The new season of HBO's "Westworld" premieres 9 p.m. April 22.
If you were hoping the end of the maze and the dawn of consciousness would free “Westworld” of some of its weighty complexity, it’s probably best if you hop the first train out of Sweetwater.
In season two of HBO’s elaborate android playground, premiering 9 p.m. April 22, fans will be happy to know everything is bigger, bolder and oh-so-bloodier than the freshman run.
The new episodes -- five of which were given to critics -- are a dark treat that revel in the new world order set forth in the season finale, one that redefines the narratives of the characters we know, introduces new parks and, ultimately, retools the show itself.
In a way, this is what anyone would want from a theme park. Given time to ride all the attractions, what keeps tourists coming back is the promise of something new, or at least a redesign of what they know. Season two delivers that in spades -- for better or worse.
But no matter how hard “Westworld” tries to look like the new ride it aims to be, there is still lingering evidence it is trapped in a problematic core narrative of its own making.
The second season picks up after the events of the finale, which saw Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) break off her narrative leash by killing her co-creator (Anthony Hopkins) and igniting the first stages of her android uprising. At the same time, Maeve (Thandie Newton) broke her own narrative -- which was infiltrate the mainland -- by sticking around to find the daughter she had in a previous storyline. As the two women set forth their missions -- both paved with the blood of the human guests -- the theme of season two develops as one of reckoning.
But creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy aren’t content with letting their story simply play out linearly, a tactic they already employed to mixed results last time around.
Viewers will recall season one operating discreetly on two timelines, which collided with the reveal the Man in Black (Ed Harris) was actually future William (Jimmy Simpson), the once-naive guest turned dark outlaw. Viewing the action through that twisted prism required the story to be so tightly plotted even casual viewers saw the twist coming -- and left logistical questions that didn’t lend well to further examination. It was “Westworld” at its most destructively ambitious.
But Nolan and Joy won’t be deterred from using the time warp tactic again, this time spanning 11 days between Dolores’ shot heard ‘round the park and when Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) awakens on a beach to the cavalry executing hosts.
You see, that self-inflicted bullet Bernard took to the dome last season at the behest of Ford (still an unnecessary plot point) has left the behavioral tech with some programming issues. He’s malfunctioning all over the place with hallucinations and flashes of memory, all jumbling his sense of the present with the events of the past.
His dysfunction affords the creative team its framework for the season: a narrative ping-pong game paddled back and forth between Dolores’ rebellion and Maeve’s journey, and the aftermath of whatever happens. In other words, Bernard is playing fill in the blanks with the audience.
While twisty enough to keep you guessing, you can’t help but feel this framework might be unnecessary and a little frustrating. Frankly, as a viewer, you’ll feel you are glitching too. And who knows, maybe that’s the intention.
But every time the weight of confusion dampens the very entertaining and solid story in front of you, it begs the question: wouldn’t it just be cool to tell the story as it happens?
Regardless of the structure, “Westworld” is back with a vengeance, one that is only emboldened as it wades deeper into its storylines.
As was the case in season one, the direction is inspired and the locations are just breathtaking. The introduction of new worlds only expands the show’s stable of elaborate set pieces within which to explore.
The cast is still as strong a selling point as any, with Wood and Newton leading the charge as the two take-no-crap women television deserves. As each pursue their own agenda, they command the screen and your attention in really striking ways as they face the roadblocks ahead.
If there are any gripes, it’s that Dolores is positioned to be the show’s explainer one too many times. Early in the season, Dolores, with furrowed brow and deep voice, tells human guests why they are about to die -- you know, all those years of raping, killing and such. For all the show’s riddles, Dolores’ vicious motivations don’t need to be explained. We get it, and having her explain repeatedly dampens the impact.
Wright, meanwhile, is given perhaps the toughest burden this season, as Bernard grapples with the very real realities of being manufactured. Thankfully, a very welcome face comes along to help him sort it all out.
In this first half of season two, the ambition of “Westworld” is still something to marvel at. The show remains an engaging feat of imagination that continues to push past its own boundaries, even as it struggles to wipe away the flaws. There is a lot to love in this season run of episodes, especially the promise of the future. But it is also a new world, one free from the meticulous control set by Ford. What being cut from their strings will do to this cast of puppets is such a rich concept to watch marinate.
It’s likely “Westworld” is here to stay at HBO for some time and based on what it cooks up in season two, I’ll happily be a season pass holder.
Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com. Hunter is a member of the Television Critics Association.