HBO’s science-fiction puzzler Westworld is the most humorless drama on TV right now, the most narratively complicated (sometimes overcomplicated), the most self-aware, and one of the most lavishly produced. In a medium that rarely suffers a dearth of programs satisfying one or more of those criteria, that’s an accomplishment — however dubious in certain ways — and the sheer ambition of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s feat compels a wary respect. Where most so-called prestige dramas pride themselves on building narratives that are layered with meaning, Westworld seems to assume that the layering itself provides all the meaning we could want or need. It’s constantly explaining itself to us, analyzing itself, deconstructing itself, to the point where recapping it seems as pointless as pushing the down button for an elevator that’s already one floor away. The show’s relationship with its fans is as compelling as anything happening on the screen and often feels like an extension of it. Not since Lost, the granddaddy of modern TV Easter-egg hunts, have the showrunners of a major drama tried so hard to outsmart and outplay their fan base, much of which treats the series as a game to be mastered or a puzzle to be solved. Viewer reaction was inevitable considering the kind of show Westworld is: the TV-drama equivalent of a magician who explains the trick he’s about to do, by way of setting up another trick, all the while daring you to see both tricks, plus anything else he’s got up his sleeve.
The culmination (so far) was Nolan’s trolling of Redditors during an “Ask Me Anything” appearance a week before the series’ return. Annoyed by fans’ preemptive disclosure of major plot twists during season one, he promised to spoil all the major developments of season two in advance, then released what amounted to a cryptic extended trailer, as if to say, “If you geniuses can figure out anything definite from this, congratulations — you win.” It was a delayed retaliation for the Great Timeline Deduction of 2016, which saw untold numbers of Westworld fans work together on social media and in online forums to predict how the first season would end before it could actually, y’know, end.
They realized that — like so many movies co-written by Nolan with his director brother, Christopher — Westworld was playing tricks with chronology, telling a story set in the past and another set in the present and juxtaposing them via parallel editing so that they seemed to be happening at the same time. Two characters whom viewers might have initially assumed were different people — the scowling, bloodthirsty Man in Black (Ed Harris) and the seemingly kindhearted William (Jimmi Simpson) — were thus revealed as older and younger versions of the same character. This in turn meant that season one amounted to a cleverly structured ten-hour exposition dump telling us how all of the major human characters came to be who they were, spelling out the relationships of android characters (including Thandie Newton’s Maeve, Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores, and James Marsden’s Teddy) to their past lives/story lines, and revealing that a key player we assumed was human, Jeffrey Wright’s scientist Bernard, was a robot too — a replicant version of Arnold, partner of the park’s creator, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Season one climaxed with a robot uprising — essentially a slave revolt à la the Blade Runner films, Ex Machina, and other robot-driven sci-fi — that promised a war-driven second season and answered complaints that the robot characters (the women, especially) were too passive.
Season two doubles down on the show’s meta tendencies. The Man in Black repeatedly announces that, thanks to the revolt, the stakes of the “game” that is Westworld (and presumably also the show that is Westworld) have been raised in a way that makes the entire thing more interesting. He’s not wrong. Season one’s graphically bloody human-on-robot violence became tedious once you realized that robot characters who’d been killed never stayed dead, and therefore any emotions you experienced at the sight of their injury or murder were misplaced. The humans, meanwhile, were safe, because the robots had been programmed to limit their injury of guests and never kill them. Both those stipulations have now been amended. Most of the robots can’t wait to kill their human creators, and now that the park’s human caretakers are either dead, captive, or on the run, robots who’ve been damaged or snuffed out might not be repaired immediately or at all.
Nolan, Joy, and their collaborators seem to have multiplied the number of self-referential lines that speculate on the nature of Westworld and Westworld. More than in last season, the park’s key staff members stand in for the writers, directors, and producers of Westworld, and the robots for the show’s cast — actors who were once required to play whatever role was handed to them, no matter how difficult and despite any objections they might have had to the material, but who now demand some say in how their faces, bodies, and emotions are to be used. Maeve delivers a kiss-off line with relish, then criticizes it as “a bit broad.” Her memory of mothering a daughter in a previous story — an image that haunts her — is described by another character as “just a story, something we programmed. She’s not real.” “We don’t need to claim this world,” Teddy says. “We just need a small corner of it for ourselves.”
The show’s status as a premium-cable-ready spectacle of blood, sex, and philosophical noodling gets gently sent up in a slow-motion robot-on-human bloodbath scored to a player-piano version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” If this reads like borderline self-excoriation, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. In a flashback, the rich rotter Logan (Ben Barnes) brags that he’s got a rare Andy Warhol painting hanging on the ceiling over his bed because “what’s the point of a $60 million Warhol if you can’t look at it while you fuck?” There are more flashbacks, more parallel time-shifting story lines, more characters, and some mythic place names that might not refer to places. And there are new zones in the park, new areas of construction, new worlds within worlds — so many fresh vistas, in fact, that the park seems to defy the laws of physics, becoming more of a virtual locale than a geographic one. Somewhere between the drama and the video game lies Westworld, and one of the show’s most intriguing aspects is how simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable it seems as it exists in that space.
*This article appears in the April 16, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!