Familiar Patterns, Familiar Faces
Westworld: Season 3
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for WestworldWritten and directed by Michael Crichton, Westworld depicted a theme park with thrills and dangers unlike any that currently exists, all to highlight the hubris of man when the park inevitably descends into chaos. The movie spawned a second film, Futureworld, and a popular (and twisty) HBO series.. The original film is a cheesy bit of fun (a concept that the original author, Michael Crichton, would revisit in Jurassic ParkWhile ever kid has dreams of seeing dinosaurs, Michael Crichton gave that dream a reality, at least on paper. His two Jurassic Park books spawned a movie franchise that's gone five movies strong (with no signs of slowing down), all because people love seeing dinosaurs made flesh.), and the film itself is infinitely watchable just for how oddly dark and fun it can be. When HBO created a TV series based on the property, I was, of course, in. More Westworld? Yes, please!
The first two seasons were pretty interesting, too. With the setup that the robots at the titular park were slowly gaining consciousness (some might say they were gaining their souls), the show explored its concept better than the movie could, adding on deeper concepts, twisty timelines, and several reveals that re-contextualized what we'd seen before. By the end of the second season we had the robots completely tearing down the park with a couple of them, most specifically lead robot Dolores, escaping the park into the real world, the series promised big changes and bit things to come.
The issue is that the third seasons doesn't really have that much new to say about the concept, not a lot further it can push its own concept. For the third season, Dolores (still played by Evan Rachel Wood) is working out in the real world, trying to bring the old human order down so she can make a civilization more welcoming to robot-kind. But pulling this of isn't going to be that easy because there's a powerful force, an A.I., controlling the fates of all humans (and most of them don't even realize it). This A.I. guides them, forced them down life paths, and even pulls some of them out of the world, locking them away if they're "deviants" so they don't throw off the proper path of civilization.
Why does it do all this? Not just to keep the rich and powerful more rich and powerful, but also because without this guiding hand humanity is fated to die, killing each other in a mass extinction event. Dolores, though, thinks there's another path, either for her kind or maybe for everyone, and she wants to cause it, to bring about revolution, to tear it all down. She finds a human agent, Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul), brings him into her orbit, and starts using him as the guiding force for her movement. The question is: does Dolores really have everyone's best fates at heart, or is she going to cause the end of the world?
Don't get me wrong, there are parts of the third season of Westworld that I really liked. I thought the idea of these robots (the "hosts" as they're called) roaming around the real world with their own agendas was pretty cool. It had the potential for them to muck around with the world order, to create their own army and shift the balance of power. It has narrative directions it can go if you can figure out how to twist it and use it right. I don't feel like the show creators, though, knew what to do with it once the robots were out in the world.
Think about it. The first season ended with one of the hosts, Dolores, waking up about her reality which then spun her, in the second season, to being a revolutionary leader working to tear her world down. Now, in third season, we have Caleb finding out the true nature of his (human) world and then joining the revolution to tear his whole world down. The lead character of these stories is different but the main intent is the same. What, are we going to find out now that this world has been broken there's a whole other world controlled by aliens and then Caleb is going to foment a revolution and inspire one everyman, ZikZak, to tear his alien world down? It's too familiar, too repetitive.
That's the big issue with this season: everything about it is familiar. We're getting the same basic construction of seasons one and two, the same factors, the same intent, just layered over a different variant of the same world. Sure, it's humans being controlled and used like puppets instead of hosts, but what does that really tell us that's new or different for this story? Nothing, really, and it leaves this season feeling outwardly stylish but inwardly hollow.
Part of what was so cool about the first season of the show was that it took the idea of Westworld, a movie focused on an accidental robot revolution where the humans have to try to escape and survive, and then said, "what if the hero was one of the robots instead?" I liked that idea and it fueled a good season or so of story. Even the robot revolution of season two had its own charms even if the film tried to find ways to develop twists out of story threads that really didn't go anywhere. It wanted to play its same tricks again but didn't have as much to work with somehow. It still ended with a great finale, a twist (I won't spoil) that felt earned and really put most of the hosts in a better place. It concluded, in a way, with only a few of the characters we knew left standing.
And I think that's why this season feels like it goes so far off the rails: once the show reached that ending at season two, giving most of the characters a narrative finale that felt right, where does it go from there. Sure, Dolores is still angry, and Maeve -- a character who was hugely essential to the first two seasons but is so incidental this time around that I haven't even mentioned her before now in this review -- still wants to be with her (robot) child. But that's not enough on its own to create a full season of story. Season three tries, but it bumps up against the lack of a lot of material to work with and just spins the same story all over again instead.
I think Maeve is indicative of the real problems here. The show is so dedicated to following the story of Dolores and Caleb, as if seeing this parallel to the original two seasons told all over again is worthy of all our focus, but it basically sidelines everyone else. Maeve was growing as a character, and she had a whole host of powers that she'd gained over two seasons (for whatever reason she learned to transcend her programming and start controlling other machines and hosts), but this season just makes her into a shallow antagonist without much to do but chase Dolores around. She doesn't go anywhere with her character after two seasons of, frankly, becoming the deepest and most interesting character in the series.
I can't say I hated this season of Westworld; that feels too strong. Instead I'm disappointed. The show had fire and energy coming out a season two and it promised a new world order for out characters. But instead of delivering on that promise it's retreated into itself and lost all sense of what really made the show work. This season ends, more or less, where the last season did, just with a whole extra layer of the system removed. Hopefully this time we'll gain a truly new direction for the show in season four, but I'm worried that we're stuck for even more of the same once again, and if that happens I might finally have to face the fact that this show has gotten bad. Not yet... but soon.