Westworld season 3 leaves the park and loses its way: Review
Season 3 of the robo-cowboy show has no robo-cowboys. EW's critics ponder what's left.
After a 21-month hiatus, Westworld returns to HBO on March 15. Entertainment Weekly TV critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich had very different opinions about the controversial second season. Read on to find out if the show’s bold new narrative will break their argument’s repetitive loop.
DARREN: Welcome back to Uber for Criminals, the TV series where Aaron Paul walks sadly around a skyglass futuretropolis waiting for a popular smartphone app to assign him ATM robberies. This season, Paul’s war veteran Caleb learns a valuable lesson about how the algorithms are running our lives, man. His revolutionary journey takes him to so many interesting places: the Hermosa Beach Pier, a bank for billionaires that looks like an art museum, a sex-party masquerade. Swirling all around Caleb are all the tense corporate thrills we’ve come to expect from this beloved big-budget HBO drama: board meetings, establishing shots of cool-looking buildings, and the evil French guy conducting Global Domination strategy sessions at fancy dinner tables.
Freeze all motor functions, Kristen, because Westworld is back with a whole new look. You could say it has transferred its brain into a new body, or that it grew an old body with a new brain, or that the people who are secretly robots are secretly a digital simulation. Can you blame me for mixing my metaphors? I loved the 2016 debut season of this riotous science-fiction nightmare, and admire how effectively creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy adapted the robo-park-gone-mad ’70s film into a Digital Age meta-nightmare. I thought season 2 lost all those exciting threads, sticking the best characters into lame loops, resurrecting lame characters for no reason, draping the go-nowhere story in ever-more-nonsensical timewebs of plotgut.
I’ll say this for season 3: I can’t remember the last time a TV show has tried so hard to transform itself into an entirely different TV show. We find Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in a country-hopping espionage plotline, gradually orbiting Paul’s new protagonist. People still keep talking to Maeve (Thandie Newton) about Her Daughter, but the pimpbot-turned-technopath is on her own action-thriller journey, one that the give-lots-away trailer promises will involve swordplay. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) is in hiding, but his quest still requires him to spend a whole episode on an epic journey to tap his fingers on an important tablet device.
I enjoy a few aspects of this new season, Kristen. After seeing four episodes of the (notably reduced) eight-episode season, though, my main feeling is I really enjoyed the show about cowboy robots in a theme park that apparently ended years ago. I know you liked season 2 way more than I did. What do you think of this massive reboot?
KRISTEN: That’s a tough question to answer, Darren, but I guess if I had to sum up how these first four episodes made me feel in one word, it would be this: tired. The premiere sets up some interesting ideas: Caleb, a military-vet-turned-construction-worker and gig-economy criminal, is our entry into the “real” world, a place where everything is automated for your convenience. Twice we see overhead shots of Caleb waking in his bed — shades of Dolores’ loop at the Abernathy ranch — and it becomes clear quite quickly that this season, Westworld wants to show us how much humanity and hosts have in common. One non-host character even goes so far to insist, “We’re living in a simulation!”
Granted, that guy is high… but maybe he had the right idea. If you thought the second half of season 2 was dense, these new episodes are practically solid. Despite Nolan and Joy's promises, the narrative complexity is almost comical. There’s a moment in episode 2 where Maeve disables the code controlling her environment by “overtaxing” the system. Everyone around her freezes, and in that moment my brain, too, felt like that rainbow spinning wheel of death you see when your computer crashes.
And by the way, after a second viewing of that episode, it became abundantly clear that the actual “story” portion made up only about 15 minutes out of 58. The rest is just big-budget action set pieces featuring fake Nazis and drawn-out fist fights. At one point, Bernard and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth, whose comedic swagger is sorely needed this season) are in a lab for a Medieval-themed Delos park, and as the camera pans down the hall, we see a court musician host playing a few bars of the Westworld theme on his oud. Once Bernard finished his hacking, or whatever, he and Stubbs hustle out of there — and I’ll admit, I found myself reluctant to leave. Hey, can’t we go back to Castle World, guys? That place looked kind of fun!
Not that the “real” world couldn’t be fun, too, but I started to lose confidence once it became clear that the mysterious system both Dolores and her human counterparts are desperate to control takes the form of a giant red-and-black ball called Rehoboam. As any Alias fan can tell you, big, ominous-looking orbs rarely result in good story.
Dolores herself now comes across as a more nihilistic Sydney Bristowe, with her sleek wardrobe, high-tech contact lenses, and ever-present earpiece. Her relationship with Caleb — a human kept down by machines joining forces with a machine kept down by mankind — could have potential, though. What do you think of the pairing, Darren? And what do you hope to see more of in the second half of season 3?
DARREN: A more nihilistic Sydney Bristowe! I love that description, Kristen. My own comparisons are meaner: “Sub-Atomic Blonde” and “Hack Widow.” Once upon a time in the west, Dolores existed as both an obvious cliché (kindly frontier everygal in constant danger) AND that cliché’s precise opposite (gun-toting western she-shootist in a complex love triangle) AND an exponentially deconstructive counter-myth to all of the above (enslaved puppet evolving toward anti-establishment higher conscience). All that’s gone, and Dolores has become… well, just another kind of cliché (tough deadpan spy, futuristic class warrior) surrounded by familiar tropes.
Season 1 had a lot of fun with the nasty rich on their cowboy-themed vacation getaways. Now that we’re out in the larger world, the one-percenters all come off like bland nefarious handsomes. Think Melrose Place 2049. And don’t get me wrong: I’m all for lusciously filmed socialist philosophy in our Mature Content bang-bangs. But that onetime subtext is now just creepingly obvious text. Vincent Cassel plays the boring new baddie, a trillionaire shadow man with techno-omniscience. Meanwhile, the helplessly theme-y dialogue sounds like surveillance state slam poetry: “What if every choice you ever made wasn’t a choice at all? Just something written in your code… your nature etched in ones and zeroes.” Etch my nature in eyerolls, please.
The show has admirably bent over backward to keep Tessa Thompson around. When last we saw ambitious executive Charlotte Hale, she was… well, dead, and body-switch-snatched by Dolores. Thompson’s role has shifted again, and I enjoy the slippery psychodrama of her arc more than anything happening with Dolores and Caleb, or with Ed Harris’ increasingly inessential William. Though Thompson’s subplot does involve a lot of murdery-flirty chatter about the hostile takeover of her tech conglomerate. Again, replace "tech conglomerate" with "ad agency," and we’re Melrose Place-ing all the way to the floating corpse in the fancy pool.
Season 3 becomes more fun when you imagine that Joy and Nolan are shamelessly profiteering off HBO’s Netflix anxiety to blow a huge budget on whatever cool thing strikes their fancy. You mentioned the nonsensical World War II set piece, and let's talk about how every scene is either filmed in a gigantic Imperial Window set or some Reflecto-graphic corner of downtown Los Angeles/Singapore. Nolan and Joy have an overall deal that will take them to the digital heaven in the valley beyond cable. And I enjoyed these episodes more after deciding this is probably the final season, which means the very goofy twist in episode 4 can set up up a ludicrous endgame (and not more episodes of speechy delays.)
Are you more optimistic about the widening scope of this season, Kristen? Is it a problem that Stubbs, of all people, has somehow become the most endearing character in the main ensemble?
KRISTEN: So far, sending the hosts out into the world hasn’t paid off the way either of us had hoped. The clichéd set-ups (like that Eyes Wide Shut charity sex auction) only serve to highlight the clunkiness of the dialogue. “All sex is commerce!” “If a cage doesn’t exist, how can it be a cage?” Whoa, dude — pass the blunt. Still, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Dolores-Caleb partnership; may it develop into a gender-swapped Whiskey Cavalier (albeit with a much bigger budget). Sons of Anarchy’s Tommy Flanagan is another welcome addition to the ensemble — not just because we get to hear his character, an ominous corporate fixer named Martin Connells, growl phrases like “gaggle of hookers” in his thick Scottish brogue. (We haven’t seen much of Lena Waithe or Michael Ealy yet, though.)
These episodes definitely feel less frustrating when viewed through the “final season” lens — but if Nolan and Joy are sticking to their five-to-six-season “plan,” I hope they find a way to bring things back to the parks. If the producers feel like they’ve exhausted the story “hosts become self-aware and revolt” story possibilities with these characters, how about a time jump? Maybe it’s 25 years in the future, Delos has crashed and burned, but the AI tech survived and evolved — and now some new, brazen up-and-comer plans to revive Westworld. It would provide a wealth of new narrative possibilities — and could double as a subtle commentary on the TV industry’s tendency to reboot bad ideas. After spending three seasons struggling through maddeningly complicated time-loops, it’s time the writers let Dolores, Maeve, and Bernard control-alt-delete themselves.
KRISTEN'S GRADE: B-
DARREN'S GRADE: C
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