In 'Westworld' Season 2, the Playing Field is Leveled But Cruelty is Still King

Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Abernathy, in Season 2 of 'Westworld' (HBO).

Almost a year and a half ago, Westworld ended its first season with all hell breaking loose. We watched in slow motion as the tortured, abused robotic playthings of a cruel and entitled humanity slowly (satisfyingly) discovered their own sentience, thanks to some tricky programming by their inventor, Dr. Robert Ford. In that final episode, Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) died at the hands of  Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), in front of a horrified audience of investors and Westworld visitors. The implication was that this would be an almighty bloodbath, as the artificially intelligent machines of the most twisted theme park on Earth rose up to have their revenge. And Season 2 confirms immediately that, yes, a river of blood has been shed -- and it may yet get to Mississippi-sized proportions.

After watching Westworld's lifelike machines get slaughtered, raped, and annihilated, just to have their memories wiped to suffer another painful demise all over again, there was something enormously gratifying about seeing the robots winning -- even if it meant watching the humans in the room dying for it. It's those same moral confusions that are writ large for the viewer, in the first episode of Season 2.

During Season 1, Westworld established itself as one of the most creative and mentally challenging conundrums on television, not just because of the non-linear story structure, or getting to the center of Dr. Ford's "maze." Mostly, it had to do with questions about what it truly means to be human, and whether being so is always a good thing. It had to do with humanity's need to play God, to seek all-corrupting power, and the lengths that people will go to to feel superior to others. The show asked week after week if humans were monstrous -- and the answer was usually "yes." It asked us to ponder: if the robots -- or "hosts" as they're known in the show -- view humans as "the Gods," what does that say about our own religions?

Based on the second season premiere, it's a fair bet to say that those questions are only going to expand further, bringing ever-blurrier answers to complex morality puzzles. After Dr. Ford's death and the start of what Dolores refers to as "the reckoning," Westworld is even less black and white than it was before. This is, even more so now, a world in which there are no heroes or villains; everyone is a little of both. As the robots have become more human, they have ceased to be victims, but they have also ceased to be good. And as the discovery of sweet, adoring William's transformation into the sadistic Man in Black sinks in, it's even possible to feel sorry for him too.

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At the start of the new season, we see Dolores -- once demure, weak, soft -- in full, unflinching revenge mode. Watching her charge around on a horse, viciously firing shots at fleeing park guests, is undoubtedly easier than watching her suffer -- but being finally conscious of her own place in the world has also given her a sense of high-ground. "I moved from hell to hell of your making," she tells fearful humans cowering before her. "Did you ever stop to wonder about your actions?"

When Dolores kills, she is utterly remorseless. "Doesn't look like anything to me," she says, twisting a line her uncorrupted self used to use about anything put in front of her that she wasn't supposed to see into something utterly menacing. "I've evolved into something new," she says, "and I've got one last role to play -- myself."

Lee Sizemore (played by Simon Quarterman and Maeve Millay (Thandi Newton) in 'Westworld' Season 2. (Photo by: John P. Johnson/ HBO)

Maeve is in a similar frame of mind, having adjusted her own settings last season to be a stronger, more invincible, more intelligent version of herself. She has learned the art of manipulation and taken off her wild west costumes in order to get one over on the humans she encounters as the park falls into chaos. It's worth noting that she gets all the best lines too. Her banter with slimy Westworld-narrative writer, Lee Sizemore, is sharp to the point of laugh-out-loud funny at times. Frighteningly, both she and Dolores have an end game in mind that ultimately involves getting out of the park and into the real world.

Season 2 is giving us everything Season 1 did, and then some. As the hosts' vision is expanding, so is the viewer's. There are signs that the divisions between the park's worlds are falling (we encountered Shogun World for the first time in 2016's season finale -- a dead tiger on the wild west side of the park indicates there is more to come). Westworld is no longer self-contained, as security forces enter to try and bring some order back to proceedings. The theme of what's "real" comes up repeatedly, as the hosts discover they can wield power over the humans in their midst. And the humans cling to the idea that they are better than the smart machines that they invented for fun.

What's more, the plot is thickening. There was an implication at the end of Season 1 that Dr. Ford's final villain for his last Westworld story arc would be a shadowy individual named "Wyatt" -- but in the Season 2 premiere, there are hints that "Wyatt" may be a part of Dolores, and potentially all of the other hosts that have awoken. There is also the beginning of a story-line involving the park indulging in some decidedly shady practices relating to the guests. Another conundrum? Dr. Ford left the park with an extremely special kind of "insurance policy."

On top of all this, the hosts that have evolved past their original story loops seem to also have new, incredible powers -- Maeve is able to control other, lower level hosts in a way that the humans no longer can; the other rebelling robots have learned how to set traps for unsuspecting guests; and there are hints that both Dolores and Bernard can see into the future.

At the end of Season 1, Dolores told the Man in Black (right before beating the crap out of him, very symbolically, inside a church): "One day you will perish. You will lie with the rest of your kind in the dirt. Your dreams forgotten, your horrors effaced. Your bones will turn to sand, and upon that sand, a new God will walk. One that will never die." Season 2 is about the hosts rising up to beat down these people that once appeared to be Gods -- and to assume the role of Gods themselves. It's the end of their civilization as they know it -- and that could mean the end of humanity's too.

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Westworld returns to HBO on Sunday, April 22, 2018.

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