Westworld season 2 review: Jonathan Nolan deserves Christopher Nolan-level love
Westworld season 2 review: Jonathan Nolan - Chris’ younger brother - remodels season 2 of HBO’s new flagship show after its more popular cousin, Game of Thrones. The comparisons are justified.
Westworld: The Door
Cast - Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, James Marsden, Jimmi Simpson, Luke Hemsworth, Rodrigo Santoro
Rating - 3.5/5
One criticism even the fiercest Westworld apologists couldn’t counter after was that the show never cracked a smile - despite a premise that positively demands moments of levity, what with all the self-serious philosophising and soul-gazing intensity. And oddly, for a show that is as much about the limitlessness of human imagination as it is about the pointlessness of our existence, it felt strangely restrained.
As you have probably already gathered, I was not the biggest fan of season 1, which HBO has retroactively provided with a subtitle: The Maze. Although I ended my review with the faintest whiff of optimism, if only because Jonathan Nolan and JJ Abrams are, as they’ve proven on numerous occasions, two of the brightest storytellers of our times. “There is still hope that Westworld might get back on track in season 2,” I wrote, “but with the uncertain future of HBO’s other dramas… it is absolutely necessary for Nolan and Co to mount a major revamp.”
Unbelievably, that’s exactly what they’ve done. In season 2, whose subtitle, The Door, suggests that HBO is taking an anthology approach to their new flagship programme, creators Nolan and Lisa Joy, address every problem - major and minor - that I, and apparently many others, had with the show. It is a series of episodes - five out of ten were provided for preview - that is both narratively and thematically bolder than the previous season.
Once Nolan - who revisits the ideas that have fascinated him in films such as Memento and The Prestige, which he made with his legendary brother, Christopher - has addressed his preoccupations, namely, the concepts of free will, of predestination, of creation and intelligence, he finally takes the show in what always seemed like the next logical direction. By stepping out of its sandbox - both literally and metaphorically - Nolan, like his characters, opens himself up to the wonders of the outside world, a world of limitless possibilities that no longer feels restrictive.
For the first time, Westworld is fun.
Which was always the point, wasn’t it? Westworld, both the show and the park, was always intended as an escape - from a reality that was seemingly too horrible to deal with anymore - and a cautionary tale about the inevitable pitfalls of artificial intelligence. But for reasons that can mostly be boiled down to blind, unchecked ambition, what Nolan and Joy failed to bring to season 1 is precisely what makes season 2 such a noticeable improvement.
Questions about reality, about what it means to be human, about what is real and what isn’t -- these are questions that have already been addressed many times in films and TV and, some would say, more efficiently than they are here. For instance - and you might not agree with this example - there is a largely forgotten Matt Damon movie called The Adjustment Bureau that is perhaps one of the most unique explorations of the concept of God. And there is no better film about the perils of playing God than Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go. These are both great science-fiction stories that convey big ideas through characters that feel always real (even if they aren’t).
Season 2 has sadly inherited a nagging season 1 problem: Only a couple of characters of the large - at times too large - ensemble feel like they deserve our patience and attention, even if they’re designed specifically to be the heart and soul of the show. Unlike, say, Game of Thrones, we haven’t had a sturdy enough beginning to the story to make us care about what happens to these characters now that they’re all involved in an all out rebellion. Dolores, the mild-mannered maiden, has now taken on an almost Khaleesi-like persona, as she goes from town to town, amassing an army and convincing weathered old men that she is the leader they’ve always been waiting for. Meanwhile, Maeve, Bernard and William, all equipped with new knowledge and a shared past, continue their individual journeys that take them to uncharted territories - both real and imagined.
And crucially, Nolan and Joy haven’t limited themselves in their efforts to remodel the Westworld after its more successful cousin, Game of Thrones. They’ve written event episodes, the sort of episodes that will light up the internet when they air. I can’t wait till you’ve all experienced episode 5, which is everything you’ve hoped for and more - surprising, exciting, stylish, and a true tribute to the one art form that Westworld honestly admires: video games. Without revealing any spoilers, Indian fans are going to flip out ten minutes into Episode 3.
Westworld is hardly the path-breaking programme it should have been, and I don’t know if it ever will be - but at least now, after important changes have been made, it isn’t the train-wreck it came so close to being. It would make sense for it to keep reinventing itself every season, to keep venturing out into unexplored corners of its world and to focus its energy into telling a story that can be as enjoyable as it is cerebral.
Watch the Westworld Season 2 trailer here
(Season 2 of Westworld premieres on the 24th of August only on Star World and Star World HD in India.)