Is there a show as lavishly produced, beautifully acted, and mindlessly silly as Westworld? A prestige series so enamored by its own aesthetics and intelligence, it buries those traits under a veneer of needlessly overwrought plotting? I mean, if you’ve ever wanted to see a show masturbate to the thought of itself, look no farther than Westworld‘s ridiculously try-hard second season, ten episodes so infatuated with their own assumed profundity, they have no sense of coherency to anyone not taking detailed notes of the proceedings. There’s mysterious, and then there’s the timeline of Westworld season two, the most incoherently self-indulgent narrative exercise in recent memory – one that ends up in a rather intriguing place, appearing to trade in a futuristic cowboy hat for a full embrace of dystopian science fiction, one where human androids exact their vengeance on an unknowing population who spent decades preying on them.
For a show that regularly displays breathtaking technical mastery, and pairs it with so many compelling, laudable performances, there’s an inescapable feeling of emptiness accompanying every shocking death or big plot reveal on Westworld.
The opening hours of Westworld‘s third season, finds fertile new ground introducing Caleb (Aaron Paul) into the post-Westworld mix, a war veteran-turned-closet mercenary, desperately seeking relief from the overwhelming monotony of his post-military life. His character’s introduction mirrors that of Dolores in the series pilot: a person going through the depressing, oppressive routines of their lives, until a glitch in the system offers a glimpse of reality, a world beyond the suffering of the past and the whims of the one percenters. Given that Caleb is the first half-decent human we’ve met outside the park, it’s an easy avenue to find some humanity in the increasingly unhinged tale of DNA robbery, privacy breaches, and the unnecessary, constant drama of whether any given character is, or isn’t, a robot. Caleb is flesh and blood, a man haunted by his past (which often takes the form of a deceased friend, as his virtual therapist of sorts) – and one kidnapped by the future, coerced by a driven Dolores to help her exact revenge on the ones who locked them in their respective ‘cages’ (a turn of phrase Westworld remains very fond of).
Problem is, Caleb is but one segment of Westworld season three: and the more Jonathon Nolan, Lisa Joy and company widen the scope, the more the familiar, creeping feelings of disappointment and disillusionment follow. Ostensibly, Westworld is a series about humanity, about examining the capitalistic endgame intersecting the self-gratification of the rich, and the technology facilitating it. Once we can recreate the human experience, without the consequences of morality and responsibility, indulgence becomes a currency of its own, yet another marker measured by the richest bank accounts of society: Westworld, in its own way, is a horror story of unchecked human ambition, a critical examination of the “nature vs. nurture” debate; unfortunately, the more it became enamored by the narrative flexibility offered by its premise, the more unchecked Westworld‘s own ambitions become, to the point it feels like every single idea, good or bad, finds its way into the narrative structure.
This is no more obvious than with Maeve, long Westworld‘s most emotionally resonant picture of resiliency (at this point, Dolores is just an unhinged villain, if we’re being honest). Continuing a trend that began with the introduction of Shogun World, Maeve’s ability to conveniently transcend the boundaries of reality in Westworld (what with her ability to create unlimited amounts of power for herself thanks to Ford, except to do the one or two things she really wants to do) has laid bare the neatly-placed track her character is on. In season two, the rickshaw plotting obfuscated this a bit; but once the season two finale repeated the exact same arc as the end of season one, Maeve’s loop became impossible not to see – and season three’s done nothing to suggest any new course of action, putting her through the same path of limited empowerment, defeat, and persistence established in her character long ago.
Ultimately, that’s the feeling I can’t shake watching Westworld‘s third season: the more things change, as the setting moves out of theme parks and into the proto-futuristic world beyond, the more Westworld‘s essentially stayed the same, a collection of beautiful aesthetics and sharp performances, hindered by limited character development and an insistence on having 50% more plot than it actually needs to, at any given time. What changes it has made, have been more Altered Carbon than Blade Runner (or even Futureworld, the OG sequel it seems this season is borrowing core elements from): the more Westworld carries on, the lower and more tangential the stakes get. Altered Carbon lost its thread by turning its human characters into disposable sleeves backed up on remote hard drives; Westworld is doing the same thing with Dolores’s clones, an overreach of plot that undercuts much of the show’s inherent dramatic tension of survival. Without that tension, what are the stakes?
It’s strange to consider how much Westworld has changed since its first season, when Bernard was banging Delos managers and Teddy was just trying to live out his pre-determined life of misery and hopeless romantic pursuit. But as Westworld‘s gotten bigger (and traded in beautiful naturalistic landscapes for the cold veneer of post-modern architecture), it hasn’t exactly gotten better – if anything, it has shrunk its own possibility space, with its constant need to turn every plot into a mystery box, and its insistence on breaking its own logic, for the assumed sense of intrigue (exhibit A: the continued presence of William as an engaging, interesting part of the narrative, bless Ed Harris’s soul). Every plot device feels like a cheap trick at this point – and as the season careens towards two shitty narcissists (in Serac and Dolores) facing off with their respective armies (I mean, that’s GOTTA be what Dolores is doing, given what we see during Musashi’s cameo in “The Mother of Exiles”), the harder it becomes to engage with the show’s roughly sketched sociopolitical ideas.
For a show that regularly displays breathtaking technical mastery, and pairs it with so many compelling, laudable performances, there’s an inescapable feeling of emptiness accompanying every shocking death or big plot reveal on Westworld. Whatever moral or philosophic pretext was offered in early episodes, has faded away into a very cynical “robots and humans both suck” central narrative, that makes it hard to find anyone worth investing in, beyond poor Bernard (himself spending the first half of the season making a MacGuffin robot kill switch device).
Yes, it is fun to see Dolores and Maeve exact their revenge on the human world – but beyond those superficial thrills, what does the world of technocratic politics and AI clone armies really have to offer? Westworld‘s third season hasn’t offered a coherent answer – and as it builds towards the violent ends of its violent delights, I’ve never felt less invested in HBO’s signature science fiction series.