By James Hibberd
March 15, 2020 at 10:10 PM EDT
John P. Johnson/HBO

The premiere episode of Westworld season 3, "Parce Domine," feels like a whole new show.

The audience — like the hosts — have escaped Delos’ claustrophobic theme park boxes and are running free: We’re in China, we’re in Los Angeles, we’re in London. We’re at parties and in futuristic helicopters and on self-driving motorcycles. Westworld has always been a show with so much creative potential, so many fascinating ideas, and it feels like showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are finally taking their toys out of their protective cases and really playing with them, along with a blessedly more straightforward storyline.

We open with some good ol' Black Mirror-esque sci-fi dystopia as an evil corporate executive’s connected home gets turned against him — “Alexa, trap and torment the spouse-abusing billionaire.”

The man in question is an investor and former executive at Incite, a global data-driven tech company that’s sort of like Google a few decades from now if the company utterly abandoned its “don’t be evil” slogan. So like Google.

The sequence introduces a few devices we’ll be seeing a lot of this season — virtual reality glasses that can be used for mundane things like “face to face” conference calls, or completely altering the reality you’re viewing. There are designer drug tabs like the one the executive put on his tongue before going to sleep (whatever that is, it still can’t be weirder than being on Ambien).

Dolores gets a fantastic entrance, swimming laps naked in the pool before turning her attention to the executive, who wakes to find his wife unconscious and hands zip-tied. She assures she won’t hurt him, but notes he’ll try to hurt her (which of course he eventually does) because she’s read his “book” — one of those invasive data-mining files that Delos secretly kept on every park visitor. She coerces him into funding her “origin of a new species … startup,” along with handing over some confidential files he took from Incite. The man tries to kill Dolores and suffers the same fate as his wife, introducing a theme we’ll return to again and again this season — if you have enough data on somebody, their moves become predictable.

We then go to Los Angeles, where we’re introduced to a new human character in the story, Caleb. Aaron Paul has kept busy since Breaking Bad ended but this is his first role since Jesse Pinkman where he feels all the way back. Caleb keeps chatting with an old war buddy, Francis, on his earpiece. We eventually learn Francis was killed in action and this is an AI program that’s supposed to help Caleb overcome his grief. There are little hints along the way, like Caleb telling him, “That’s what you always said…” — using past tense — that give their exchanges a disconnected, hollowed-out feel.

He eventually unsubscribes to Francis, saying, “If I’m going to get on with my life, I need to find something, someone ... real,” which is a rather ironic “be careful what you wish for” sentiment.

Caleb introduces us to an ingenious gig-economy crime app where he picks up extra money (to help support his mother who’s suffering from dementia, lest we think less of him). The options he swipes past on the app includes things like “smash and grab, red rum, grand theft auto, babysitting, fireworks show, creative accounting, redistributive justice, A to B.” Caleb tends toward choices like “A to B” (package delivery) and “redistributive justice” (robbery) and avoids “personals.” We infer from his chat with some co-criminals played by Lena Waithe and Marshawn Lynch that he’s picking the low-level, lower-paying — and less violent — options.

Charlotte Hale returns to Delos for a board meeting. Now you’re probably going, “Wait, isn’t she dead?” She is. So this is a host, but we don’t know who is controlling her. Are one of the other “pearls” — host control units — that Dolores snatched before she left the park inside Charlotte? Or is Dolores? Or is this something we haven’t seen before?

Charlotte advocates the company riding out the controversy rather than scrapping the parks over the mere murder of 113 people, and even offers some NRA-inspired logic: “Robots don’t kill people, people kill people.” Some at the table are outraged when she consults “the machine” to support her decision. If the idea of letting an algorithm make a decision for a company seems like sci-fi, Netflix has admitted to using an algorithm to help executives decide whether to renew shows. This dystopian future, it’s already here, man!

One other thing to note during this scene is the empty chair at the board room table. We assume that belongs to the absent William, a.k.a. The Man in Black.

We also catch up with Bernard Lowe, who we definitely know is a pearl that Dolores smuggled out the park. He’s working at a stockyard and has grown an impressive hipster beard that still can’t hide his conflicted existential angst. He keeps running self-diagnostics to try and find out if Dolores is controlling him. Clearly she brought him out of the park and then set him free, but why? Given Charlotte Hale’s comment about him in the board meeting, perhaps he’s serving as a diversionary scapegoat, somebody for authorities to chase and blame that distracts from Dolores’ own activities?

At any rate, a couple of Bernard’s coworkers uncover his past. When threatened, he auto-activates killbot mode to protect himself — we assume Dolores put in that code as well (granted, it makes no sense he would have a keychain fob for this, but that's a way of explaining visually to the audience what’s going on rather than Bernard just abruptly attacking everybody … like, what if he accidentally hit it while reaching in his pocket?).   

In London, Dolores goes to a party where she meets up with Liam Dempsey (John Gallagher Jr.), a real piece of work who is credited as Incite’s co-founder. At the party, one of his colleagues brings up the idea that they could all be living in a simulation, which seems like a very real possible reveal in future seasons of this show. Westworld isn’t exactly known to introduce ideas casually and for no reason. Liam also shows Dolores a giant black ball called Rehoboam that’s a bit like Incite’s AI Death Star. Incite is tracking everybody’s data and the idea behind the Ball is, “If you chart a course for every person you could make the world a better place.” At this point, we should know that anybody who says “make the world a better place” is doing no such thing.

(By the fourth episode, by and by, you will still not have been told what those eerie black-and-white interstitials are all about — the ones that name a city and use tags like “anomaly detected,” so I’m just guessing here: I suspect they represent this AI globe keeping track of what we’re seeing, and are also a way of simply telling the audience which gleaming future-scape city we’re going to next as the story hops around).

We get a fun sequence where Dolores hops on a motorcycle and zooms around while Ramin Djawadi’s score (which I absolutely love this season) goes into electro overdrive. She spies on her ineffectual beau as he gets dressed down over concerns that somebody, or something, is “testing the system,” somebody who has access or has “abused the trust of somebody who already had access.” I assume they’re not referring to Dolores as she’s trying to get access, for some nefarious purpose, but seemingly doesn’t have it yet.

Dolores tries to pressure Liam for more information and he notes, “If I was going to tell you the system would already know and he’d already be dead just like my dad.” Lot of information there. It’s a reference to the all-knowing system being able to predict what people will do, and that his father may have been murdered to protect the company. “No one knows what the system is doing other than its original architect,” Liam says, and we’re just really hoping that that’s not the same as The Matrix Reloaded’s exposition-splaining Architect (“Ergo, Dolores, your five predecessors were by design based on a similar predication; vis-a-vis, love”).

Suddenly they’re interrupted by Sons of Anarchy silver fox, who incapacitates Dolores and reveals to Liam that she’s not who she seems. Liam reluctantly, but not too reluctantly, agrees to have Dolores killed. They take her in one of those drone-choppers (realism nitpick: The only vehicles in the sky are the ones servicing this story — Los Angeles has more air traffic than this now).

They take Dolores to the spot indicated on her phone where she was planning to meet someone. Turns out she's been pretending to be incapacitated -- and almost certainly leaked the information to that Incite fixer (Conells, played by Tommy Flanagan) -- in order to arrange all this. We get a fun red rum sequence set to “Common People” that makes clever use of a single shot peering out a car’s windshield that then focus-shifts to the backup camera (Nolan directed this episode).

Conells gives up The Architect’s name to Dolores -- Serac -- before he’s executed by a host copy of himself, which has to be a rather bewildering and unpleasant way to go. She’s wounded in the fighting, however, and found by Caleb, who assumes she's a damsel in distress (ha!). It’s a bit of a double coincidence that these two manage to cross paths twice, but we’re down for it.

Meanwhile, Bernard, his cover blown and looking to discover his destiny, decides to book a boat to take him back to the island that contains Westworld (Bernard, we have to go back!)

Notably absent from the first hour: Maeve (she'll be back next week) and The Man in Black (fate unknown).