“Westworld” Season 2 is a labyrinthian experience and, to borrow a term used by one of the characters, a baroque spectacle, much like it was before. But Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s sequel purposefully puts its characters on fresh trajectories in a world that’s vastly different than the diligently controlled theme park seen during most of last season. In other words, it tries to put the two “wilds” in “wild, wild, west,” even if it only succeeds in adding one. Chaos reigns in Sweetwater, but the typical excitement that goes along with such an unholy uproar doesn’t always translate onscreen.
Credit where credit is due, the creators already told us exactly what’s going to happen in Season 2. No, there’s not a hidden code in their reddit-pranking video (that we know of), nor are we here at IndieWire about to spoil anything from the long-anticipated follow-up season.
Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) outlined what’s next in the Season 1 finale: “It begins with the birth of a new people, and the choices they will have to make, and the people they will decide to become,” Ford says about his next “story.” He also promises the pleasures “you’ve always enjoyed” like “surprises [and] violence” before aptly predicting his own assassination: “It begins in a time of war with a villain named Wyatt — and a killing, this time by choice,” he says, as Dolores (aka. Wyatt, played by Evan Rachel Wood) walks behind him and chooses to put a bullet in the back of his brain.
Lo and behold, Ford’s prophecy comes true: If Season 1 posed the question, “Can robots dream of electric sheep?” then Season 2 asks what these “new people” will do when they stop dreaming and wake the hell up. Who will they become with the strings cut and their freedom granted? It’s a similar query made of the guests who visited Westworld in order to discover themselves, and now the hosts get to answer themselves: Without anyone telling them what to do, will they choose the white or black hat? Everyone must decide who they are, all while forging a new reality out of the manufactured dream that’s been destroyed.
It’s all very lofty, heady stuff, and it’s easy to get lost in the big picture thinking and puzzle-solving structure of the first five episodes. But there’s a stillness to Season 2 that needs to be shattered more often than it is; “Westworld” never had much of a sense of humor (not much of one), and it could drag on occasion to help time out certain reveals, but it made up for both with regular bursts of enthusiasm. Now, it’s like the puzzle box is suffocating the life inside it — you can feel the plotting instead of experiencing those “surprises.” For all the careful consideration given to who each character is becoming, there’s not enough action to force their hand.
That’s not to say the new season is lacking in twists. From the premiere’s first moments, it’s clear something is percolating behind the scenes. Timelines are being toyed with and trusty guides thought freed may yet again be manipulated by puppet masters. A few of the early revelations work, others don’t, and it’ll be up to the most devout fans to piece together the bigger puzzle before the latter half reveals itself.
Getting there, though, is a bit less fun than it was. Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Dolores aren’t as dynamic as before; their chosen paths can be too predictable, familiar, or straight-up dull. (Why do so many characters slowly walk when they can run? It’s like the writers identified their characters’ lack of urgency and personified it instead of fixing it.) Through speeches and one-liners, they represent far better ideas than their actions define, while the men — namely William (Ed Harris) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) are given far more exciting things to do. So far, this is The Man in Black’s season to lose, though both should generate plenty of discussion (and their performances demand awards).
All around, the actors remain strong, including a number of new cast members. Where Season 2 stumbles is its structure and pacing. Episodes don’t carve equal time for everyone; they focus on the two most connected stories and sometimes break for an entire hour without getting back to a series regular. It’s all very organized, which makes sense given how important timing is for the show’s reveals to hit, but the season is so tightly wound no one can breathe.
That a show as intricate as “Westworld” would have trouble capturing chaos in its wild, uncontrollable splendor shouldn’t come as a shock, but it is disappointing. The first season’s setup promised utter insanity, especially given its killer kicker, so to see each storyline neatly divided up and quartered off from each other proves taxing. It can feel like viewers are merely observing a plan play out instead of watching as one decision organically leads to another. There are moments of beauty in this absorbing world, and striving for depth is admirable even when it’s only partially mined. What it all adds up to could easily be worth the journey, but for now — to borrow a line from Maeve — “It’s a bit broad, if you ask me.”
“Westworld” Season 2 premieres Sunday, April 22 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.