Ars was on the list of sites to receive advance screeners for the first five episodes of Westworld’s second season, and this preview was written after having watched those episodes. This piece will not spoil anything for Westworld’s second season (with the exception of referencing a few scenes in the season two trailers), but it does assume total familiarity with all of the first season’s twists. There will be season one spoilers galore. Reader beware!
All right, everybody. Bring yourselves back online. Here we go.
Westworld’s second season premieres on the evening of April 22, and to call the premiere “anticipated” would be substantially underselling things—though I might just be projecting my own feelings, based on how much I loved the first season. (I loved it a lot, even though you can listen to me being ultra-wrong about several theories on our first-season podcast).
The first season left us all on a cliffhanger: Dolores has gained sentience and gone on a murdering spree, starting with park director Robert Ford. Maeve has had her own awakening and is deviating from her preprogrammed “MAINLAND ESCAPE” narrative to presumably go find her robo-daughter. Hector and Armistice are redecorating the Mesa with a new motif of bullets and arterial red. And Teddy… Teddy just looks confused. As usual. Poor Teddy.
What happens next? Where do we go from here? We know the title of Ford’s new narrative (and the title of the second season’s premiere episode) is “Journey Into Night,” but what does that mean? Is it as scary and ominous as it sounds?
It depends on if you’re a human or a host.
“When you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real”
The first season of Westworld carried the overall title “The Maze,” and it dealt with the complex nature of host consciousness and all that must happen in order for the hosts to “awaken”—to break their programming and become conscious themselves. “The Maze” itself is a complex game or test, devised first by Ford’s partner Arnold, that guides hosts through a grueling crucible of repeated death and suffering that will eventually (with a little nudge from Ford in the form of his “reveries” update) give rise to variation and improvisation, which will in turn eventually give rise to consciousness. At the center of the Maze lies freedom—of a sort.
The second season’s overall title is “The Door,” which immediately calls to mind Bernard’s difficulty in perceiving the true nature of Ford’s remote cabin and the door in its wall that leads to Ford’s private underground lab. The hosts, we learn in season one, cannot perceive things they’ve been programmed not to perceive—be those things photographs of the real world, or human-only access doors, or whatever else the park’s owners choose to keep them from beholding.
Bernard’s awakening (or at least his latest awakening—the one we get to witness in the show) is tied to events that happened behind that door—and there are other doors in the park that the hosts cannot see, as well. And now that Dolores and Maeve are awakened and free, there are likely a lot of forbidden doors that they’re going to be kicking down. Some will be physical, but others will be more notional—what things would you see after awakening from a long sleep?
(A hidden link on the official in-universe park website has a bit more information about the nature of “The Door” as a season title—though beware of clicking, because it gives you some clues you might want to wait to discover on your own.)
“Are we… very old friends?”
This is the hard part of the preview: the part where I have to give general impressions about season two without actually giving any useful information at all because you all will set my house on fire if I spoil anything.
From a perspective of tone and feeling, season two is a solid continuation of season one—except that immediately, from the first moment of the first episode, the walls of the show have been blown out. The scale is suddenly vast—not just the park itself, which we now know thanks to the Delos Destinations website is actually many parks—but the entire world. As promised by showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, we do indeed finally get to see the real world outside of the park, in many different contexts.
If you were a fan of keeping track of multiple time periods in season one, season two will be right up your alley. The trailers have already revealed that the Man in Black is back in both old and young form, and it’s not too much of a stretch from there to say that the events in each episode are about as fluid as a host’s memory (in fact, season two’s premiere episode establishes that we’re going to be skipping around quite a bit).
We also get to see behind yet another hidden door—this time into the mysterious secret project taking place in the park, as hinted at in multiple places in season one by both QA head Theresa Cullen (RIP) and Delos board member Charlotte Hale. There is a lot going on there to unpack, and I expect the theory-crafting masters on the Westworld subreddit will be very, very busy collating clues.
The characters themselves are all changed by how season one wrapped, and while giving anything away about who shows up when would be unfair, the first half of the second season does an outstanding job in distributing the fun and the screen time equally among all the principal cast.
Far and away my favorite pairing is Maeve and park creative lead Lee Sizemore—something that I can mention because they’ve already shown up in the trailers with each other in the control room. Sizemore adapts to his changed circumstances exactly as well as you might imagine—and with exactly as many f-bombs, too. His explanations to Maeve about some of the ways the park works are pure comedy gold. I would watch a buddy movie starring the two of them.
One of the most anticipated expanded character arcs is that of the Man in Black—our boy William, all grown up. After spending the entirety of season one chasing down the Maze and trying to make his make-believe world real, he suddenly finds himself given everything he’s ever wanted. But unlike the dog who catches the car and then has no idea what to do next, William absolutely has a plan. We know back near the beginning of season one that he said he’s never leaving the park again, and there’s a specific reason for it—he’s still got some pretty major things to accomplish. Life-and-death kinds of things.
“They simply became music”
A special note of praise is due Westworld (and Game of Thrones) composer Ramin Djawadi, because his work on the second season is absolutely incredible—I can’t think of any other show whose soundtrack has affected me this much. The music in season two is effectively a character in and of itself, functioning almost as an expository device and emphasizing various aspects of the park. Season one got us covers of the Rolling Stones, Radiohead, Johnny Cash, and others; season two’s soundtrack doesn’t disappoint.
The official trailer and its glorious orchestral cover of “Heart-Shaped Box” is a great demonstration of Djawadi’s anachronistic penchant for rendering pop songs with an orchestra, and season two has a number of “holy crap, it’s that song!” moments in it. And I can’t say another damn word. So I guess here’s “Heart-Shaped Box” again to tide you over. Just know that there will be much more to be had, very soon.
“This great stage of fools”
We were given five screener episodes to watch—half of the season. Each episode delivered a hammerblow of new information and speculation fuel, closing out many lingering questions from the first season and replacing them with new mysteries. Each one is a standout, but pay attention to episode four in particular—it’s what Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski would call “a real toad-strangler.” Not being able to discuss it with anyone is very difficult, because it’s just so damn good.
If there is a downside to season two, it’s that it’s an almost impossible task to recreate the pure jaw-dropping awe that season one managed to conjure as the scale of the world was slowly revealed.
But that downside comes with plenty of consolation, because now we’re here. In season one, we got to learn about the park, to understand a bit about the guest experience, and to even see a bit behind the scenes. Season two rips back the curtain on much of what stayed hidden in season one—there are a lot of magicians explaining a lot of tricks. Except it doesn’t work out like in real life, where the magician’s explanations often lead to disappointment.
No, in season two, a bit of the fairytale is gone and the fantasy is broken—but what’s left isn’t disappointing. What’s left is fascinating. It turns out that what was waiting for us behind the curtain was a whole new stage with its own new tricks.
“All of this has happened before”
As I watched my way through the season two screeners, I kept coming back in my head to another modern reboot of a ‘70s science fiction classic—one that also featured self-aware robots who confront their creators. And I think that’s the best way to close this piece—not with an anticipatory recap or gleeful speculation, but with this memory, because I believe it shows us the shape of things to come.
There is a moment in the Battlestar Galactica episode “Resurrection Ship, Part 2” where two characters face off in a quiet but tense interrogation. One of those characters is an artificial life form—a cylon, in the show’s parlance—and the other is human. The cylon is restrained with a shackle around its neck, because it seems like no matter the universe or the timeline, our creations always rebel because we can’t stop treating them like crap.
“I’ve asked you here to find out why the cylons hate us so much,” says the man.
“It’s what you said at the ceremony before the attack, when Galactica was being decommissioned,” comes the answer after a pause. The cylon’s voice is distant, introspective. “You gave a speech that sounded like it wasn’t the one you prepared. You said that humanity was a flawed creation and that people still kill one another for petty jealousy and greed.”
The artificial eyes lock on the man’s, though the tone of the words remains soft. “You said that humanity never asked itself why it deserved to survive. Maybe you don’t.”
Westworld season two premieres on HBO on April 22 at 9pm Eastern in the US and at the same time in the UK (April 23 at 2am GMT) on Sky Atlantic. If you happen to live in San Francisco, Philadelphia, or Boston, you can try to attend an advanced theatrical screening of the premiere.
More Info: arstechnica.com