Can Westworld fill the void when Game of Thrones bows out?
As the killer robot romp returns to screens, Ed Power considers if it can fill the void left when the world's most popular series bows out
This weekend sees the return of the sci-fi/western thriller Westworld, but the mega-budget series faces the most daunting challenge in television in its second season: can it fill the gap left by Game of Thrones when the world's most popular series gallops into the sunset?
With just one season of the hit fantasy epic left, network HBO - represented in this part of the world by Sky Atlantic - is in pressing need of a new blockbuster to hook viewers and keep it one step ahead of rivals such as Netflix. And it needs it right now (sooner, if possible).
That's the unstated but widely understood mission of Westworld, which chronicles a machine uprising in a Wild West theme park, where visitors are encouraged to live out their most twisted fantasies (if you enjoy shooting 'old-timey' prostitutes in the face, this is the place for you).
A big hit in 2016, there is, were it imaginable, even more riding on Westworld as it prepares for its second turn at the rodeo. It isn't enough for this $200 million production (the pilot alone cost $25 million) to be successful. It has to become a full-blown, internet-gobbling phenomenon. Here is one of those shows the success of which will be judged by how many threads it inspires on Reddit.
Judging by the five episodes provided to critics, season two will undoubtedly thrill those who flocked to Westworld in 2016. However, naysayers of the opinion that the showrunners, husband and wife team Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher) and Lisa Joy, were more interested in intricate puzzles than engaging drama may conclude that HBO's small screen Frankenstein's monster has once again lurched out of control.
As before, the setting is the eponymous future-shock theme park, where robots - "hosts" - are programmed to portray cowboys/ barmaids/courtesans etc in a fictional Wild West. It's a bit like Jurassic Park with stetsons and six-shooters instead of stegosaurs - no surprise considering both are based on Michael Crichton novels (Crichton also directed the original 1973 Westworld movie).
When we took our leave, enigmatic park creator Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) had orchestrated an android uprising - fulfilling his prophecy that "violent delights" (i.e. all that shooting in the brothel) would bring "violent ends". That revolution involved the artificial persons gunning Ford down - but you can't have everything, not even on a ratings-winning HBO drama.
The rebellion is now in the determined hands of Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the once naive lady-bot now reborn as a ruthless avenging force. It is no huge spoiler to say that the bloodthirsty tendencies she exhibited at the conclusion of the last run of episodes have metastasised and that Dolores is in full angel of death mode.
Joy and Nolan announced in the run-up to the premiere that they would be making all of the season's spoilers available to fans in advance. They were obviously joking. The entire point of Westworld is that it's a puzzle box - the home entertainment equivalent of the satanic Rubik's cube from the Hellraiser movies. It's a show to obsess over and engage with intellectually - why did Ford build the theme park and what has driven the robots suddenly mad? - but one which is hard to respond to at an emotional level. If you find yourself repressing a sob during Westworld, you're not watching properly.
There are even more moving pieces second time out. Ed Harris reprises his part as the 'Man in Black', the craggy sociopath for whom Westworld is a life-long preoccupation. With the hosts running wild and free (and shooting everybody), he's trapped in the theme park and more determined than ever to master the secrets of this ersatz Wild West.
Also still stuck in Ford's freakshow are Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), the paranoid android who doesn't know that he's actually a robot and Tessa Thompson's cynical executive Charlotte Hale. Continuing her quest to be reunited with her (potentially fictional) daughter, meanwhile, is Thandie Newton's Maeve, smartest bot in the building and the cool, calculating yin to Dolores's kill 'em all yang.
Jimmi Simpson is back, too, as the 'Man in Black' in his youth as we flashback to the park's creation - and the advances in artificial intelligence that made it possible. Here, Scottish character actor Peter Mullan is uproarious as the foul-mouthed billionaire bankrolling Ford. It's like watching Billy Connolly playing Steve Jobs - simultaneously the best and worst idea of all time.
Is Westworld the new Game Of Thrones? No, because unlike GoT it isn't much bothered with engaging with us emotionally. The show plays an elaborate game of cat and mouse with the audience as we jump backwards and visit several other Westworld adjacent theme parks - including a lavish recreation of Raj-era India.
Westworld season two, in short, has a very big brain - but not much of a heart. If that sounds like your sort of thing, you'll obviously adore it. Those who like some humanity with their robot uprisings will, however, want to continue to search for a show to occupy that Westeros-shaped chasm in the schedules.
- Westworld airs in 'real time' on Sky Atlantic, Mondays at 2am and again at 9pm that night.