Another season of Westworld is finally upon us, and while that means many things, Sunday night's premiere meant one thing in particular for showrunners and co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy: A return to nonlinear storytelling.
SPOILERS for Westworld ahead!
Season 1 of the ambitious sci-fi drama became famous for the way it played with time, so much so that it spawned numerous fan theories about not just what was happening, but when it was happening. Because the host characters in the titular park can be reset and reprogrammed over and over again, the show was able to depict them experiencing the same things often years apart without their knowledge.
And, because the park's setting is essentially frozen in time and the hosts don't age, it was easy to show us scenes featuring human guests at different points in their lives. This played out most famously with William/The Man In Black, and by the end of the first season it was clear that we could not trust Westworld's timeline to be linear. As Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) put it after waking up from a gunshot wound: "Is this now, or is this one of my memories?"
Season 2 wasted no time (get it?) in embracing a nonlinear approach yet again, this time showing us the fallout from the Season 1 finale in large part through the experiences of Bernard himself, across a period spanning at least two weeks. After a brief flashback (to how long ago, we're not exactly sure) to Arnold — the now-dead human basis for Bernard — speaking with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the episode takes us to Bernard unconscious on a beach, where he's found by park Quality Assurance officers who are still trying to untangle the mess caused by Ford's (Anthony Hopkins) goodbye gala/slaughter.
Two weeks have apparently passed since everything went to hell, and in that time the park has gone dark while Delos attempts to clean up the mess. From there, the show jumps back in time to the night of the gala to reveal how Bernard managed to survive the night (we know that he's actually a host and not just the human head of programming, but no one at Delos does now that Ford is gone) along with Delos executive director Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson). By the end of the episode — which also includes scenes revisiting Dolores, Maeve (Thandie Newton), and William (Ed Harris) — Bernard and the Quality Assurance team come upon a massive body of water in the park that's not actually supposed to be there and discover the bodies of dozens of hosts floating in it, apparently thanks to Bernard.
There's still a lot we don't know about what went on in the intervening two weeks, including just how and why Bernard came to be responsible for all of those dead hosts, and why he's only remembering it when he sees the bodies. If you're a loyal Westworld viewer, that's not cause for alarm. This is a show that loves to show us memories as if they're new events and new events as if they could be happening anywhen, and we never expected the second season to stray too far from that storytelling style. The difference this time around is that the show can't, or at least shouldn't try to, play the same trick on its audience twice. Season 1's biggest gamble was telling a story spanning years while never telling us which when we were in, and only revealing the different time periods at the last possible moment.
Now, the audience expects that, and to a certain extent the hosts do as well. We know that memory and time are unreliable things on this show, and the show has to adjust. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter about their Season 2 approach, Nolan said the new episodes have a more "cards up" approach to playing with time. Joy elaborated, explaining that even though the hosts are now more aware of how time and memory can lie to them, they're still not always entirely aware of where and when they are, and the show can still use that to its advantage.
"It was kind of embedded in the DNA of the show. Basically, when you're dealing with hosts who don't understand when they are, especially when you're trying to build and bridge empathy with them, it makes sense to constrain yourself to that point of view and experience the world as they start to learn more about it, as an audience member," Joy said. "There's a sort of mimicry that's happening there in a structural sense. I think that the ways in which we manipulate time...will be a little more above ground this season, because they're aware now that they're a little lost in time, but they're still lost."
It would be very easy for Westworld's depiction of varying timelines and unreliable memories to veer off into the realm of stunt storytelling, focusing on big reveals and twists for the sake of shock value rather than character and story. Whether or not that happens will, of course, vary depending on the viewer, but it's encouraging to read that the show's creators are well aware of how and why they're wielding this particular storytelling device. Season 1's subtitle was, now-famously, "The Maze," a metaphor for the hosts' winding search for consciousness.
Now, that particular puzzle has been solved, at least by some, and we're on to "The Door" of Season 2. According to the boy-host version of Ford, the Door is a way out, at least in the context of William's journey through the game of the park. For the hosts, it will likely mean something different, but a way out for them almost certainly has to start with understanding how their minds work. As the audience, we have a better grasp on that now, but for the hosts themselves the journey to the Door is just beginning, and Westworld isn't going to let us forget that.
Westworld airs Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on HBO.