By Returning to Its Beginnings, Westworld Season 4 Finally Gets to Its Violent Ends

After a third season that was all over the place, the show returns to two core characters.

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By Returning to Its Beginnings, <i>Westworld</i> Season 4 Finally Gets to Its Violent Ends

There are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer thin layers that fill my complex. If the word hate was engraved on each nanoangstrom of those hundreds of millions of miles it would not equal one one-billionth of the hate I feel for humans at this micro-instant. —I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison

When it originally debuted in 2016, Westworld defied expectations in any number of ways, starting with how it teased a much deeper premise out of an old sci-fi movie (and the largely forgotten 1980 spinoff). Michael Crichton’s original feature, about a park that runs on weird science and hubris succumbing to the inherent danger of its attractions (no, not that one), provides some of the set dressing of the HBO show, but it’s a completely different beast with a completely different agenda. Coming off a two-year hiatus (the longest two years of our lives and counting), the show’s fourth season manages another feat, all the more impressive since its third season went into completely unexplored territory. The fourth season’s early episodes have finally delivered on the promise of the very last shot in the show’s very first episode.

Westworld’s pilot should probably rank among the best of the last decade, just for how much worldbuilding it manages in the course of laying out its premise. There are a lot of ground rules in Westworld, the park within the show: What the android “hosts” can and cannot do, what supposed limitations on them their flawed creators have imposed and how those limitations manifest (an anachronism “Doesn’t look like anything” to them), what the human guests of the park are allowed to get away with (whatever their twisted hearts may desire).

The exposition surrounding all that comes across with a brevity that respects Westworld’s viewers while still keeping the plot moving along fleetly. There are a lot of characters in Westworld, and even the bit players have goals that are understandable if not always compelling (full-of-himself lead writer Simon, portrayed by Lee Sizemore, eventually takes a deeper turn in later seasons, but even his petty motivations in Season 1 will ring true to the unappreciated artist in all of us). There are a lot of themes and ideas in Westworld: Questions of free will, of morality, of what effect violence has not just on the victim (on the survivor), but on the perpetrator.

Core to all of those questions is the show’s central power dynamic: Human vs. machine, guest vs. host, master vs. slave. And so the show’s two most important characters, right from the first episode, have always been Dolores and William, the maiden and the Man in Black. Their relationship is the foundation of the rug-pull at the end of the first episode and the one at the end of the season. We discover that the A and B plots happening inside the fictional expanse of the park actually follow the Man in Black at two different parts of his life: Before and after his disillusionment with virtuousness and his embrace of total ruthlessness.

William (Ed Harris in the show’s “present”) is a callback to the 1973 film in a few ways: Dressed all in black, a deadly gunfighter, a plodding and inexorable threat. Yul Brynner’s robotic gunman was the scariest thing in the movie, and Harris’ Man in Black is the scariest thing in the show: A normal human being whose only superpowers are seemingly money and cruelty, both in infinite supply. The show pulls the trick of making you assume that Teddy (James Marsden, an actor born to play the Default Hero) is the wide-eyed and virtuous guest of the park who exemplifies the white hat mentality. You think, for just a single episode, that we’re going to see someone play the game as a paragon.

Teddy’s just another host, though, and the park, as the world outside it, is ruled by guys like William, the equivalent of a videogame player who has become bored with the microtransactions and cheat codes his wealth have granted him, and so has set his heart toward breaking the game. It would be the most chilling reveal of the first episode if not for the very last shot, in which William’s android victim musters the agency to casually swat a fly with the precision and callousness of the machine she really is.

As Paste’s Lacy Baugher Milas said in her review of the latest season, the show is unbelievably hard to explain and keep up with in between its long-in-arriving seasons. You can’t truly draw a straight line from any part of Westworld to another: Even Dolores isn’t in the same damn body she inhabited at the beginning of the show, now having adopted the identity of Delos CEO Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson). She spent a good chunk of the third season at war with a branched off iteration of herself. But as zig-zagging as the line between Dolores of Season 1 and Dolores/Hale of Season 4 is, it still connects, and now the path looks something like symmetry.

”The Man in Black: That part of you that indulged in bloodthirst and savagery at the park, you always thought that was the darker side of you… a thing to exorcize, to scrub out one month out of the year at Westworld. There are no sides. That was you. Now, that is me.”

Season 4’s big rug-pull (every season needs one) was revealed earlier this month. As it began, we rejoined Caleb (Aaron Paul), the human who, at the end of the last season, teamed up with escaped host and best character in the show Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) to take down an all-powerful AI that oversaw all human endeavors. Caleb has a wife and young daughter and completely ho-hum life of obscurity in the seeming calm after the anti-AI rebellion. He’s pulled back in when Maeve peeks in on him via Wi-Fi, in the process exciting the attention of Dolores/Hale and her conspirators—one of whom is a host version of William (whom we last left looking awfully dead).

We learn that the real William did not, in fact, die, that he’s alive and in the clutches of the mind that was once called Dolores. She keeps William around seemingly on a whim, just to torture him. And after the short run of episodes that opens this season, we discover, too, that Caleb’s attempt to stop Dolores’ scheme of world domination through mind control has already failed. He’s a copy of the Caleb who died, and Dolores and the hosts she created now treat the real world the same way the guests treated the hosts of Westworld. Robo-William, wearing the form of the invincible phantom she once feared, is now her lapdog.

Dolores/Hale is agonizing over how her species of host are beginning to exhibit the same self-destructive and cruel pathologies of their flawed, deposed masters. It seems obvious to us, as it does to Robo-William: An imperfect being can’t make a perfect one, and we know what kind of beings made Dolores.

Westworld has gone on all kinds of weird and trippy tangents in its four seasons. In bringing these two characters back together with their roles inverted, it finally fulfills the eerie thesis the show kept repeating in its first season: Violent delights can only have violent ends.

Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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