Bring yourself back online: ‘Westworld’ returns with a vengeance and even more head-spinning narratives

Evan Rachel Wood, left, and James Marsden in Westworld. (John P. Johnson/HBO)
Evan Rachel Wood, left, and James Marsden in Westworld. (John P. Johnson/HBO)
Published April 18 2018

The violent delights and violent ends have returned.

Westworld premieres a second season Sunday on HBO, and this time the artificial intelligence "hosts" are in charge of the high-tech theme park.

If you thought the first season was brutal, you're in for an even bloodier ride.

Previous coverage: 'Westworld' mashes Wild West fantasy with chilling science fiction

In Season 1, we learned the ins and outs of Westworld — an immersive, Wild West-themed park where elite guests can live out their wildest and most sadistic fantasies.

The robotic hosts are so close to being human it's freaky. The first season delved into the possibilities of creating consciousness and theories of bicameral minds through the these robots' experiences.

The season also showed us that Westworld was in the midst of a power struggle between co-creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and some of the park's management and investors.

The amount of money this amusement park and its technologies are worth is almost unfathomable, and those with intricate knowledge of its goings-on were looking for any change to seize control.

But then some of the hosts started acting up: glitching, slowly becoming self-aware enough to realize they're pieces of technology programmed to cycle through "narrative loops" over and over again. Their very existence hinges on the whims of the human guests.

More TV: 'Lost in Space' trades camp for thrills and family drama

At the end of the first season, Ford had been killed (at his request) by host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), one of his and partner Arnold's most complex creations.

Then came the mass slaughter of seemingly harmless guests around the park  by Dolores and "awakened" hosts.

Season 2 picks up where the first left off. The first five episodes sent to critics explore the park after the host rebellion. Humans — still in western and formal attire — are trying to flee to safety. Many don't make it, and two factions start to take shape in a brewing war.

In one is Dolores and Teddy (James Marsden). She wants revenge and control over this "new world" she recently discovered, but she's not sure sweet cowboy Teddy is up to the challenge.

Another is led by former brothel madame Maeve (Thandie Newton), who at the end of the first season achieved sentience. But instead of fleeing to the outside world with her newfound freedom, she chose to stay and search for the one thing she cares for the most — her daughter.

And still along for the wild ride is former head of programming Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), who learned late last season that he is an AI copy of co-creator Arnold. He's not doing so hot, glitching in and out of control between his past and present.

As he struggles to comprehend his own reality — and keep it hidden from the humans who don't know he's a host — his blips to the past help him and us viewers piece together what the "real purpose" of the park is.

As for other characters, The Man in Black/William (Ed Harris and Jimmi Simpson) gets a hefty backstory into how he turned so immoral. In the present, we see him as a bitter old man still hell bent on uncovering all of the secrets to the park he invested so much money in.

The first season explored what it means to be human, and the second expands on that by unraveling many of the hosts' pre-programmed behaviors. But it also attempts to explain what it means to feel.

Quite a few scenes with Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) show the scheming head of narrative baffled as to why the hosts are breaking away from storylines he created for them. Instead of being in love with only one other host or caring about one life goal, the hosts are realizing they have the ability to choose. And Lee doesn't understand how that's possible.

The new season also expands the park, teased last year as being comprised of six themed worlds. An episode spends quite a bit of time exploring the brutal Shogun World (based on the Japanese Edo period) but the most intriguing question comes when an AI tiger carcass washes up on a riverbank.

Almost too casually, we find out that creatures from other worlds have never been known to escape before.

Westworld became an instant sensation when it debuted almost two years ago. It is the type of show networks dream of landing — big budget, flashy sci-fi that garners a large swatch of viewers and keeps them talking about the show long after it ends.

It's a show that you could just follow on the surface level and still be entertained. But as Westworld heads into a new season, it's obvious this gratuitous Shakespearean tale is best enjoyed fully immersed in its intricate coding.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at ctatham@tampabay.com. Follow @chelseatatham.

Watch

Westworld Season 2

9 p.m. Sunday, HBO

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