hunt for her 'daughter', and joined in her quest by a rag-tag bunch of (sometimes reluctant) allies.
An elaborate patch-work
Where things get complicated is in the structure of this story. The fragmented storyline sees numerous different threads and characters spread across at least four time frames.
Bernard uncovers some uncomfortable truths about the park, Delos and himself (Photo: HBO/Sky)
In season one, things were largely seamless; certain scenes only cleverly revealed to be flashbacks right at the end.
This time around, there's an elaborate patch-work of scenes and reveals that stitch together over the episodes; a puzzle that the viewer assembles as each new piece of the plot is dropped in, often out of sequence.
Some will find it thrilling. Others may find it maddening.
There are secrets lying in wait around the park - and beyond. Including the question of just what Delos has been up to behind the scenes.
As for the scope of the drama, let's just say the range of backdrops and locales has wildly increased. You'll be going to some unexpected places, and the range of geography and time is widening.
Westworld has also adopted something of a Game Of Thrones approach, in that some main characters will sometimes be absent for entire episodes before we re-join their story.
Thandie Newton and Peter Mullan lead the charge
Maeve's sub-plot is by far the most entertaining, with a lot of the most enjoyable humour, scenarios and action sequences.
Thandie Newton continues to be magnificent in the role - mustering a real warmth, charm and reflective air to go with the steely edge - and the interplay between her and her co-stars is fantastic. By the time episode five rolls around, Maeve's storyline has reached a level of sheer geek heaven.
When it comes to sheer fun, Maeve and co's plot-line completely excels (Photo: HBO/Sky)
William's backstory is another strong element, especially as Jimmi Simpson is absolutely nailing Harris's mannerisms in some of the flashbacks, and growing into his Man In Black persona. Seeing him continue down that dark path we know he is on is certainly engaging.
By contrast, The Man In Black even gets some interesting, Man With No Name ambiguity in the present. Let's just say his arc seems to be going places.
As for newcomers to the ensemble, Scottish character actor Peter Mullan is definitely one of the best things about the new season.
Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada makes another charismatic addition as a rogueish new character
Retaining his homegrown accent as shrewd, quick-witted and deliciously foul-mouthed bio-tech tycoon Jim Delos ("You're a cheeky wee **** aren't you?"), he makes a welcome new addition.
It's a superb performance by Mullan, particularly as that initially fiery, jovial demeanour gives way to anguished depths as the season progresses.
He's at the centre of a number of scenes set to be widely talked-about.
The fall of Dolores
It's unfortunate then that in a strange and disappointing turnaround, Dolores' segments are now probably the show's weakest aspect.
Effectively Westworld's protagonist in season one, despite this being more than one individual's story, the show's emotional heart and most sympathetic character has now become its least sympathetic.
Dolores' devolution into a one-dimensional, vengeful killer chimes with the bleak theme that the hosts win freedom from cruel, sadistic humans, only to immediately turn cruel and sadistic themselves.
The writers are fooling no one with Dolores' more emotional scenes (Photo: HBO/Sky)
But it is ultimately unsatisfying. Especially as the writers have given the excellent Evan Rachel Wood the same damn dialogue to skin a million different ways.
By the time she's talked about her old life being a lie and how she's going to make her former masters pay for the third or fourth time, you may well be rolling your eyes. It's oddly unimaginative, and ironically robotic considering the supposed shift for her character.
Fortunately there is scope for Wood to show off a greater range in flashbacks, and the occasional scene where Westworld attempts to wring some sympathy for Dolores as she embarks on her remorseless murder spree.
But many of her emotional moments fall flat.
Spared no expense
On a production level, the feat needed to pull all of this off doesn't bear thinking about. The variety of sets, props, effects and locations must have been mind-boggling.
One opening tracking shot seems purpose-built to show off the exquisite set design. Those beautiful, sweeping aerial shots return, the cinematography is luscious, and Ramin Djawadi's music is still stirring when it needs to be.
Jumping the stallion?
In its attempts to push the drama to new and exciting places, Westworld arguably jumps the shark - or the stallion, so to speak. But it does so in spectacular fashion.
There are gloriously over-blown action set-pieces. Surprising cameos that seem tailor-made to generate internet fan buzz. Myriad pop culture influences, meanwhile, are churned up and spliced together.
There are some very over-the-top set pieces to look forward to (HBO/Sky)
There are a lot of lofty monologues about God, freewill, nature and control. Yet these sit aside scenarios that are distinctly goofy in essence. Some scenes feel like a child started playing with a random collection of toys that fell out of five different boxes, and somebody rendered the resulting carnage as a beautiful and expensively made TV show.
Anthony Hopkins' immense screen presence and gravitas is also decidedly missed - even if Ford's influence on the past, present and future of Westworld remains palpable.
And yet, when it works, it really works. Expect moments of inspired, clever humour, more enjoyably alternative renderings of rock and pop standards, and some really interesting (and uncomfortable) implications.
There's a magnificent gunslinging sequence in a rainstorm. Fascinating reveals, and moments of expertly judged pathos. Haunting and disturbing sequences (at times, going down the Black Mirror rabbit hole of existential terror).
It's the question of whether all of this adds up to a cohesive and rewarding whole that is open for debate.
Excess and indulgence
Crucially, by the mid-point of this new season the focus is squarely on the here and now of the plot; which gives the narrative much greater momentum and coherence. And that narrative manages to muster enough intrigue and entertainment to retain your interest among the assorted bedlam.
Westworld's return is a near unparalleled exercise in TV excess and indulgence. Yet for all its more preposterous elements and frustrations, it somehow just about pulls it off.
Westworld season 2 starts on Sky Atlantic in the UK at 2am and 9pm on Monday, April 23. It will also be available on NOW TV.
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This article originally appeared on our sister site, iNews.