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I’m no technical expert, but did anybody ever consider unplugging Westworld for 30 seconds and then plugging it back in?
I ask because for a show in which nobody can ever really die — or, if they do die, they can be brought back as robots — and, after the third season, anybody can apparently change identities with just the flick of a switch, HBO’s Westworld is extremely bad at resetting itself.
Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, June 26 (HBO)
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandiwe Newton, Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Tessa Thompson, Luke Hemsworth, Aaron Paul, Angela Sarafyan, James Marsden
Creators: Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy
As its fourth season begins, Westworld has settled into what is now a comfortable routine: Take a couple of episodes to establish the new normal, even if that amount of exposition is either completely unnecessary or woefully insufficient. Find an interesting rhythm for a few episodes at midseason. Unravel into convoluted chaos, wherein it becomes clear either that nothing really makes enough sense to remember or it becomes even clearer that there’s no way for meaningful stakes to develop in a show in which nobody (other than possibly Anthony Hopkins) is ever permanently gone and anybody can become somebody else with a burst of techno mumbo-jumbo. Lather. Renew. Repeat.
And here’s the fun thing: Maybe you disagree with every bit of that last paragraph. Maybe you love the show’s slow-burn world-building. Maybe you vividly remember every detail that happened in the last season because you’ve rewatched every episode two or three times, accumulating evidence and cracking codes. Maybe you think it’s a provocative meditation on free will or robotic ethics or fungible identity in an NFT world.
Then this review is not for you. I can’t tell you how good or bad the first four new Westworld episodes are if you love the show. I can only check in on behalf of viewers who are, like I am, tantalizingly intrigued by some aspects and perpetually infuriated by many others. So I’m not even sure if it’s frustrating or weirdly reassuring to note that the fourth season of Westworld is business as usual. It’s two episodes of comically elongated resetting of the pieces on this futuristic chessboard, followed by two episodes in which some of the ideas are provocative or at least amusing.
Will it all come together in a way that’s narratively sensible and emotionally satisfying? Fool me thrice, shame on me. Fool me four times, shame on Westworld.
So when creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy left things… oh, who cares. You either remember or you don’t, and if you care, there are bits and pieces of flashbacks and talky refreshers. But at the same time, it truly doesn’t matter. Why be perplexed by old business when the new business offers new things to be perplexed by?
Seven years have passed since whatever happened at the end of the third season, which aired back in May 2020. Aaron Paul’s Caleb is living with a wife (or girlfriend, I don’t suppose it matters much) and things are back to normal, so much so that one of his co-workers is unable to understand what the point of the revolution seven years earlier was, which is pretty much how I felt watching it unfold.
Maeve (Thandiwe Newton), whoever Maeve is these days, is in peaceful retreat in a remote cabin until that peace is violently shattered. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), whoever Bernard is these days, is in whatever dusty place we saw him in after the credits from last season. Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), or whoever Charlotte is these days (Dolores, if memory serves, but it probably doesn’t), is plotting nefariously. Also plotting nefariously is William (Ed Harris), whoever William is these days, who has gone full-on Man in Black, making people offers he hopes they’ll refuse so he can kill them.
Oh, and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) isn’t Dolores anymore, because who is who they used to be? The person who looks like Dolores used to look is now called Christina and she’s a writer for a virtual reality video game, sharing a cramped apartment with Maya (Ariana DeBose), who mostly wants Christina to get laid.
Because so many pieces of the show’s cast are able to rotate from good guys to bad guys, depending on their programming, and because so many pieces of the show’s cast are in their hundredth or thousandth permutation of what counts as “living,” there’s very little opportunity for new faces to appear. Along with Aurora Perrineau and Daniel Wu — as figures within the human resistance that gives the season its “plot” — DeBose is the primary new figure, and it’s almost astonishing how wasted she is through these first four episodes.
Am I confident that DeBose’s character is harboring some secrets that will eventually give her at least a modicum of payoff? Sure. Do I still think it should be against the law to take a performer as versatile and instantly galvanic as Ariana DeBose and give her four solid episodes of nothing more than “Concerned roommate who wants her friend to get laid?” Yes. Illegal.
If all Maya is doing is trying to get Christina laid, instead of taking her to boring wine bars to do it, why not go to a karaoke bar or a line-dancing bar for that same purpose? Or have the two characters go to MusicalTheaterWorld, the hosts of which are just characters from classic musicals, which was basically the plot of Schmigadoon! anyway. Ariana DeBose doesn’t require singing or dancing to be charismatic, but she’s way too good for this.
Of course, not getting full value out of great actors and sometimes great ideas is what Westworld does best. I’m still angry about the season three episode in which Paul’s character took a party drug that caused him to experience the world through the filter of different movie genres, yet the show had so little fun with that seemingly juicy premise that characters had to explain what each new genre was.
Westworld boasts first-class special effects and robustly polished aesthetics and too many good conceits to count, and yet it’s a conspicuously poorly directed show, wallowing in momentum-stunting visuals and anticlimactic action set-pieces.
That’s why it’s very difficult for me to get invested even when Westworld does cool things. As the third and fourth episodes roll around, there are cool things aplenty as two characters go to a reopened theme park modeled after classic gangster movies. The park gives Westworld an opportunity to comment on the hollowness of reboot culture.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think the show was engaging in meta-commentary about how putting a handsome new skin on something that didn’t work well before and hoping nobody will notice is a recipe to repeat the same disasters, maybe even apologizing for prior narrative missteps. It’s not, any more than it’s a critique of the way nostalgia causes us to fetishize even the ugliest aspects of the past, treating even something like the massacre at Westworld as a reproducible version of The Good Ol’ Days.
Speaking of The Good Ol’ Days, what will keep me watching are the same things that have kept me sticking with Westworld for this long. Newton is a badass treasure as Maeve, though I don’t know when the writers decided to make that character so glib and jokey. Wood continues to do subtle, complex work, though if I didn’t suspect where the show was going with “Christina,” I’d think this was a boring character introduction. Wright does pensive sternness and Paul does frazzled torment better than just about anybody. Throw in the perpetually striking and perpetually underused Thompson, the eternally gruff and grizzled Harris and a bunch of amusing callbacks and I’ll presumably keep watching Westworld until its next season-opening reset.
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