Early in the second season premiere of HBO’s hit sci-fi series Westworld, Bernard—a robot programmer who is actually inhuman himself, played by Jeffrey Wright—tells one of his creations: “I’m frightened of what you might become, of what path you might take.” The same could be said for fans and critics of the show, which is entering a crucial second season that can often be make-or-break for high-profile television programs, even after a successful opening run.
One of the first striking images that will greet audiences is Evan Rachel Wood’s newly liberated character Dolores (fittingly, Wood is now officially getting paid the same as her male costars) on horseback with a shotgun, taking names and seeking vengeance, a real 180 from the first season, where she was more often than not the victim of sexual abuse and violence. Meanwhile, the only full frontal nudity in the premiere features a man.
“It’s a completely different tone, and I don’t think it’s a natural progression,” argues Los Angeles Times television critic Lorraine Ali. “The Sopranos didn’t do that, Deadwood didn’t do that.” For instance, it will likely strike many viewers as a supremely meta moment when Dolores tells one toxic man she’s threatening: “Did you ever stop to wonder about your actions, the price you’d pay if there was a reckoning?” And then announces: “That reckoning is here.”
It’s a completely different tone … I’m not so sure it’s apologetic so much as it is a sign of the times.
Like a lot of critics, while a fan of the show, Ali was concerned about the show’s sexual politics early in its run, but as the show progressed, it evolved, and she credits co-showrunner Lisa Joy with keeping the often explicit show from tipping into exploitation. “There’s things that men are just not going to notice,” says Ali. “I do not think Westworld could have turned out the way it did If it were just men totally running the show and just reacting to the news.”
The other ace up the show’s sleeve and rewards repeat viewings is its complex narrative about free will vs. determinism that turns out to be extremely timely. “It’s just the perfect storm of circumstances,” Andrew Sorcini, one of the hosts of the popular Westworld-themed podcast Violent Delights, tells Playboy. “This show is slated perfectly to comment on what’s going on today. To get people to empathize with the exploited is kind of genius.”
Sorcini, who has long been a dedicated fan of the 1973 Michael Crichton-directed film that inspired the show, was impressed that HBO managed to pull off something far deeper by pitting sympathetic robots (or “hosts”) opposite mostly inhumane humans. “Rogue artificial intelligence rising up may not feel like it’s immediately relevant, but we are on the cusp of something like that coming into play. We certainly see it in algorithms swaying our opinions, causing us to vote in a certain way,” says Sorcini.
This is a heady theme for a production that reportedly cost over $100 million to launch, and which HBO has positioned to supplant Game of Thrones (which is nearing the end of its historic run) as the critical-favorite, zeitgeist show of the moment. So far, the show has met the lofty expectations. While not without its detractors, the show drew 12 million viewers per episode across platforms in its first season, with its finale hitting a series high. In fact, Westworld was the highest-rated first season of any HBO show ever, including Thrones and the widely acclaimed first season of True Detective.
But what goes up in television often comes down—see the second season ofTrue Detective—and even a super fan like Sorcini has some reservations about the direction the show could take going forward. “At some point, they’re going to go a bit overboard, and at some point, I think they’ll have to dial it back to find equilibrium between the outrage from being oppressed and having your freedom taken away from you,” says Sorcini. ”Otherwise, they are in danger of seeming too militant.”
He believes the show ultimately will be about “a bridge” between the synthetic hosts of Westworld and the real people who created them. “We are watching the origin and the evolution of another race to replace human beings—the host race,” says Sorcini.
Meanwhile, the show will likely continue to push buttons with its objectively bleak worldview and complicated multi-narrative stories which span different decades in the future. “I wanted it to remain smart, and so far it is has, and that’s a hard thing to do with a first season that was so successful. It’s forcing you to think about stuff that you don’t want to think about,” Ali tells Playboy. “It definitely pisses people off, and that’s kind of grand.”