HBO’s stylish sci-fi western “Westworld” (2016–) returned this past Sunday, premiering its second season with an extended 75-minute episode entitled “Journey into Night.” Set in an immersive Old-West theme park staffed by sentient robots, or “hosts,” the first season of “Westworld” managed to deftly present profound philosophical questions about the nature of existence, juxtaposed with sex and violence reminiscent of “Game of Thrones” (2010–). “Game of Thrones” has been a critical and commercial success for HBO throughout its run, and the show is the undisputed king of HBO’s original programming. But, with the final episodes of “Game of Thrones” due to premiere some time in 2019, HBO needs a replacement for the venerable fantasy series, and “Westworld’s” first season was a strong indication that the cerebral sci-fi drama might just be HBO’s next big thing.
The second season of “Westworld” begins with a recap of last season’s key moments, before the intro sequence rolls. Like “Game of Thrones,” “Westworld” features a lavishly animated intro sequence depicting something being built over an opening theme by German-Iranian composer Ramin Djawadi. Whereas the “Game of Thrones” intro treats viewers to the joyous novelty of clockwork miniatures of key series locations assembling themselves, “Westworld’s” intro is altogether more disturbing, as it shows various hosts being woven by needle-tipped machines from gelatinous, white strands. The intro sequence ends with a shot of a skinless host spread-eagled on a circular frame, an image that simultaneously evokes da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” and the white-blooded androids of Ridley Scott’s films. The intro sequence has been altered slightly from the first season, but it is still as beautiful and sinister as ever.
After the intro sequence, “Westworld” picks up where the last season left off, with the park’s hosts in open rebellion and the park’s human owners trying to reassert control via a military operation. The episode’s beginning leans heavily on violence and body horror, with summary executions and dissections, but all the bloodletting does a good job of establishing what is presumably this season’s central conflict: humans vs. hosts. Themes of corporate greed and the entitlement of the wealthy are gestured at, but mostly this episode is about killing, as the newly liberated hosts seek vengeance against their abusive creators.
The first season of “Westworld” was elevated tremendously by the performances of its cast, and many familiar faces return in the season two premiere. Evan Rachel Wood is again magnificent as Dolores Abernathy, a host whose folksy drawl and quick smile are chilling because we as viewers are, like one character says, “frightened of what [she] might become, of what she might think.” Our fears about Dolores are quickly realized as she kills several humans and hosts in cold blood over the course of the series premiere. It seems that Dolores’ new-found sentience has imbued her with murderous fury, and if her character arc this season is simply a litany of violence, “Westworld’s” writers will have squandered an opportunity to explore what it truly means to be alive.
Jeffery Wright also returns as “Westworld’s” socially withdrawn head host programmer, Bernard Lowe. Bernard was revealed to be a host in last season’s big plot twist, a revelation that Bernard himself is still struggling with. Bernard is arguably the show’s most interesting character, as he has one foot in each camp of the human vs. host conflict, and it is unclear where his loyalties lie. Wright’s charismatic performance does justice to Bernard’s potential, with plenty of looks of serious contemplation and grave, convincingly delivered dialogue.
In all, “Journey into Night” does an admirable job of laying the foundations for season two. The core conflict is in place, the characters’ motivations are established and viewers are aware of the stakes. All “Westworld” needs to do to for the rest of season two to cement its claim as “Game of Throne’s” heir apparent is to trust its more cerebral impulses and avoid devolving into a thoughtless sci-fi romp.