'Westworld' Season 3: TV Review

A partial series reboot, but its strengths and weaknesses remain intact.
3/15/2020

Evan Rachel Wood's Dolores has left the park as HBO's futuristic examination of human identity returns for a long-awaited third season.

Since HBO has yet to announce a third-season premiere for Succession, I guess we'll have to make do with the premiere of its second best show about the dehumanizing and insulating effects of extreme wealth: Westworld.

You raise your eyebrows, but as you trace the various enclaves of opulence depicted on Succession — from kinky sex clubs in Prague to the rural retreat at Argestes — how could you doubt that were the series' events just a few years in the future, the Roys would be taking family vacations to Westworld, where, rest assured, Roman's activities would be truly immoral? Of course, on Succession, the disposable assets being cast aside by the main characters are flesh-and-blood people. That may be why that depiction of venal double-dealing actually connects for me, while the soulless pleasure seekers and manipulated synthetics of Westworld continue to leave me cold — even in a third season full of interesting narrative deviations that highlight many of the show's strengths but also swiftly reminded me of many of its frustrations.

Trailers for the third season of Westworld have attempted to sell the idea that this new run of episodes is close to a series reboot, which I wouldn't have minded at all after a second season of redundant plotting and frustrating dead-ends. So it's to viewers in my camp, viewers who watched every second of the second season and don't remember much or dropped out entirely, that I offer the warning that the reboot is only partial and Westworld remains Westworld, which should excite those who remain fully engaged.

Yes, the premiere — written by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan and directed by Nolan — introduces Aaron Paul's Caleb Nichols, a name The OC probably should have rendered off-limits. Caleb is a military veteran struggling to pay for his mother's medical bills by doing dangerous mercenary odd jobs through a nefarious app. Caleb is one of the first characters on Westworld to give any indication of how "ordinary" people live in the show's futuristic society and so it isn't surprising that after a strong introduction showing his day-to-day life on a construction crew, Caleb becomes involved with Evan Rachel Wood's Dolores and presumably we won't see any hints of his "regular" life ever again. Oh well.

Dolores, you'll perhaps recall, got out into the real world at the end of last season and she's on a mission of robo-revenge against all of humanity, initially targeting a wealthy technocrat (John Gallagher Jr.'s Liam), whose company is known for "saving the world through algorithms." Since Caleb's primary complaint about the military was its "better living through science" ideology and its obsession with algorithms, you can see how he might fit in.

While that first episode takes the series out into the real world and hints at a bold new Westworld, the retreat back into the parks, albeit at least one park that we've never seen before, begins with a second episode that brings back many familiar faces and suggests how characters like Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) are responding to the prospect of Dolores' uprising. I don't think that spoils anything at all, though the great, or perhaps not-so-great, thing about Westworld spoilers is that they generally don't make a lick of sense out of context. So I could tell you about several characters you might have assumed were dead who appear in the early episodes, and that would hardly be a spoiler in a world of free rejuvenation and replication.

Maeve perfectly articulates one of my biggest problems with Westworld: "It's alright, darling. None of it matters. Because none of it is real."

I've simply never been able to empathize with the hosts just because all of the humans appearing in Westworld are basically garbage, or to invest in characters who can die and be brought back with an application of latex and some rewiring. I'd say this was a "me" problem, but from Short Circuit to A.I. to Ex Machina to Her, "caring" about robots isn't something I've struggled with in general. Maybe the reason I struggle with Westworld is the sense that each of the first two seasons represented an hour of plot in totality, padded with nine hours of characters whispering — always whispering — with insufficient profundity about self-determinism, intercut with shootouts that result in literal piles of bodies belonging to characters and non-characters that can be brought back with lasers and a screwdriver. The show is 10 percent plot and 90 percent affected dialogue and affectless violence.

By virtue of the need to re-establish a story and the outside world, the first four episodes of the new season are maybe closer to 20 percent plot and Westworld benefits from that. Dolores' plan actually is cool at times and the situation that brings Dolores and Caleb together is entertaining and, in a way that's rare to Westworld, fast-paced and even propulsive. But Caleb is the lone male character on Westworld who feels even slightly intriguing, a remarkable demerit for a show that employs or has employed the likes of Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Hopkins.

At this point, the actresses are Westworld for me. Wood, who started the series as a lead but was pushed into a secondary capacity for much of the last two seasons, is utterly front and center here and she's sleek, stylish, marvelously icy — a badass pleasure to watch at every turn. Newton remains the series' vulnerable heart, if such a thing exists, and Thompson has an enjoyable expanded capacity this season as if Nolan and Joy only just realized that they have a burgeoning movie star under contract and they've barely used her. There's nothing the show's directors love nearly as much as letting one of these actresses sweep across the frame, sometimes in slow motion and always immaculately styled and coifed. It's a beautifully shot show, featuring some of TV's most ambitious special effects, but you could take nearly every dialogue-lite scene and turn it into a commercial for perfume or some luxury automobile, the type of thing an A-list actor would shoot for audiences in Japan or Italy.

Paul, confident within his uneasy hero comfort zone, is a solid addition to the cast, as are Tommy Flanagan and Vincent Cassel, as suave and dangerous new adversaries. I'd note that as compelling as Flanagan and Cassel are, they're not actors whom you want to give piles of expositional dialogue to and such piles of expositional dialogue both of them surely have here. Possibly the most bizarre thing about Westworld is how much the writers love exposition but don't care if audiences can understand the exposition, like it's intended as white noise.

By the time I finished this season's first batch of screeners, I was convinced that a great version of Westworld exists, that it's a lot like Killing Eve, only with Maeve and Dolores stalking and flirting with each other, and that Westworld will never set aside its exposition-philia long enough to become that show.

Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Tessa Thompson, Ed Harris, Aaron Paul, Vincent Cassel, Tommy Flanagan

Showrunners: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy

Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, starting March 15.