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Westworld’s season 2 premiere, “Journey Into Night,” embraces chaos

Long live the robot revolution!

Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is officially awake — and she’s pissed.
HBO

Caroline Framke: The robot revolution is officially upon us, and it is spectacular.

By “spectacular,” I mostly mean that Westworld hasn’t lost its taste for splashy spectacle rather than it being particularly well done. In season two, this show is still palpably impressed with itself, its willingness to Go There (wherever “there” is), and its (admittedly impressive) use of a generous budget.

Still, even as a season one skeptic who quickly grew tired of the show’s dependence on interlocking (and ultimately unsatisfying) puzzles, I’ll admit that “Journey Into Night” gave me more to like than I was expecting.

For one, it feels slightly more self-aware than before. As Maeve stalks through the decimated HQ like a wary shark, she takes Lee — Westworld’s perpetually bewildered “story architect” — as a hostage. As the two exchange information, it becomes unavoidably meta.

Lee sputters about everything going off the rails and is stung when Maeve calls one of his programmed lines for her “a bit broad.” At one point, she gets to command Lee to strip naked, staring at his exposed penis with so much disdain you can practically feel the Westworld writers breathing down your neck to make sure you know they heard the criticism about the show’s often gratuitous gaze at its female characters in season one.

More importantly, this premiere follows through on the first season finale’s promise to blow up everything and go scorched-earth about as literally as possible. I have to admire the substantial risk this premiere takes by essentially skipping the immediate chaos that followed Dolores — or, should I say, Wyatt — marching up behind Ford and executing him with a single bullet at the end of last season. It throws us right into the disastrous aftermath, hundreds of bodies later, as human guests scramble to escape the hosts who have turned on them with the single-minded focus of eliminating them from their own game.

When we initially come back to the action, though, it’s through Bernard’s flickering, confused perspective after the carnage has already happened. As he comes to consciousness on a foreign beach, we see glimpses of what might be the past, or the future, or who knows what (including an almost tender moment with Dolores/Wyatt putting a hand to his cheek and promising that “there’s beauty in what we are”).

It feels something like a “this season on Westworld” teaser montage, but again, this is Westworld, so who knows what the hell is supposed to be happening — especially since the episode then dips back into the moments immediately following Ford’s death, in which Bernard tried to keep his cover while hiding out with Charlotte Hale and assorted other guests as the hosts turned on everyone.

So, hey, Todd: I won’t ask you what’s happening, since I know you’ve seen multiple episodes for your overall review. But do you think this premiere does its job so far as convincing us that season two knows what it’s doing?

Todd: Look, I’ll be honest: I’ve seen the first half of this season (five out of 10 episodes), and I don’t know that I could possibly spoil for you any of what’s to come. Could I tell you my basic recollection of events? Sure. But sometimes, half the experience of Westworld is in the fact that you don’t quite know what’s important until you know it’s important.

Take this perhaps too-sweeping season premiere, which dumps us into the middle of the fray and expects us to keep up. The time between when Bernard attended the dinner that erupted in chaos and the show’s “present” (if that term has any meaning on this series) is a matter of days, but the gap between past and present is, I guess, meant to be a kind of half-mystery. What was Bernard up to in that time? It’s hard to say, but if the final moments of the episode are any indication, it was nothing good.

Yet I’m most struck by how Westworld has largely reorganized itself this season around its four protagonists — Dolores, Maeve, Bernard, and the Man in Black — while sorting most of its other characters into an assortment of parties that can join these central players. We check in with all four throughout the hour, and just when I was starting to lose patience with one obfuscatory storyline, the episode would switch over to another one.

This reorganization is mostly a good idea. In season one, the series could feel too sprawling, and having a tighter focus (with three of the four protagonists being Hosts) ends up benefiting the series quite a bit. Yet at the same time, it leaves me feeling like certain characters who seemed like they might be important are just window dressing, perhaps none more notably than James Marsden’s Teddy, who mostly gets to stand around and watch as Evan Rachel Wood monologues a few times in his general direction.

Now, this being a massive ensemble cast, I’m sure we’ll get some scenes in future episodes that give Marsden more meat to chew on. But it’s still a little sad to watch him in this episode, knowing how much he’s capable of.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Dolores (or Wyatt or whatever), and Wood gave my favorite TV performance of 2016. But the process of watching her wake up turns out to be more arresting than watching her be awake. Dolores’s goal at this point is pretty much “wipe humanity from the park” (and then presumably from the earth). I’m not inherently opposed to that goal, but it’s a little easier to get on board with Maeve’s “find my daughter” or Bernard’s “figure out what the fuck is going on.”

Still, we get more Luke Hemsworth! How about that, Caroline? More Luke Hemsworth!

Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) doesn’t know Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) is a host. Zoinks!
HBO

Caroline: Were it not for our friend Alan Sepinwall constantly stumping for Stubbs — which, by the way, is the actual name of Hemsworth’s character — I would have forgotten completely that this show co-stars the grimmest of Hemsworths.

But that actually speaks to something that this premiere indicates is still a weakness for Westworld. Like you said, the four main characters as confirmed in this episode are Dolores, Maeve, Bernard, and the Man in Black. Three of those characters are Hosts. The one human is by far the least interesting one of them all, despite being played by both Ed Harris and Jimmi Simpson as the center of a show-defining time jump.

At this point, not a single other human on this show has anything resembling a character arc. The closest we get is Tessa Thompson’s Charlotte Hale, who seems like more of a means to an end at the moment, and while I’m thrilled to see Betty Gabriel (Get Out) join the cast as part of the backup force brought in to clean up the mess, I’m not getting my hopes up for her getting to do much beyond that.

What it comes down to is that I just can’t bring myself to care about something like the Man in Black continuing his maze quest — one of the show’s favorite ways to get lost in itself — when the hosts are awakening in such startling ways. Thandie Newton as Maeve has always been magnetic; Bernard’s fight to keep his Host nature hidden even as he feels himself deteriorating should make for some of Jeffrey Wright’s best work yet.

And while I’ll admit that Wood’s grand monologuing is far less riveting for me than the way she got to flutter between various personalities last season, I can’t lie: Seeing Dolores on a murderous prowl has me more excited for what’s to come than I was expecting — especially given that it took me until halfway through this premiere to realize I had almost entirely forgotten the finale, that’s how quickly it dissipated for me.

Todd: Hey, I watched this premiere a couple of days ago and have already forgotten a lot of it. (Granted, some of that is that the episodes after this one are generally stronger, without having to get the audience caught up all over again. This may be the show’s most marked similarity to Game of Thrones.)

I actually don’t know that it’s such a bad thing that the show itself is so much more invested in the Hosts to the exclusion of the humans because the humans on this show are generally not as interesting as the Hosts by design. (Luv u forever, Stubbs!) At its best, Westworld is a show that attempts to create a sort of ur-text of oppressors and the oppressed, with the Hosts standing in for every oppressed group ever and the humans standing in for the oppressors.

When it sticks to that basic format, it’s a genuinely involving show because it really does dig into how oppression is a choice, but often just one of choosing the status quo over actively interrogating the underpinnings of your society. In season one, many of the human characters were just beneficiaries of a system they didn’t dare question too much.

But now that they’re actively on the run from those who were formerly under their thumb, they’re snapping to attention and fighting back, in a way that makes it easier to root against them. Somewhere inside of Westworld is a really trenchant critique of, uh, every political and economic system ever devised.

But then you get to stuff like William/the Man in Black wandering around and trying to solve the Maze, and it becomes harder to get too invested, at least in my case. I know that a lot of people enjoy this show on the level of thinking about, like, what it would be to live as a video game character (as most of the Hosts effectively are), but the stories where the humans actually “play the game” are rarely as compelling as watching the Hosts’ awakening political consciousness, or even the workplace drama set behind the scenes of a robot theme park.

Yet in considering “Journey Into Night,” I realized that where we’ve landed is essentially the place Westworld was always going to go. After all, this series is based on a movie about a theme park where the robots malfunction and start killing the guests, so the robot revolution was always coming. (One significant change: Here the Man in Black is a human, at least so far as we know.)

The show does play around with this in interesting ways here and there. Poor Bernard, caught between the life he’s always known and the life he’s slowly awakening to, is forced to hang out with a bunch of Delos pals, who don’t yet know the truth about him, and it’s clear how hard it is for him to keep living the life he thought was his, in favor of the life that’s slowly coming alive for him. It’s a pretty effective little noodle on the consequences of compartmentalization, made even more so by the occasional presence of flying bullets.

But if Westworld is going to take off in season two in the way I still think it can, it needs to reach a little deeper than that. For as much as I love certain aspects of the show, “Journey Into Night” suggests it’s still more conceptually interesting — which is to say “fun to think about” — than it is legitimately compelling on the levels of character, theme, or plot. But, hey, maybe we’ll get there.