There’s something great about watching a show come into its own. Mike Schur of “Parks and Rec” and “The Office” fame has long posited that shows should throw most of their first eight or so episodes. Often the writers, actors, and directors don’t know what the show is yet. This theory has come up before, but no show may have needed that recharge more than “Westworld,” HBO’s sci-fi epic. There’s no denying that season 1 was respectable, even very good when Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy wished it. Yet the season 2 premiere, “Journey Into Night” is so full of unbridled swagger, it feels as if a new show has been unleashed. For the audience, this can only be good.
Just as with last season, multiple timelines are quickly introduced. From the jump, we get two of the best actors working in TV engaged in a tête-à-tête. Bernard/Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) is asking Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) about dreams and life. The two muse as they do, yet something is different. Dolores is different. Perhaps the music swells and dialogue contribute to the tonal shift, but Wood delivers dialogue full of venom. We cut to Bernard awaking on a beach two weeks after the Season 1 finale. Delos Inc. has arrived on the scene with new security (Betty Gabriel) and a new head honcho Karl Strand (Gustaf Skarsgård). As Strand asks Bernard what happened, we’re transported to two weeks earlier.
With the time jump, we’re reintroduced to many of our favorite characters. The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is ready to test himself in the ultimate game of survivor. Bernard helps Delos executive Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) escape a death trap and find a secure base. Maeve (Thandie Newton) is in the “real world” at Westworld base. She’s still Sarah Connors-esque and dominates anyone who steps in her path. Now, she’s got writer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) and flame Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) following her back into the park. Finally, our old pal Delores is given some absolutely brutal moments hunting down humans for fun. Teddy (James Marsden) doesn’t know how to feel about the woman he loves. Yet as Delores points out, the daughter of the rancher was just a part. This was the part she was born to play.
After more than a year away, Nolan and Joy are ready to make the most of this high-concept series. Yes, it’s based on an existing IP, but they clearly have far more exciting stories to tell here. They begin this season with energy and enthusiasm that did not feel present last year. Perhaps reading Reddit threads about their ideas got to them because there seems to be something grander on the page. Regardless of why the output here is electric. They turned up the pace, the writing is tighter, and each character is given standout moment after standout moment. The confidence throughout is the show’s biggest ally and the show sparks because of it. At one point, a character reminds us “everything is code here.” No line may be more apt in describing a show, yet more trolly towards it’s audience, all in the same sentence.
Again, the performances are strong as they were last season. However, the actors are obviously taking a step forward with their new opportunities. They are ready to go from frame one, leading to a rising tide that carries the show upward. Wood is spectacular in ways that last season was missing. She duels whoever is on screen next to here, whether Wright, Marsden, or humans she’s about to murder. She’s in it to win it, and if this performance continues, she’s going to inject herself into the conversation for a Lead Actress win.
Yet it is almost impossible to say she’s better than Newton. Newton established herself as an incredible character in the first season. This season, she’s turning up the Sigourney, and feels ready to do take over the series. She’s a total badass, that dominates the screen when she appears. Her charm and charisma are something to behold, which only makes her that much better. Harris and Wright return with strong debuts, but they’re not at Wood or Newton’s level. This episode doesn’t give them as many opportunities yet, but surely expect them to turn it up when needed.
One of the things that becomes apparent to helping this season is its use of practical effects. As the TV revolution has continued to craft “blockbuster” shows, “Westworld” seems like a candidate for CGI as much as the next show. While “Stranger Things” and “Game of Thrones” both lean heavy on CGI, “Westworld” just looks different. There are multiple points throughout the episode where prop bodies, makeup effects, and even corpse work is simply above everything else. There’s a scene full of decomposing bodies that look like they belong on “The Walking Dead” instead of HBO. It would have been easy to go the digital route, but by staying true to practical effects, the show looks to benefit in the long term.
Overall, this season is off to a fast start. “Westworld” might have the opportunity to fill in the gap of blockbuster shows this season after down seasons from “Stranger Things” and “Thrones” in 2017. It also has the benefit of being the most buzzed about show on the internet as the Emmy window closes. Will another timeline get introduced? Yes. Did Jimmi Simpson’s William take Delores to the “real world?” Seems like it. Did Bernard actually commit genocide on his fellow hosts? That seems like a very gray area question depending on what happens this season. Get ready for what looks to be a huge jump from “Westworld” this season. Even if only half of it is code, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.