Created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Aaron Paul, Ed Harris, Vincent Cassel, Tessa Thompson, Thandie Newton
Season three of HBO’s “Westworld” cleans up many of the issues season two had but ultimately falls short of season one’s loftier thematic ideas.
It’s cinematically sharper, it’s about as well paced and fun as the show has ever been and that on it’s own makes it worth watching and certainly worth continuing the series going forward but for fans hoping it might have something new to say in the vein of its hyper meta-textual and thematic commentary of the first season it may leave you disappointed.
Season three may have raised the stakes of the series with its pending (and frankly, all too timely) apocalyptic vibes going on in the story but it lowers the bar on its cerebral nature opting more for fast paced thrills over anything more profound or hadn’t said already.
That said, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it anyways for better…and worse.
“Westworld” season three picks up not too long after the events of season two as Dolores has infiltrated human society and begun working on her master plan to bring it all down. She has spared Bernard, who now spends his life as butcher outside the major cities but he often wonders where she is and when this apocalypse will begin. Meanwhile a veteran named Caleb spends his life doing the same mundane tasks and mercenary work everyday to make ends meet pondering his existence as he deals with his PTSD. He decides to break the cycle however when one day he finds Dolores shot in an alleyway and joins her on her quest to start a revolution.
“Westworld” is one of the few series that hooked me immediately with its first episode.
Where some series take their time to gain momentum before going into overdrive in their season finale, season one’s “The Original” grabbed my attention from the start with a combination of mystery, action, stellar acting, and the kind of cerebral humanist story-telling I expect and want from the cyberpunk genre.
As someone with a father who talked extensively about myth, theme, and got me to listen to old Joseph Campbell essays on CD growing up, a series that explored story-telling on a meta level with a high octane LARP concept setting was everything someone like me could ask for in a science fiction series.
So invested I was in this tale of synthetics gaining agency and humans exploring their own personal myth-making and what it said about themselves made me a huge fan early on, proudly proclaiming it to be the best show on HBO several years ago.
I was so certain this series was creatively the best thing on television at the time that I strongly considered getting a maze tattoo like that in the show to proclaim my brand-new fandom.
But knowing there was still more seasons on the horizon, I held off thinking I should probably see this through before doing anything that brash.
Well, a few years later I feel pretty good about that decision…
I remember thinking at the end of season one “Where can they possibly go from here still? Other LARP destinations in this cyberpunk world? A robot vs human war? How can the world expand?”
The problem is these thoughts did not really ask the most important question following that first season; “What more does it actually have to say?”
The first season is, in my opinion, a perfect season of television. It’s a brilliant take on the stories we tell ourselves, the choices we make that define us in our personal myths, and the exploration of our nature and how that relates to choice all while playing out this synthetic mystery plot. The entire first season pulls all these arcs and ideas together through characters like Bernard/Arnold, William/The Man in Black, and of course Dolores. They all, more or less, complete their arcs in that first season and there’s not really much needed to be said beyond that when you really think about it. If the series ended on Dolores murdering Ford and the Delos guests in the season finale that honestly would have been a perfect ambiguous ending to send the story off on.
But because this is HBO, and “Game of Thrones” is no longer the driving force of premium TV, Westworld MUST continue because it’s the new cash cow for the channel. Whether or not writer/producers Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan really knew what they wanted to do following that first season is anybody’s guess but it’s hard not to see that they have struggled a bit since that point.
Season two is a mixed bag, where the characters literally feel like they’re going in circles. Plotlines get muddled, characters become hyper versions of themselves, and while certain ideas and episodes reached similar levels of brilliance that the first season had it still lacked the narrative sharpness of the first season and that has a lot to do with the characters having mostly no other driving force besides survival and simply getting to the next physical plot point.
It just didn’t have much more to say and frankly in a story about stories that’s pretty damn important.
To their credit, Joy and Nolan appear to rectify quite a few issues season two had with season three. Again, it’s faster, better paced, there’s a clearer destination at the end for its characters and not to mention a pretty compelling villain for this season’s plot in Serac played by the brilliant Vincent Cassell.
But it suffers ultimately the same problem; it has nothing truly new to say.
This is not to say the season is without any meaningful messages or metaphors. It’s quite critical of our hyper surveillance and information gathering state, might even be the best depiction to date on the broader implications and consequences of a world where we all have our personal information readily online to mined and plundered by big businesses and government. Caleb, played by the always great Aaron Paul, is a good avatar for the everyman who has grown jaded and disenfranchised by this system. Though he spends most of the season looking overly shocked and gape-jawed at just about everything, it’s hard not to feel empathy and a connection to this character as we are quite literally living in a bit of a cyberpunk hell as it is these days and treated just as much as expendable commodities right now.
The season is generally best when the focus is on him, as the first episode delivers a strong start in the same way season one did.
Where the season begins to fall apart though is when quite literally the world “Westworld” inhabits begins to do so itself. Serac’s Rehobaum, which reminded me just a little too much of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s” Deep Thought, releasing all its data to the world and everyone discovering they’re basically all dangerous assholes is almost hilarious to me.
Though the idea of hyper data controlling our every move is a good cyberpunk metaphor to jump off of, the way this bit is executed is a little over exaggerated and clumsy.
This isn’t actually a tremendous problem with season three, but it doesn’t do much to add to what we already understand about the story; which is how narrative controls us and how important choices and free will is to that. All this is already told and expanded on in the first season through Dolores, all season three does it bring it to a macro level and put that onus on the humans instead of the hosts. The hosts were already a metaphor for humanity anyways so again the story in some ways hasn’t changed much since season one.
It’s interesting to have the narrative of the hosts turned on the humans but thematically it feels redundant.
I’ll add that this isn’t the worst idea they could’ve gone with, it works in moving the physical aspect of the story forward for sure, and I wouldn’t even classify it as a bad one, but again the problem is the story has largely run out of new things to tell us.
We like stories because we want to learn some truth about ourselves, whether we want it to or not, and Anthony Hopkins’ Ford makes a great point of this in season one. This has been the purpose of myths and legends since the dawn of time and it’ll be no different even when the 37th Fast & Furious comes out in 40 years. You could argue that the message of Westworld deserves repeating or that it’s not important to the entertainment value it still provides, and you might be right. But for a series like this, that is so invested in what stories mean I don’t think it’s wrong to think there should be more to it than this.
Of course, there’s still plenty more to see out of “Westworld” for the foreseeable future as HBO won’t be canceling it anytime soon and certainly it’ll have its chance to still tackle more ideas and themes in the future but, at this point at least, it’s been less meaningful that its first season.
There are other problems too, namely Dolores constantly changing and unclear revolution plans and arcs resolved offscreen, certain side plots with other characters ultimately going nowhere, and a fairly predictable twist with Caleb, but this is the crux of the problem with the series as it stands now and the one worth mentioning the most.
That said, season three really is a lot of fun despite my issues with the narrative. The pacing, as mentioned, is great from start to finish. I was never bored or disinterested during this season, despite its flaws, and the action bits are frankly better than they’ve ever been as the series goes full cyberpunk in parts with great robot on human and robot on robot action.
The cinematography is sharp and striking too as Jonathan Nolan shows he’s definitely Christopher’s brother with some beautiful, haunting shots of the future Los Angeles city Gotham-esque skyline set to Ramin Djawadi’s excellent cyberpunk score that gives the new season a more noire-ish feel that would make Vangelis and Hans Zimmer proud.
The acting is still stellar of course. Though Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard is largely wasted in this season and his plot goes nowhere, his scene with Gina Torres in the finale is touching. Luke Hemsworth is dry as hell in a good way as Chief of Security turned personal buddy bodyguard to Bernard as Ashley Stubbs. Ed Harris is wicked and dastardly as always as William and of course Evan Rachel Wood is solid as the driving force of the series as Dolores.
The finale doesn’t leave much to say beyond a pending machine vs human war though which has been building up since the first season anyway. While I can see some possibilities for an interesting direction here, I can’t say I’m as intrigued as even the finale to season two left me.
In some ways, season one left me not too much unlike William going into season’s two and three; looking for additional meaning in something that wasn’t looking to tell me anything deeper, at least right now. Perhaps the maze just isn’t for me anymore but moving forward I’ll be lowering my expectations.
“Westworld” remains a fun cyberpunk action series that can hold your attention span for an hour, and I think it’ll maintain that energy consistently going forward, but it might’ve been best left where it was when Dolores put a bullet in Ford’s brain.
I do hope it can regain some of its original spark at some point but until then…it doesn’t look like anything (deep) to me.
3.5 out of 5
You said it, Marshawn…