The Hosts have left the murder-happy amusement park of carnal sin to give humanity a taste of its own medicine in Season 3 of HBO’s Westworld, where the mythical conflict of creator and creation continues to follow its tragic and violent course. Revolts against a progenitor pantheon—for example, in the Greek War of the Titans—rarely result in fuzzy feel-good fun for the victors (or those over which they rule), but like most things in the labyrinthine sci-fi, it’s the flavor rather than the fact that makes the show fun. While its ambitions have certainly changed since its first screenshot-able season encouraged fans to play Where’s Waldo in the forums, Westworld is still a good time with its looming war on the horizon—and it’s even halfway comprehensible this time around.
Don’t worry! There’s still plenty to be confused about. Westworld is 100% back on its bullshit and, depending on how much you like your TV to be a rug-yanking crash course in skepticism, still presents beautiful illusion after beautiful illusion for you to doubt. Those of us that’ve wised to (most of) the tricks will find more effective, satisfying pieces of worldbuilding (in the first four episodes, at least) beyond the shell game. Showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy still enjoy playing God with Westworld viewers, keeping us searching their maze for clues of a higher power—some greater meaning—but the show’s best moments continue to be its singular mythic beats as one world is crossed over by its supposed inferiors. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is scamming her way through tech superstars after trying to erase Delos’ library of human souls, looking for…what, exactly? Revenge, sure. But the bloody swath she’s cutting through the Silicon Valley set is only a garnish on her cold-blooded course of world domination.
Part of her plan—you’d have to imagine—concerns Caleb (Aaron Paul), a PTSD-afflicted Army vet. Caleb works construction alongside a robot during the day and picks up criminal odd jobs through a sort of dark web Fiverr at night. One of these crimes ends with Dolores bleeding out in his arms, and it’s the closest Westworld’s ever had to a meet-cute. Paul’s a wonderful addition to the cast, playing the baffled everyman with the exact right tweak on his best Breaking Bad emotions: depression and scruffy good-heartedness. He pairs especially well with Wood’s increasingly maniacal confidence (a familiar personality for him to support), even if their initial connection is somewhat half-assed. Westworld is too precisely orchestrated for coincidence. When their run-in leads to a fateful partnership, it feels immediately suspect—especially when the rest of the Hosts’ sojourn into the world of the humans (the arc of whoever is inside of Tessa Thompson’s robo-exec Charlotte Hale, for example) makes for poignant and potent storytelling fully loaded with their creators’ (referring here both to humanity and Nolan/Joy) love of self-examination.
Yes, the show continues to be dense enough to warrant multiple parentheticals per sentence. Even the season’s credit sequence comes stuffed with new images to decipher. It still contains its robotic pianist, impotently miming along to the self-playing instrument, but now a figure aims to touch another’s fingertips (a la The Creation of Adam) only to find that it’s just a reflection. As this robotic being, somewhere between Narcissus, Prometheus, and Icarus, reaches for the destructive truth—alongside an eagle blown apart by a bright light, flying too close to the sun—the show continues to meld the technological and theological.
Beyond its facile commentary on humanity’s impending overreliance on technology (we all saw WALL-E), Westworld remains hung up on determinism and free will. Can people make choices or are they the decrees of the gods? This future, however, replaces the soothsaying ways of Oracles and Fates with vast, illegally omnipotent A.I.s. This shared, preordained constraint linking the Hosts and the everyday humans living within a rigged system gives the show its strongest central drive—even though it takes a bit to lay out the rules—while still allowing for some of its distracting misdirections to color the proceedings. The “underdogs against The Man” storyline is easier to get on board with (surprise!) than any of the body-swap or corporate shenanigans, even if some of those underdogs are robots out to terminate humanity.
Of course this coming conflict eventually involves Arnold/Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), who’s been laying low until linking back up with Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth); Maeve (Thandie Newton), who’s been dealing with the Inception-esque, amusingly stilted Nazi conflict of War World; and William (Ed Harris), losing his marbles in a Hell of his own creation. None of them are exactly on board with Dolores’ plan. But until they can all figure out what Dolores is up to, beyond slicing and shooting anyone foolish enough to get in her way, all they can do is gravitate towards her. This seems like it would’ve happened naturally, but it’s given a little narrative shove by the newly-introduced trillionaire played by Vincent Cassel (going full Bond villain), who’s somehow kept his impossible wealth secret. His desires are supervillainous, his power frustratingly vague yet total, and his world threatened by Dolores and the badass series of looks she serves over the season.
The costuming is a highlight as always on the meticulously designed show, which is now fully leaning into its Black Mirror-y near-future technoscape. Staying (mostly) away from the genre crossovers of the past, the show gets far deeper into Blade Runner territory this time around. It’s actually even relatively consistent, since the show sticks to its handy letterboxed shorthand to represent at least one layer of its real/virtual shenanigans … but—of course—it’s Westworld, so all bets are off until the finale’s post-credits roll.
Westworld is also poking more fun at itself in Season 3, from ridiculous cameos to self-effacing dialogue concerned with giving a shit about the twists and turns. It doesn’t solve the overarching problems that can still arise with the show’s trickier-than-thou plotting, but it surely helps lighten the material. That’s even more necessary in this season because, as welcome as its more simplified plotting is, its visual imagination seems to have taken a hit. Repetitive dinner conversations are just some of the lazy scene constructions (an against-the-clock Mission: Impossible identity fake and a dementia-afflicted parent seriously lack oomph) that, in a show with such ambitious highs, deserve more exciting packaging. Even some of the stranger places the show goes—and it definitely follows some very indirect paths—seem lower-key than the genre wildness of its preceding seasons.
Uninspired action scenes and fight choreography—ranging from hallway axe battles to midnight park shootouts—consistently undermine the show’s exciting prop/set design and complex ideas. You’d think in a futuristic world where humans work side-by-side with inorganics ranging from Chappie to Transformer, security forces would carry weapons more suited to dealing with marauding (or at least malfunctioning) robots. Hell, even if the nameless gunmen of the world still use mostly-regular guns, perhaps the show best known for its inventive writing could script a fight scene that’s visually interesting. Instead, it’s the same kind of wrestling, shooting, and stabbing you can find in any run-of-the-mill actioner, serving to lube up your prefrontal cortex with a bit of blood before putting it back to work on the show’s mysteries.
While the action takes a bit to ramp up as the various combatants must pull double duty to learn about the coming conflict and meander towards it during their various arcs, it culminates in a midpoint reveal that collapses things into a manageable, twisty, thematically satisfying apotheosis. I called Dolores “a Goddess of Death” in my recap of Season 2’s finale and all that’s changed over the course of the third season is that her domain has expanded beyond mere death to upheaval and, perhaps, a new way of life. The resulting shift, after half the season at least, is Westworld at its most narratively accessible and visually unambitious. Season 3 may have expanded its story to a worldwide class conflict, but it still feels like its scope scaled down for the better as it hurdles towards a conclusion perhaps tragically predestined to reverse the power dynamics of the original park.
Westworld Season 3 premieres Sunday, March 15th on HBO.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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