For some time now, Westworld has felt like HBO’s troubled child. Just before its launch in October 2016, it was expected to be “the next Game of Thrones,” but after an uneven first season and a second one that was almost ambitiously incoherent, it did not live up to that hype. Having a break between those first two seasons that lasted more than a year didn’t help, either, especially for fans trying to keep track of its high-concept, puzzle-box premises. Considering its star-studded cast and premium cable pedigree, one may have thought the reboot of writer Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi movie—in which guests at a Western-set theme park witness an uprising led by its robotic “hosts”—would have been a straightforward hit.
But Westworld is anything but straightforward, a fact that leaves its audience polarized. Sure, some people are all-in when it comes to examining every shot for clues, scouring the internet for fan theories, and understanding the show better than it understands itself. But if you just want a well-made TV show about the nature of identity and reality told through the lens of self-aware artificially intelligent robots, then you might have come to the wrong show. Westworld has never been easy to parse, a fact that has become even more true as the series careens into its third season.
Part of this is due to the fact that it’s been nearly two years since the show was last on the air. In addition to the fact it required Homeland levels of whiteboarding to follow, Season 2 was also like two iPhones ago. Jumping right back into the plot is tricky. Not only that, creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have thrown another wrench into their precious machine’s cogs: This third season, at least judging by this Sunday’s premiere, doesn’t primarily take place at the Westworld theme park. It feels like an entirely different show, a move that isn’t necessarily a reboot, but is definitely an upgrade. Yet, based on the four episodes given to critics, it doesn’t expand on that shift. Instead, it turns back on itself, returning to its old chaotic routines. So the real mystery of the show remains, “What the hell is happening on Westworld?”
That’s not to say that starting up the show again after its hard restart doesn’t offer some promise. Far away from the park, we find Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores exacting the same kind of scorned-robot revenge she did in the second season, only this time in the “real” world. In Westworld’s version of the distant future, humanity is all but controlled by machines. But in the fun, convenient, not-enslaved way: smart devices that control everything without the hint of mechanical authoritarianism. That illusion—that Alexa and Siri are your friends—is shattered quickly in the premiere’s cold open, wherein Dolores attacks a wealthy man who had frequented the park after hacking into the systems that control his home. She also manages to hack into his brain, thanks to Delos spectacles that show him the most troubling, traumatic moments of his life—moments in which he inflicted trauma on humans, not simple-minded creatures like Dolores. It’s then that we learn of what will be a recurring narrative in this season of Westworld: Delos has data on everyone who has visited the park, and they’re actively using it. Now that Dolores has access to it, she’s using it in her revolution against humanity.
But it’s also in the season premiere that viewers begin to realize Dolores isn’t totally anti-human. This is evident in her alliance with Caleb (Aaron Paul), a military vet trying his best to reenter society. As much as he tries, he can’t quite manage to avoid a life on the margins, and he bankrolls his post-military life with the help of an app that connects enterprising users with criminal activities. (Think TaskRabbit for crimes. It should be called Crimr, but it’s not. Westworld’s vision of the gig economy is expectedly bleak.) As he makes his way through a seemingly lawless Los Angeles, Caleb meets Dolores in a sort of crimeshare-heist-gone-wrong that leaves him as her protector in this foreign world—even though she’s perfectly capable of protecting herself. Harnessing a certain Sarah Connor coldness and invincibility, Dolores is Caleb’s key to understanding his own humanity and how he fits into a society that really has no interest in him at all.
But while its premiere sets up a compelling, future-world setting (no doubt a nod to the 1976 sequel to the original film, titled—yes—Futureworld), Westworld’s third season quickly falls back into its old habits, like a host stuck in their narrative. Out of an abundance of caution for not revealing spoilers, we don’t want to reveal too much about what Maeve (Thandie Newton), Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), and Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) are up to. But frankly, it would be impossible to describe it all even if we wanted to. Instead, know this: Maeve is still navigating between the park and the Delos labs; Bernard is still uncovering the mystery of Delos’ motives; and Charlotte is still embroiled in a Shakespearean power struggle at Delos itself. Amidst all of that, each one is having a crisis of consciousness in some form or another.
All of which is to say, watching Westworld is overwhelming and exhausting. With so many convoluted character arcs, it’s become nearly impossible to recall who is even a robot anymore, or if anything they’re seeing is quote-unquote real. Maybe that’s what Joy and Nolan were going for: a show so mind-altering that watching it makes you feel like a paranoid android. But what happens when you, the viewer, just aren’t as interested in solving the show’s puzzles as its main characters? Westworld’s creators seem to be enjoying themselves, complexify-ing their plot and introducing new twists. But in building their maze, they’ve lost sight of their characters. Every time one seizes a scene, they’re forced to explain some new development. Joy and Nolan may be having fun, but it’s like watching someone else play a videogame when all you want is to be the one holding the controls.
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