Usually we title these kinds of guides “everything you need to know about XYZ show.” But HBO’s Westworld isn’t easily summed up or explained. A huge part of its appeal is that it’s so enigmatic, dropping clues and teasing out mysteries as its story builds. To fully appreciate season two, it’d be best to watch season one first—preferably twice—but if time is an issue (or if you just need a season one refresher), here’s a crash course.
What it’s about
Westworld is based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film, though the scope of the TV show goes way beyond the movie. Still, the basics are the same: it’s about a futuristic, fully immersive amusement park, run by a company called Delos, that completely recreates the Wild West with perfectly lifelike robot “hosts” that can be killed by human “guests,” but not vice versa. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be, until the hosts suddenly start going off the script—mirroring the chaos that’s going on behind the scenes at the sleek facility that (supposedly) controls everything in the park.
That’s the plot on its simplest terms. But in just 10 episodes, Westworld delivers a narrative as twisty and layered as the “maze” that some of its players become obsessed with. There are big, shocking moments: A main character who appears to be human is actually an robot; and two more main characters are actually the same character, just at different ages, a reveal that also exposes the fact that not all of the show’s storylines are taking place at the same time. In addition to being a mystery that shares only what it needs to about its world filled with violence, romance, and some very deep questions about what it means to be human, it’s also stunningly gorgeous—part panoramic John Ford Western, part high-tech thriller, it’s filled with clever stylistic touches, like a player piano that plinks out great, old-timey covers of unexpectedly modern songs. And it’s one of the most impressively-acted TV shows of all time, drawing incredible range from its performers.
Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood)
The oldest android in the park, Dolores is a golden-haired farmer’s daughter who lives on the outskirts of Westworld’s main settlement, Sweetwater. As the series progresses, her programmed story “loop” veers off course, or seems to, and her perception of reality becomes heartbreakingly confused. Eventually, we learn how special she was to Arnold, Westworld’s co-founder, who died before the park opened. Decades ago, she was the key component in his quest to understand artificial consciousness, and when he realized that a) he wasn’t able to make her truly conscious and that b) the hosts would inevitably be horribly abused by the future guests, so he decided Westworld should never open to the public. His plan to prevent that from happening, which obviously failed, was to manipulate Dolores into killing him. Dolores is also a huge part of Westworld’s later storylines, going on an extended journey with first-time guest William to the far reaches of the park, and playing one of the starring roles in the final tale woven by Arnold’s former partner, Robert Ford.
Maeve (Thandie Newton)
The madame of Sweetwater’s Mariposa Hotel brothel is a tough dame, but she’s haunted by nightmares of her “past life”—really her previous storyline—when she witnessed her young daughter’s brutal murder. She also keeps having visions of the biohazard suit-wearing Westworld techs that hustle in to restore order once a host has been killed, something no host should ever be able to register. Maeve is one of a handful of hosts in the park (like Dolores) who slowly become more and more self-aware; once she figures out who she really is, she convinces a tech to enhance her skill set, making her the smartest and most powerful android in the park. Her grand plan is to ditch Westworld in favor of the outside world, though on the brink of freedom, she turns back to look for her “daughter,” who’s still operating somewhere in the park. In another shocking story twist, we learn that Maeve’s apparent autonomy—which we’re led to believe is organically manifesting—is actually 100 percent part of park co-creator Ford’s latest storyline, filed under a subplot titled “escape.”
Teddy (James Marsden)
Poor Teddy. The handsome cowboy gains a slightly interesting, war-themed backstory halfway through the series, but he’s basically there to woo Dolores and/or chase after her to rescue her from Westworld’s various bad men, and inevitably gets horribly killed in the process every time.
Clementine (Angela Sarafyan)
The prettiest girl in Maeve’s brothel, Clementine gets pulled off the floor as part of a demonstration to show how Ford’s mysterious new update has the tendency to turn hosts violent. Though the display is actually a thinly-veiled power play, hatched by the Delos board of directors to discredit Ford, Clementine still gets lobotomized and tucked into the basement with all the other unused models. A replacement Clementine is rushed back to Sweetwater, a switch that nobody notices in-world except an increasingly “awake” Maeve.
Lawrence (Clifton Collins, Jr.)
He’s an outlaw who appears in multiple storylines, helping (sometimes against his will) the Man in Black as well as William and Dolores.
Hector (Rodrigo Santoro)
He’s another outlaw; his loop has him forever riding into Sweetwater with guns blazing, hellbent on robbing the Mariposa’s safe, which is eventually, and appropriately, revealed to be empty. His highly-charged relationship with Maeve leads to her roping him into her escape plan, so while he’s not initially among the crew of self-aware hosts, he eventually has his mind expanded more than Lawrence or Teddy ever do.
The MacGuffin of Westworld. Though we do seem to glimpse him in one of Teddy’s flashbacks—his narrative is that he’s a military man who goes berserk and massacres an entire town, then takes to the hills as the leader of a gang of eerily masked outlaws—it’s ultimately revealed that Wyatt is more of an idea-turned-legend than a physical presence. Really, he’s part of Dolores, thanks to Arnold, who merges their personalities together as part of his violent, statement-making scheme to ensure the park would not be able to open.
The Man in Black (Ed Harris)
Cruel and vicious, the Man in Black is mega-rich and mega-powerful in his real life, where his spoils include being the majority stakeholder of Delos. As for his personal life, it’s very bleak: His wife recently committed suicide, and his daughter hates him. A longtime Westworld visitor, he’s seen everything and done everything and probably killed everyone in the park at least once. When we meet him on the show, he’s obsessed with solving what he thinks is Westworld’s final frontier: a mysterious experience/storyline/location simply called the maze, which he’s determined to find no matter how many times he’s told “the maze isn’t meant for you.” At the end of his frustrating journey, with no actual maze in sight, he provokes Dolores—with whom he has a long history—into fighting him. But his search for deeper meaning really advances once Ford announces to the Delos elite that his new story comes with a twist: hosts are now able to harm guests, the same way the guests have been harming them for decades. Real consequences have come to Westworld at last, a realization that makes every human scream and run... except for the Man in Black, who looks delighted, in keeping with one of the show’s other repeated phrases: “These violent delights have violent ends.”
William (Jimmi Simpson)
We meet William as he arrives at Westworld for his very first visit; though he’s initially very reserved, he soon gets completely drawn into a story with Dolores—an emotionally devastating (yet liberating) experience that helps him discover his true self. Too bad his true self is so sadistic. Just as we see William, who’s acquired a fresh taste for slaughter, exchange his white hat for a black one, we learn that William is the younger version of the Man in Black, and his scenes have been set in the past all along—an easy thing to miss, since the hosts never age.
Logan (Ben Barnes)
William’s future brother-in-law comes to Westworld with no adventures in mind beyond killing, fucking, and just generally behaving like an oversized asshole. The extreme circumstances he and William get into make the pre-existing bad vibes between them even worse. There’s no mention of Logan in the Man in Black’s present; the last we see of him is when William sends him off into the Westworld wilderness with a horse and literally nothing else.
Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins)
Westworld’s brilliant co-founder and creative director is very aware that the Delos board of directors is plotting to remove him, intent on yanking away his more intricate stories in favor of a more simple guest experience. But he’s got much bigger plans for the place, which he’s been working on for over 30 years since his partner Arnold’s death. The park was able to continue over the years thanks to William/the Men in Black’s investment, and while Ford and Arnold didn’t always see eye to eye, Ford eventually achieved Arnold’s goal of helping Dolores achieve true consciousness, making her realize the voice in her head belonged to nobody but herself. He also came around to the idea that humans are garbage and should start making way for what’s next: “a new people and the choices they will have to make... and the people they will decide to become.” His final narrative unleashes total chaos in the park, and Dolores shoots him, just like she shot Arnold.
Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright)
Bernard is a host made precisely in Arnold’s image, though he doesn’t know it—for most of the season, only Ford knows the truth. He heads up Westworld’s programming department, and we later learn he was specially created by Ford as an Arnold replacement to help program realistic emotions into the hosts. His true identity is revealed in one of Westworld’s most shocking moments, when Ford orders him to kill Theresa Cullen, the park’s head of Quality Assurance, with whom he’d been romantically involved—an order Arnold can’t disobey, since he’s a host himself. (There’s also a flashback revealing the fate of a co-worker who’s gone missing after asking too many questions; turns out Bernard apparently killed her, too.) Later, Ford tries to convince Bernard to rejoin him as his partner, but Bernard resists; he’d rather set the sentient hosts free like Arnold wanted, which Ford believes would never work because humans would never allow it. (As we see in the finale, he has another plan afoot to “set the hosts free,” by letting them make their own choices.) He forces Bernard to shoot himself—though he’s later brought back by the Westworld techs who are helping Maeve escape.
Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson)
The aggressive, calculating representative of Delos’ corporate board of directors, she’s there to rid the park of Ford and what she views as his needlessly complex stories—roping in Westworld’s sleazy head of narrative, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), to help smuggle Ford’s precious technology out of the park. At the Delos gala, after Ford announces his final story, she looks thrilled—until Dolores shoots Ford and a posse of menacing hosts emerges from the forest.
What’s next—and why you should watch
Considering that Westworld showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have already cheekily trolled fans who were hoping for some substantial season two spoilers, it’s not totally surprising that we don’t know a ton about what to expect this season. It will be themed “The Door” (season one was “The Maze”), and the most recent trailer offered some juicy clues as to what went down after Ford’s robot rebellion. These include a possible peek at a new character (played by Gustaf Skarsgård) who’s called in to help clean up Delos’ mess; Bernard’s ongoing struggle with his conflicted identity; Maeve’s continuous quest to find her daughter; a flashback looking at how William took control of Delos; the possible return of Ford (maybe in host form?); and maybe even a hint about what happened to Logan. Here’s our full, shot-by-shot breakdown of that trailer.
As for why you should watch—the real question is, why aren’t you watching already? Westworld isn’t just an exceptionally well-made scifi TV show; it’s a puzzle box that’s launched a thousand fan theories, and as its universe expands, so will its mysteries. We can’t wait to dive back in.
Westworld returns Sunday, April 22 on HBO.