HBO's futuristic cyborg/cowboy drama Westworld returned to New Zealand screens last night after a long absence, still dreary as a rain cloud but with noticeably less hitch in its git-along.
In its first season, for all its lavish beauty and philosophical creepiness Westworld was just about the least fun way to pass time in front of a screen). The show has been reprogrammed a bit so that the first five episodes of season two are filled with the sort of incidents and general momentum that feel more suited to series television. At the same time, it stays true to an ongoing discursiveness that both exalts in and cautions against the creation of artificially conscious beings.
The statute of spoiler limitations has passed on the first season, so to briefly recap: In a distant future, a Western-themed adult playland, Westworld, scrambles to recover from a park-wide cerebral meltdown in its population of "hosts" - extremely lifelike robots who play cowboys, gunslingers, damsels, Jezebels, Indians, infantrymen, banditos, etc, all of whom are now responding to a tweak in their programming, turning en masse against one another and big-paying human guests.
Chaos now reigns across the land, and Westworld is more interesting for it. Evan Rachel Wood returns as Dolores, one of the original cyborgs, programmed to play the sweetly accommodating role of a rancher's daughter-in-distress.
Dolores and her loyal comrades take vengeance on human and cyborg alike, setting off to affirm her vision of a real world that lies beyond Westworld. Wood was great in the role before, but Dolores' awakening allows her to take the part where it was meant to go.
"I've evolved into something new," Dolores tells terrified human guests she has noosed at a hanging tree. "And I have one last role to play. Myself."
Westworld still heavily leans on such thickly sliced monologues to make its point, and although she is the moral-mechanical centre of the show, there's a better version of this model in the form of Maeve (Thandie Newton), the former brothel madam who obsessively searches for the lost daughter she had in a different preprogrammed narrative. Maeve and others wind up far afield in another playground called Shogun World, filled with samurai warriors, martial arts and noble Geisha girls.
Thematically, the show is still deeply concerned with the meaning of not-life. Jeffrey Wright's Bernard, the park's chief engineer who realised too late that he was a cyborg too (inspired by one of the park's creators and loaded with secrets), keeps waking up and asking "Is it now?"
That's not a bad question, since Westworld's season-one mindblower was that viewers had been following multiple plots on two different timelines, about 30 years apart. William (Jimmi Simpson), the guest who traversed Westworld with his snotty, soon-to-be brother-in-law, Logan (Ben Barnes), turned out to be a younger version of The Man in Black (Ed Harris), a shady character with unlimited Westworld access and a determination to unlock a secret.
William's backstory, and that of his father-in-law, James Delos (Peter Mullan), the namesake of the corporation that owns the park, is easily season two's most intriguing element, promising more details of how Westworld was created and funded, and what its true intent may be.
Westworld, for me, has come to symbolise the value of a slow-cooked, carefully constructed show in this era of much-too-much-too-much TV. It's a lesson Netflix and others could stand to absorb.
Rather than reflect the panicky, competitive rush that results in all these half-thought, half-finished, fairly expensive and mediocre series, Westworld demonstrates the proper way to spend a lot of time and money in a meticulous fashion.
I watch it mostly to see all that HBO moolah do its thing.