When HBO released the full trailer for the third season of Westworld, the reaction was near-pandemonium. Oh, the trailer got people excited, because of course it did — this is what trailers are designed to do. They are sales tools, and even god-awful movies and TV shows can sell themselves effectively in that format. (I still can’t believe how giddy I was to see Cameron Crowe’s shapeless Aloha based on its trailer.) But what made the anecdotal response so fascinating is why people were excited. It wasn’t just that it promised impressive action set pieces, cool future technology, and new faces galore (Aaron Paul! Lena Waithe! Marshawn Lynch?!?!?!). It was that it seemed to promise an entirely different series from the one Westworld had given us over its first two seasons.
People weren’t thrilled to see their favorite show would be coming back exactly as they remembered it; they were looking forward to seeing its many remarkable individual pieces taken apart and reassembled in a nearly unrecognizable form, like a kid turning his Lego pirate-ship set into a moon base. Even within the broader idea of hope-watching a series that hasn’t quite lived up to its potential, this phenomenon felt new. People who stuck with Parks and Rec or Star Trek: The Next Generation through bumpy earlier seasons were rewarded with much better versions of the show they were already watching. But I’ve encountered few people who just wanted Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy to deliver an improved version of the homicidal theme park shenanigans from the first two seasons.
That’s because few series in recent memory have squandered such vast potential and resources as thoroughly as Westworld did. With an incredible cast and a seemingly limitless production budget, Nolan and Joy could have crafted virtually any story that had something even vaguely in common with the Seventies film on which the show is based. Mostly, though, they just used those amazing resources in service of puzzle-box nonsense, valuing surprise over characterization, even over Westworld‘s larger philosophical questions about the nature of existence and free will. Season Two in particular seemed less concerned with telling a story than with outsmarting Redditors who sniffed out Season One’s big twist moments after the character in question was introduced.
The creators seem aware that they let the spoiler tail wag the narrative dog, and over the summer promised, “This is season is a little less of a guessing game.” Pair self-reflective comments like that with a change in locale prompted by robots Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) leaving the park at the end of last season, then add in new faces like Paul (fresh off El Camino), Vincent Cassel, and Tommy Flanagan from Sons of Anarchy, and it looked like as fresh a start as a show this prominent could make several years into its run. Heck, it even suckered me back in after I’d written off the show following the Season Two finale.
Season Three does, in fact, start out feeling like a brand-new-ish show, one that incorporates the strengths of the first two seasons while mostly casting aside the more self-indulgent parts. After a prologue that shows Dolores delivering some karmic justice to one of the many powerful men who abused her during her time as a park host, we get to know Caleb (Paul), a military vet struggling to readjust to civilian life, especially in a future where everything is controlled by algorithms. It’s something of a role reversal from how Dolores and the other hosts had to submit to the cruel whims of the human guests, even as early episodes depict just how much the top one percent of the One Percent are living higher than ever on this placid dystopia their computers have built.
We know from his years as Jesse Pinkman just how effectively Paul can play angst and alienation. Caleb is almost instantly more compelling than any of the human characters from previous seasons — though as I write this sentence, it occurs to me that I’ve lost track of which humans ultimately turned out to be humans, and which of them were, like Bernard, robots whose true identities were hidden from us and/or them. And the casual world-building of this future can be jaw-droppingly beautiful. The premiere is characteristically dour — outside of scenes with Thandie Newton’s wry super-robot Maeve, it’s always startling whenever anyone on this show is funny(*) — but emotionally engaging in a way the show only tried to be in a handful of previous episodes. As Caleb’s side work as a freelance criminal on an Uber-style app intersects with Dolores’ plot to overthrow humanity, it feels as if Nolan and Joy have pulled off the impossible reinvention promised by that trailer.
(*) Luke Hemsworth’s Stubbs, the former Westworld security chief, somewhat shockingly becomes the most consistent source of humor, given how fed up he is with everything happening. At one point, he complains that a new situation “makes me look back on my time in a murder simulation theme park with fondness.”
But staying in a bad relationship in the belief that you can fix your partner almost never works, because asking them to be only their best and none of their worst is asking them to become an entirely different person. People don’t work like that, nor do huge, premium-cable sci-fi spectacles. So, within short order, the new Westworld begins acting more and more like the same old Westworld.
The second episode brings the action back to the park, where Maeve is still trying to reconnect with the daughter who was sent into a kind of digital heaven. It’s a section we haven’t seen before — the WWII-themed War World, with Nazis and Italian partisans running and shooting all over the place — but it nonetheless plays like a retrenchment. Maeve dismisses the old movie fantasies playing out around her — “None of it matters,” she says, “because none of it is real” — in a way that could perhaps be read as a commentary on the very premise of the first two seasons. But very soon, the question of what is and isn’t actually happening becomes a core tenet of the season, with variations on “this isn’t real” replacing last season’s recurring query, “Is this now?” No one seems quite sure what’s reality and what’s a simulation, including some of the rich swells who are enjoying a world where the likes of Dolores and Caleb serve their whims.
Questioning the nature of reality itself fits with the series’ pre-established themes, but it winds up replacing one puzzle box with a much bigger one. Every scene can now be questioned as a simulation. Every character can be revealed at any point to have always been a robot, or replaced by a robot, or turned into a robot. Like Maeve says, none of it matters, because none of it feels real. Obviously, any scripted story is fundamentally not real, but most of the good ones try to offer elements that feel real enough to create an audience investment — a willing suspension of the barrier between fiction and fact. Westworld has no need for that on the way to making various philosophical points, and to set up various surprises in the plot. As a result, everything looks cool, but rings hollow.
The creators’ assertion that this season would be “a little less of a guessing game” proves accurate, at least when it comes to the “little less” part. Many important pieces of information are still held in reserve for a moment when they can perhaps provide the most shock. In the process, however, they hamstring different story and character arcs. Last season, Bernard temporarily put Dolores’ mind into a robot copy of Delos executive Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), before Dolores eventually wound up back in her own synthetic skin. The Charlotte-bot is still running around, though, and much of this season’s third episode involves the impostor cracking under the emotional burden of living someone else’s life. The problem is, the show doesn’t tell us who the new faux Charlotte really is, because it’s being saved for a later reveal. So as good as Thompson is — it’s perhaps the first time Nolan and Joy have known what to do with her — every one of those scenes is undercut by the fact that we have no idea who we’re really watching.
By the time I came to the end of the last episode HBO gave critics, I realized that the fault lay more with me than with Westworld. Needing a show to completely transform itself in order for me to enjoy it suggests I should just be watching a different show. (There’s also the matter of all the people who enjoyed the show the way it was for two seasons; I’ve already heard complaints from fans lamenting that we’ll no longer be in the park full-time.)
The new season certainly has its moments, and the idea of Maeve and Dolores working at cross-purposes is intriguing. Ultimately, though, Westworld is always gonna Westworld. As Dolores puts it to Caleb, “I thought your world would be so different from mine. There isn’t any difference at all.”
The third season of Westworld premieres March 15th on HBO. I’ve seen the first four of eight episodes.