It appears that Westworld is a theme park worth returning to. The early reviews of the second season of HBO's grand series highlight how the robotic Hosts are more exciting than before, and how the tone has improved.
At the same time, this new season hasn't squashed all the bugs from the first season, as some convoluted storytelling elements have stuck and one character seems like they're walking through in the same loop as last season. Here's what the critics (who have seen the first five episodes, and didn't see the latter half of the season) are saying about the second season of Westworld:
The New York Times
At The New York Times, James Poniewozik notes that one of the best parts of Westworld's second season is how Hosts have become more intriguing.
"The new season expands the playing field of 'Westworld,' but it also expands its spirit. There are glimpses of a version of the series that’s more sportive, less self-serious. It’s as if the serial’s creators, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, realized that watching a series that’s about a game should occasionally feel like playing."
"The hosts began as literal characters in a narrative, their personalities malleable, their memories erasable. … But it was hard to truly invest in them when what we knew as 'them' could be changed with a few tweaks of their software. The new season gives them an upgrade — free will — which provides their stories actual stakes and elevates them from mere victims. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords."
"On the down side, Westworld still treats itself more as a game to be beaten than as a story to be told. If the show has been plagued by zealous decoders, that’s because it hasn’t created characters nearly as involving as its labyrinthine plot."
"Don’t expect too much improvement too fast from 'Westworld' 2.0. It’s still overly focused on balletic blood baths and narrative fake-outs, and much of the dialogue still sounds as if it were written as a tagline for a subway poster, like Dolores’s 'I have one last role to play: myself.'"
At AV Club, Alex McLevy explains how "Westworld" is finding its footing and de-emphasizing some of its frustrating qualities.
"The second installment has toned down the J.J. Abrams-esque 'mystery box' style of storytelling that previously resulted in things like a massive hunt for a maze turning out to be a cheap metaphor for self-awareness."
"While the two shows are quite different, one thing Westworld shares with Game Of Thrones, besides a massive budget and outsized ambition, is a second season that plays like the series coming into its own. Both had inaugural seasons that felt like a lot of table setting in service of something better to come, and both have sophomore years that start to deliver on that promise."
"And the Man In Black (Ed Harris), a.k.a. William, in the present day as a grizzled and embittered old man who long ago cast aside morality in the name of uncovering the park’s secrets, is sent on a game of his own by hosts delivering the words of a deceased Ford to him—only now, the game is no longer meant for the hosts, but for William himself. It’s occasionally exhausting, as it feels like a retread of what he did the first time around (complete with sidekick in the form of Clifton Collins Jr.’s Lawrence),"
No critic drew as much excitement and pleasure, it seems, as Polygon's Julia Alexander, who found that this iteration of "Westworld" is more worthy of engagement.
"It’s a Shakespearean tale of the powerful cut down to their knees, staring up at the hosts they once called servants, asking for mercy while their heads lie on the chopping block — a gratuitous feast composed of grotesque murder and diabolical uprisings. It’s exhilarating."
"Westworld’s second season fixes many of the problems from the first by providing a believable war between the hosts and park employees, having them fight to the death over a worthy cause. The twists, turns and riddles that made up the structure of the show’s first season fall into the background, letting the ironically human elements of the hosts' drama take center stage."
"All of these elements combine for a richer story that makes the second season light-years better than its predecessor. Although it is unquestionably a major step up, there is one inescapable problem: The chronology is still a concern. While it’s something that puzzle aficionados might enjoy working through — a large part of what made the first season so intriguing — it does get exhausting. The flashbacks feel gimmicky because the story is so much stronger. Westworld doesn’t need to rely on timeline misdirection, but the show doesn’t shy away from that crutch."
Maureen Ryan's review at Variety praises Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood for their performances, but notes that "Westworld" still needs to prove it's as clever as it wants you to believe it is.
"TV fans who enjoy excellent performances woven into sci-fi pastiches executed on a visually ambitious scale are likely to continue to find 'Westworld' quite watchable."
"Jeffrey Wright gives real pathos and poetry to the predicament of Bernard, whose memory has been fractured in ways that make his quest to survive difficult. In Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton, 'Westworld' has two mesmerizing female leads who can find multiple levels and psychological resonance in every line and gesture."
"It’s not the cutting-edge hybrid it plainly wants to be, at least not yet, in part because it still wanders between stolid romanticism and cynical (and very familiar) observations about memory, power and technology."
"Westworld still has representation issues — the writers’ affection for colonial fantasies designed for white people is highly questionable, and the drama could do much more to deepen its portrayals of indigenous people and South Asian characters.
Den Of Geek
Den Of Geek's David Crow is quick to say 'Westworld' is improving, but notes how much Anthony Hopkins' presence is missed and how the series can work itself into redundant loops.
"Westworld Season 2 is a wholly different animal from the first year. Also, for the most part, that is a good thing."
"Luckily, after the first few episodes, all the narrative threads, including Dolores and Teddy’s, take some interesting turns that should leave fans speculating for many weeks. Because from the outset, the series embraces many a new dramatically rich irony, which from the very first scene promises new mazes, new games, and probably a hell of lot of new think-pieces too."
"The show’s ability to still manipulate in the midst of all the intentional chaos is perhaps its strongest element, continuing to make it arguably the smartest genre show on television."
"While effectively shocking, Dolores’ war is also one of the lesser elements of this season's first act. There is a tangible repetition to her actions, and a vagueness of her goals, that keeps Westworld Season 2 somewhat from having the clarity of vision of the first year."
"However, with all the chaos and mayhem that is going down, it is easy to become wistful for the deft hand of Robert Ford, which gave a guidance to the madness and built to a pitch perfect release of catharsis. Anthony Hopkins' gravitas is also notably absent."