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Westworld season 2 review

A dreamworld ruled by bloodlust, hatred and retribution

John P. Johnson/HBO

Westworld’s second season can be summed up by one of the series’ catchphrases: “These violent delights have violent ends.”

Through the first five episodes, which HBO provided to critics, the crux of the season rests on revenge of the abused, freedom of the enslaved and retribution for the downtrodden. The hosts are awake, looking to reclaim the liberties they believed they once had. The memories of their time trapped within Westworld, a place they once called home, are ruined by the revelation that it’s nothing more than a fantastical playground for spoiled rich socialites unhappy with their own lives. It’s a Shakespearean tale of the powerful cut down to their knees, staring up at the hosts they once called servants, asking for mercy while their heads lie on the chopping block — a gratuitous feast composed of grotesque murder and diabolical uprisings.

It’s exhilarating.

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Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) in Westworld’s second season.
John P. Johnson/HBO

Westworld’s second season fixes many of the problems from the first by providing a believable war between the hosts and park employees, having them fight to the death over a worthy cause. The twists, turns and riddles that made up the structure of the show’s first season fall into the background, letting the ironically human elements of the hosts’ drama take center stage. The second season isn’t as reliant on a riddle’s intrigue to keep viewers enticed as the plot progresses. The more the hosts discover about the lie they’ve been fed, and the more they want to fight for what they so rightfully deserve, the better the show becomes.

Season two is more grand in every aspect. The literal size of Westworld seems to have quadrupled as new theme parks are introduced. The hosts are physically capable of more than ever before. Most interesting, however, is the intimate and poetic history of the park’s owners. We’re treated to memories and truths kept at bay in the first season, and it creates conflicting emotions.

The show is designed for us to cheer on the hosts’ revolution because it’s a justified retribution. We’ve seen them exploited for the benefit of wealthy white men. We’ve seen Maeve, Bernard and Dolores struggle with the blurred lines of their existence, fighting tooth and nail to figure out the truth of their surroundings. Everything screams out to unquestionably support the hosts, but it’s not a simple task. The black-and-white understandings introduced in Westworld’s first season fade away as recollections of destitute families, ripped apart by the tantalizing world of immersive mixed reality, come into focus.

Right and wrong still exist in the second season, but almost everyone’s reasons for their actions are defendable. There are, of course, a few outliers. William, aka the Man in Black, is still as reprehensible as ever. The host uprising is just another obstacle he needs to conquer to really dominate the park. His character only becomes more corrupt as the season builds, his intentions only more suspicious as the truth about what he’s done to secure his power begins to pour out. William is one of the only characters that doesn’t toe the line between devil and angel, finding his true self in the most disturbing acts.

It all comes back to those violent delights, and their violent ends.

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Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) in Westworld’s second season.

Violent delights are nearly impossible to give up. That’s the thesis that snakes through every episode this season: the addiction that manifests in everyone who touches Westworld. The park is the epitome of an escape. It nurtures visitors’ most intimate thoughts, allowing their vulnerable fantasies to play out. The more time people spend in the park, the more real their fantasy life gets — and the less interested they become in returning to the real world. This element of technology-induced euphoria is examined with a critical eye, as the real world fuses with the artificial.

It’s a tale as old as time, but the guests’ inability to disassociate from the sandbox they have paid handsomely to play in becomes a breeding ground for hatred between hosts and visitors.

The hosts are resentful of the literal privilege the visitors have to lead their own lives, form their own families and walk their own paths. The guests — at least those who frequent the park most often — grow tired of the same song and dance performed by the hosts, and that pent-up frustration turns into abusive contempt. Westworld’s first season explored the domineering relationship between the visitors and the hosts who were built to be their playthings, seeing how far they could push their sadistic desires; the second season puts the visitors on the defensive as they’re forced to face their crimes.

All of these elements combine for a richer story that makes the second season light-years better than its predecessor. Although it is unquestionably a major step up, there is one inescapable problem: The chronology is still a concern. While it’s something that puzzle aficionados might enjoy working through — a large part of what made the first season so intriguing — it does get exhausting. The flashbacks feel gimmicky because the story is so much stronger. Westworld doesn’t need to rely on timeline misdirection, but the show doesn’t shy away from that crutch. There are circumstances in which the flashbacks work, helping to distinguish the real from the imagined, but the tool still feels wholly contrived.

At the same time, it’s easy to take a step back and forgive the chronology issue when recognizing what Westworld’s second season also is: an ode to badass women.

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Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) in Westworld’s second season.

No one rules Westworld like the women who inherit its different realms. Dolores is ruler of the Wild West, roaming on horseback, rifle at her side, as she tracks down the guests who have humiliated her fellow hosts. Maeve is out for blood in her search for vengeance, claiming her spot as the elite host, destined to kill anyone who tries to prevent her from reaching her daughter. Charlotte Hale, the Delos executive, becomes the apparent sole spiritual leader of the company, ensuring everyone follows her orders so the park remains operational. There are women who haven’t been introduced yet — I’ve left them out to keep this review spoiler-free — who also bring the show to new heights.

Westworld’s second season is a story about redemption, recluses and retaliation. It’s a tale of the underserved, the underprivileged and the underdogs finally attaining the power they’ve never had. There’s so much riding on their mission’s success that Westworld finally feels like it has some real gravity and weight — like things really matter. This is a life-or-death situation and, for the first time, the consequences are truly dire.

The park has become a cemetery; people are either forced into graves or forced to float around like lost souls. Westworld has finally become more than its designs, more than the futuristic world that existed in its creators’ dreams. The war is, at face value, one between man and artificial intelligence, but a battle has never felt more human. It’s angry people tracking down monsters and madmen. As Ernest Hemingway famously said, “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”

Let the hunt begin.