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'Westworld' review: Still explosive, still smart, still engaging

Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden in HBO's

Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden in HBO's "Westworld" Episode 11 (season 2, episode 1), debut 4/22/18 Credit: HBO/John P. Johnson

THE SERIES “Westworld”

WHEN | WHERE Season 2 premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Think of the second season of “Westworld” as the part in “Jurassic Park” (and “World”) where the dinosaurs finally start to get their revenge. The first season ended just as park “host” Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) opened fire on a gathering of company officials and Westworld investors, while killing park boss Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) instantly. Sunday opens on a beach, with wavelets washing over an unconscious Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), who was effectively Ford’s right hand. A company of security officials is combing the beach in the aftermath of the slaughter, shooting any host they can find. They do not know — as fans do — that Lowe is in fact an android just like those they are hunting. Delores, meanwhile, has plans of conquest. As she explains, “I’ve evolved into something new and I’ve one last role to play — myself.”

Ford, sadly, is now gone, but expect to see Maeve (Thandie Newton), Teddy Flood (James Marsden) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) all back. They’ve evolved too. They also have a new role to play.

For newcomers to this series, “Westworld” — based on the 1973 movie written by Michael Crichton  — is about a Western theme park, where hosts — androids — are essentially the playthings of rich customers.

MY SAY Undeniably smart and impeccably produced, the first season of “Westworld” nevertheless should have also posted a sign to the door warning viewers to “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” What circle of hell were we about to enter each week? How many bodies would drop? How many ponderous mind-teases would there be for us to unravel? It was always a good idea to keep a line open to Google, to find out what a “bicameral mind” was or who exactly said such-and-such a line from “Henry IV.” “Westworld” was smart. It was also a bit of a showoff.

Blessedly for fans who don’t want to work so hard, less so for those wonks who do, the second season is much easier. It’s still brainy while managing to push the new narrative ahead hard and fast. It also manages to splatter the brains too: “Westworld” is now less a searing indictment of screen violence (the first season) and more a straight-up snuff series. Last season, the “hosts” dropped. This season, real people do — or as William (Harris) happily observes, “the stakes are real now!”

Last season was many (many) things, but the core theme held fast and still does: What exactly makes a human? It’s the obsession of all science fiction but “Westworld” sought salience from a whole range of disciplines, from philosophy to movie history. The search for answers continues this season. If free will is a key component of “being human,” then is Dolores — now brimming with free will — human? If memory is central to humanness, then is Dolores — who now remembers everything — a little more human than those of us who barely remember what we had for breakfast?

“Westworld” remains fascinated in the idea of evil, too. That’s pragmatic — evil works better for a prime-time drama than virtue — but it’s also what Westworld was about all along. This was a place where rich people could indulge their sins without God judging them, as one character memorably observed. Dolores, again, gets the best line about this particular fallacy. To paraphrase an especially harrowing line from next week’s episode (“Reunion”), she tells someone that she has slain God, and now they have her to answer to.

Speaking of our fast-evolving antihero, however or whenever “Westworld” finally wraps up (producers have said it will likely go five seasons), fans can expect to see Dolores standing there in the final scene, quite possibly with her six-shooter still smoking. This series is mostly about her, and Wood — like last season — rises to the challenge. In profile, the camera still makes her look like some idealized figure out of a Botticelli portrait, with perfect skin and sculpted chin. Then she turns to the camera, and her eyes along with the rest of her features turn into galvanized steel.

Dolores, as it turns out, may be both good and evil. Maybe she’s really human after all.

BOTTOM LINE “Westworld ” does not disappoint: Still explosive, still smart, still engaging.

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