Tony Black reviews the second episode of Westworld…
What you begin to realise while pulling back the curtain on ‘Chestnut’, the second episode of HBO’s new phenomenon Westworld, is that the whole concept brought to new life by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy is a ‘meta’ commentary on not just reality, but the very meaning of storytelling and narrative. This time, we open on a gamer named William, played well by Jimmy Simpson, who alongside a boorish work colleague who believes he’s awesome but is far less interesting, allows us to explore the initiation into the park, as beguiling ‘hosts’ introduce him to the primary rule of the game: there are no rules. The episode then begins a quite brilliant deconstruction of whether Westworld as a place helps you to discover who you are, or who you want to be.
Already, Nolan is managing to balance a sprawling cast of talented thespians to remarkable use, some of whom play bigger roles than others as the events of the pilot begin to lightly continue to spiral out, though ‘Chestnut’ is more about us and the characters settling into the rules and underlying mechanisms of the game; this isn’t a slight, because for the notoriously tricky second episode this works all its gears with stunning ease, absolutely teeming with layers and meaning underneath the surface. The bigger questions, of course, remain – what caused the glitch, specifically in Dolores’ father, in the first episode? for example, but Nolan & Joy’s script is careful here to add some more texture to their main characters while pushing forward the show’s internal mythology.
One standout character is Thandie Newton’s Maeve, who was present in the pilot but for an actress of her renown, surprisingly background; now we get to see her chief madame in much more depth, as she helps facilitate gamers to their hearts desires while having the kind of flashbacks Dolores did in the pilot, to previous game memories when she was a different character. It allows Newton some great moments and director Richard J. Lewis to paint some dark and disturbing scenes, as he does too with the continued deep dive, hardcore gaming of Ed Harris’ Man in Black, who continues to be a standout character – brooding, calculated, menacing and not a little cruel, he shows who he truly intends to be in the park here with terrifying effect.
Even beyond the character interactions, the artful direction and strong writing, the most intriguing element to Westworld continues to be it’s approach to the meaning of narrative as enmeshed with reality. Simon Quarterman’s odious writer spends much of the episode crafting a brand new story filled with cheap thrills and exploitative twists, allowing gamers to indulge their darkest and most naked fantasies, but park creator Robert Ford (played with engaging enigma by Anthony Hopkins) seems to have a different level of aspiration which potentially tie into the God parallel being played through him. The ideas, themes and meta-commentary on show here, combined with the production values and high class acting, already make Westworld appointment, ‘water-cooler’ television.