Sigh. SIGH. That's the sound of someone seeing a big budget HBO series spiraling into a mess, or mediocrity at best. And the series is Westworld.
When HBO's TV series adaptation of the 1973 movie Westworld arrived in 2016, it received critical acclaim and masses of viewers. And rightly so, as it was excellent. I was late to the party as being in the U.K. and having no Sky TV subscription I didn't have easy HBO Max access. But once I got access to Westworld, the series grabbed me by the virtual scruff of the neck and captivated my attention.
The premise of a park populated by near-human-like robot "hosts" that exist to provide rich humans a way to indulge their light and dark fantasies in a Western setting was intriguing. And the idea of the hosts slowly growing consciousness and questioning their purpose, with glimpses at how the park was run behind the scenes really intrigued me; that combination of western and sci-fi genres was TV catnip for me. It didn't hurt that the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton and Ed Harris put in some excellent performances.
Westworld's first season was also a pretty cerebral experience, with multiple timelines and a good deal of hidden symbolism. I'd follow up each episode by watching a breakdown of it, hungrily consuming details, inferences and theories that I may have missed.
Inevitably, robots gaining self-awareness while generally being abused by humans doesn't turn out well; after all "these violent delights have violent ends." And season 2 explores the aftermath of such robot revolt, with the likes of Newton's Maeve discovering her higher-level powers over tech and robot hosts and Jeffrey Wright's Bernard Lowe coping with the concept that he's not human.
While some of my colleagues lost interest in Westworld after the first season, I enjoyed figuring out what's going on in season 2’s twisting, turning and jumping timelines (I can get how they may have frustrated some). Anthony Hopkins’ retuning as Dr. Ford with scene-stealing performances was also a treat. Plus, the addition of other worlds beyond the titular Westworld were good to get a glimpse at.
Season 3 took Westworld out of the park and into the real world. I enjoyed seeing a take on a near-future Earth, but something was lost in not having the mystery of robots discovering sentience mixed in with Old West and Feudal Japan settings.
Alongside the rise of Dolores and her enacting a form of revenge on the humans that tortured her and fellow hosts for decades, the other major plot point was Rehoboam, a quantum computer that basically manipulated human lives to impose order on the chaos of humanity. As a tech journalist who’s all too aware of various data collection and tracking gadgets, services and algorithms, this certainly hit home. But Westworld had started to become a little generic, with an ‘us vs them’ vibe that didn’t feel as subtle as the previous two series. It was still perfectly watchable with some neat moments.
Even bigger spoiler warning.
Freeze all pacing functions
And now we come to season 4. From the initial trailers it looked like there was going to be a good mix of intrigue and decent action. I feel we get the latter, with plenty of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat sequences, though none of these feel like stunning set pieces. But the intrigue part is all over the place.
Westworld introduces a multitude of plotlines. Some easily follow on from the events of season 3, such as Aaron Paul’s Caleb building a family life after the collapse of the society-controlling Rehoboam, and Maeve living a solitary life. Whereas others are more intriguing, such as Bernard seemingly rebooted after an extended time in The Subline virtual world and Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores reimagined as Christina, a human-like character living what seems like a regular life in a near-future New York; there’s not explanation as to how she ended up here or why.
This setup got my attention at first, as I liked the idea of a reset on the chaotic events of season 3, which at one point had basically turned Maeve into a pseudo Neo from The Matrix. But the pacing and the convoluted nature of these plotlines quickly messed things up.
I’m five episodes in, waiting for the next to drop, and already Maeve and Caleb have been reunited and broken up, with a breakneck visit through a prohibition-era America-inspired park, cumulating in the reveal of a virus designed to take over humans and how Caleb is now a host and all the events in the episode we're just flashbacks to established fidelity. Oh yes, Westworld is back on multiple timelines.
I’ve got no problem with things moving fast, but to me I feel there’s no real character development or growth here. Caleb is still an intense fellow who seems all too happy to quickly abandon his family. And as much as I think Newton is great, here character of Maeve feels rather two-dimensional, seemingly constantly spouting over-earnest about being in a new world and having the chance to be whomever they want or referencing old lines about having been in Westworld before; I feel Maeve has gone from Neo to Morpheus.
I’m not really sure what’s motivating Maeve either; she escaped the park, freed her daughter, disposed of people out to enslave her. So other than rescuing Caleb from an attack, I see no reason why she wants to get involved in the affairs of supposed antagonists William/The Man in Black and Charlotte Hale/Delores, as it’s not like she owes humanity anything.
Her ‘powers’ are also wildly inconsistent, seeming being able to take over complex systems from a single touch or glance but no longer being able to impose control over hosts. It used to be that when the phrase "freeze all motor functions" was uttered we'd get a cool sequence; now nothing happens. This is particularly irritating, as come the end of episode 5, it’s looking like Maeve is being set up as the one who can save enslaved humanity.
As for saving the world, that’ll involve going up against Hale/Dolores, played by Tessa Thompson, who's now taken over the world by effectively controlling humans via a form of virus or neurotoxin. Thompson has great screen presence and plays a god-like dictator well. However I feel she's wildly underused, especially when captured by Maeve and Caleb, where she's all but mute. Yet worse still, there’s been no through line from how she went from being manipulated by the ‘Dolores Prime’ of season 3 and actually caring about a human husband and son, to becoming a full-blown megalomaniac.
It feels like there were a few plot steps that have been glossed over or cut here. And if you’re thinking that sounds familiar, well it was the kind of feeling that the final season of Game of Thrones gave, with a story that accelerated at a heady pace, which gave little room for character nuance. Think of Daenerys going from 'breaker of chains' to mad queen in a handful of episodes.
Speaking of overly rapid character development, Bernard has gone from being a slightly confused robot trying to figure out what’s going on with the world, his role in it and what it means for the host to have gained consciousness, to someone who can see the future.
He’s become a pseudo Dr. Strange after accessing the Mind Stone in Avengers Infinity War, and as such has become a deeply annoying and two-dimensional character. Bernard does the classic movie thing of saying he knows what was going to happen without giving his buddy Stubbs a heads up; it makes me want to throw my remote at my lovely LG C1 OLED.
I really feel this has taken one of the most interesting characters in Westworld, with Wright’s performance delivering some low-key gravitas to any scene, and reduced into a vehicle to get certain characters from A to B in the story. It’s rote and disappointing.
Dolores? More like Do-snore-s!
And then we have the plotline of Christina, who is basically a modern-world Dolores from season 1. In season 4, we see Christina working a job coming up with stories for a computer game, with some odd events going on around her hinting that she’s somehow manipulating the real world and things aren’t as they seem.
This is eventually revealed to be the case with the return of Dolores’ love interest Teddy, who in modern-world form meets Christina on a blind date; cue a lot of ‘you seem familiar’ style lines. While this was all fairly predictable, what irked me is it took until episode 5 to get to this point, seemingly moving Christina’s story at a pace that was wildly different to that of the other characters. As a result, her story feels disjointed, almost like a Westworld spin off short series rather than something that should be in the main show.
And I feel that’s the crux of my problem with this season of Westworld: there’s an odd disconnect between the characters, the events and the timelines. It’s in complete opposite to what the first two seasons did, where the events of different timelines felt neatly connected with both small and large details helping tie them together.
When it became clear that Westworld season 4 also had separate timelines, I simply sighed. Not only was it telegraphed, with Bernard’s scenes taking in a dusty pseudo post-apocalyptic desert, I also felt that Westworld's writers were falling back on techniques established in the first two seasons, but with less finesse or intrigue. This disjointed pacing and repetition has made Westworld feel a lot less compelling, and at time borderline boring; not something I'd have ever expected.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of unanswered questions, such as what Hale’s overall motivations are and what it means for a host to “transcend.” But the throwaway teasing of these — along with the multiple plotlines that don't seem to be logically converging — means Westworld season 4 feels frustratingly convoluted.
Granted, the first two seasons of Westworld were far from simple; if I glanced down at my phone for even an instant, I'd be hopelessly lost until I rewound an episode. With season 4, the obtuse or thin nature of each character’s story, the repetitions of the trope that nearly anyone can be a host, and overall theme of the story — which once seemed centered on what it meant to be human or at least self-aware — seems to have lost all semblance of coherence.
It’s not that Westworld is not inherently bad, it’s just it seems to have a degree of pretentiousness to it, as if the good will and themes of the initial seasons is enough to carry it along, rather than offering fresher intrigue. Again, I can’t help but get Game of Thrones season 8 vibes here, with the idea that viewers just need to accept what’s going on in front of them and the motivations of the characters rather than explore how they got to that point.
There is one reason why I’ll continue to watch Westworld: Ed Harris. His portrayal as the older William and the intimidating The Man in Black steals every scene he’s in.
Harris manages to convey menace, intrigue, a degree of humanity, a sense of wry and tired understanding of the world, and a pain at adjusting to a new order — and do so with just a glance and a few lines. He’s really carrying the show, and I’m very pleased he’s got a major role in Westworld season 4.
While his host character is ultimately a tool for Hale, his (what I think is) human character is full of worldly knowledge of the human condition and a sense of restrained anger mixed with curiosity. And the way Harris simply holds himself in every scene really draws one’s attention.
With that saving grace, and the fact we have three more episodes to go for season 4, I’m hoping Westworld manages to stick the landing.
There’s still a lot of potential to Westworld. I just really hope we don't end up with a sci-fi equivalent of the final season of Game of Thrones; it would show that the writers know as much about ending a series as Jon Snow.
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