This review contains spoilers for all seasons of Westworld.
The third season of HBO’s Westworld aired its season finale yesterday at the time of writing. Westworld is a science fiction series set in the not-so-distant future, and follows the story of a species of robots called hosts, built to be the playthings of conscious humans, and their struggle to free themselves from their artificial reality. The third season of the show begins with the leader of the hot revolution from Season 2, Dolores, having managed to escape from Westworld undetected. The story of the third season involves her actions aimed at tearing down a world-order that eerily resembles a reality she’s more familiar with. The season stars a full returning main cast including Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Tessa Thompson, and Luke Hemsworth among others. Season 3 also introduces a character called Caleb Nichols, played by fan of the show Aaron Paul. Westworld is created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, and has already been renewed for a fourth season.
I want to say first that the idea of this season is fantastic, getting much closer to the unbridled genius of the first season than the second season ever got close to doing. The parallelism between the real world and Westworld, in the way that humans and controlled and limited within their own narrative loops, determined by forces beyond their control, is really clear and more than a little bit potent. On a conceptual level, this season challenges the idea of free will and agency to a degree we haven’t even seen on Westworld before, much less any other source of media. The symbols and parallels are numerous; from the ways in which a person’s story is mapped out for them by a system’s calculations, to the frozen state “outliers” (another word for “defective”) people are placed; the season looks to point out that people are just as devoid of agency as the artificial intelligence they created to pleasure themselves by controlling. Conceptually, in the context of the two seasons that have gone before, this is an amazing idea that had an incredible amount of potential.
And yet, somehow, season 3 didn’t quite hit the heights that season 1 did, thanks mainly to a rushed and convoluted execution of the aforementioned brilliant idea. For the life of me, I can’t understand why they possibly chose to shorten this season. Could it seriously have been a budget problem? For HBO? It’s either that, or the Nolan and Joy have tragically miscalculated the amount of time that was required to deliver this season in a satisfying way.
I would say the first half or so of the season is pretty great. Certainly, the first two or three, and arguably the fourth episodes, were fantastic. It set up the concept and a pretty fascinating situation for the characters, particularly Dolores and her God-knows-how-many copies. Caleb was an interesting enigma, Serac was a cool, enigmatic villain, Rehoboam was an interesting construct (maybe not as interesting as the Maze, but at least more so than The Valley Beyond). Halores’ whole identity crisis was interesting, even before we knew exactly who was in there, and Bernard teaming up with Stubbs had some promise of intrigue. At that point, the lack of a certain Man in Black and Maeve’s motivations getting a little repetitive at this point were the only two things that were at all indicative in a decline in storytelling mechanics, and only the former was instantly noticeable.
It was around the halfway mark that things started to get murky. The real problem was, inevitably the pacing. You just can’t cram a story like Westworld, it’s too nuanced and detail-specific to get vague with, which is what the last few episodes did. The enigma of Caleb Nichols was kind of…unsatisfyingly resolved. I don’t think this is a product of the actual content of his past, I liked the memory-editing and all it represented as a parallel to the mechanics of Westworld, but something about the way it was brought across felt kind of bland. His importance in the scheme of Dolores’ plan was kind of unexplained. They suggested, with the use of one scene in the season finale, that he was chosen because he wouldn’t participate in the raping of a bunch of host women during a training session in another park. I get what they’re saying, but to introduce those training sessions and that instant in the space of ten minutes to answer a question that’s persisted throughout the season is a little inadequate. Dolores’ motivations and plans were really vague as well. Why she waited until the absolute last moment to reveal that her intention wasn’t as simple as “kill-all-the-humans” is a mystery to me, the way I see it, she could’ve avoided a lot of fighting with Maeve and, frankly, Bernard, if she’d just been a little forthcoming about what it was that she wanted. Her “death” (the finality of which remains to be seen) was actually one of the best scenes of the season, and had a real poetic beauty to it. It didn’t exactly make up for the murkiness of her character for the rest of the season, but it was a nice homage to her character throughout the course of the show thus far.
The most irritating aspect of this season was, however, the way it treated characters like Bernard and William. The Man in Black was basically a non-player this season. When he was in the episode, he was never a main storyline, constantly side-lined in favour of everyone else on screen, with the only possible exception of Bernard and Stubbs. If the last episode and, more specifically, the end credits scene, is any indication, then we can probably prepare to see a lot more of them in the next season (in host form, in William’s case).
Even Serac ended up being kind of a let-down. I wish they’d focused more on his and his brother’s similarities to Ford and Arnold as creators of a controlling reality, instead of having him eventually be subservient to the system he created. Again, a great concept for an antagonist, one whose rhetoric even makes some amount of sense, but poorly executed when it all came down to it.
All in all, I was pretty disappointed by season 3. The show has always been complicated, but I don’t think one could ever have accused it of being particularly vague or frustrating before. Again, the concept is incredible, and might’ve come close to the first season if it hadn’t been rushed in 8 episodes (still not clear on why that would be). There have been some who’ve suggested that Westworld needs, well, Westworld, to be as good as it used to be. I’d like to believe that isn’t true, thy managed to squeeze out a hell of an idea without the horses and pistols of the old West. The problem was not the lack of dirt, frankly, it was an interesting change of pace for the show that worked pretty well. The problem was time, specifically not having enough of it, and a subsequent rush job on the exposition and revelations that felt inadequate, unsatisfying, and lacking in emotional impact in comparison to reveals in previous seasons.
All of that having been said, I’m pretty optimistic for the fourth season. The end credits scene with William and Halores was amazing, and it hinted at the actual host vs. humans war that could break out if Halores prints enough hosts to challenge Caleb and his “new world order.” As for whatever the hell was going on with Bernard, it’ll hopefully translate to more screen time next season. As long as they don’t try making an 8 episode season again, we should have reason to get pretty excited.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Season 3 Score – 82/100