“Does Westworld lowkey suck? I’m never sure.” My co-worker’s tweet summed up the weekly conundrum that comes with watching this show last night in a succinct 45 characters. In the beginning, the matter of its quality wasn't so unclear. Not just the beginning of the series—which, regardless of your mileage on what came after, is a Hall of Fame Great Pilot™, objectively—but the beginning of this season. It held so much promise. It made good on both Dolores’ threats and the increased freedom TV shows have now to totally reinvent and reboot at will. Westworld’s season 3 premiere was only mostly Westworld: only three series regulars appeared, a new character’s introduction took up the lion’s share of screentime. The titular park’s Oregon Trail facsimile surface and drab futuristic subterranean labs? Gone. In its place, the “outside world” sentient hosts like Dolores and co-protagonist Maeve spent the last two seasons dreaming of, all flying cars, higher skyscrapers and sleek outfits to match, like if the aesthetic of Batman Beyond was sapped of its vibrancy and rendered live-action. We were reintroduced to Dolores in neo-noir femme fatale mode, taking vengeance on the uber-one percent and surrounded by new additions like the always-welcome character actors Tommy Flanagan and John Gallagher Jr. What’s not to like? But as Dolores and newcomer Aaron Paul’s Caleb’s paths converged, instead of looking forward to the season to come I tempered my expectations and optimism to simply bask in the thrill of enjoying Westworld without reservations while it lasted. And lo and behold: by week 2, we were back at the park.
*Spoilers for the entirety of Westworld season 3 follow*
Westworld has always been wayward and problematic in the weirdest ways. Its issues are borderline intangible: the cast is excellent, the budget looks like it could sustain a Phase 2 Marvel movie, the broad strokes of the story are compelling. Or at least, they should be. Husband-and-wife showrunners Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy simply don’t know how to tell it. Or rather, how to assemble their puzzle pieces for maximum emotional investment and impact; if their writers room has a mood board, it’s probably just an image of the Charlie Day conspiracy board meme. Executive producer J.J. Abrams is the auteur with a rep for “mystery box storytelling,” but he’s never met a narrative he couldn’t [over]simplify in favor of putting fun and character first. (Except maybe season 3 of Alias.) Nolan and Joy could’ve used a top edit from him. Of course, an affinity for tangled web narratives and Russian doll plot structures is to be expected from the guy who co-wrote Memento and Inception (and the rest of his big brother Chris’ other original films). But now imagine those classics stretched from two hours to multiple seasons with nothing but stylistic flair sustaining the story. After a while, the tricks wear thin.
Westworld often gets in its own way, mistaking narrative and structural complexity for depth. Season 1 dangled timeline trickery and a huge character turn in the audience’s face until it became so painfully obvious that the “reveal” landed with a thud. Season 2 was upfront about its dual timelines—only, the flashforwards designed to heighten the intrigue about the outcome of Dolores' robot revolution actually just sapped the urgency of the present. And season 3? One timeline, but despite a shorter episode order (by two), the second episode is an exercise in dicking around that somehow manages to make Maeve’s—Maeve!—grand reintroduction to the narrative woefully tedious.
Season 1 emerges as the best season with every rewatch (and I rewatched both ahead of 3 because a part of me knew without a complete recollection of the plot there was zero chance at enjoying a series that doesn’t have much else to offer). It plays like a ten-episode prequel to the real show—which is to say, it drags—but what it lacks in momentum it makes up for in development. Thandie Newton has had this series on her back for a while, but that would be impossible without the time and care put into Maeve’s slow-but-sure story of self-awakening and self-empowerment. And fan favorites like Bernard have spent the rest of the series coasting off the development they received in season 1. Season 2 started with violence and vigor but quickly petered out into a nonsense series of MacGuffins and non-starters, so much so that by the time we got to the post-credits teaser, instead of what-the-fuck intrigue I reacted with what-the-fuck resignation and exhaustion.
Season 3 offered an opportunity to streamline. Instead Nolan and Joy might have totally lost the plot. Bernard, who rounds out a triumvirate of co-protagonists with Dolores and Maeve, spent the season embarking on one waste of time after another. William, once the show’s most reliable spark second to Maeve, saw his arc reduced to nonsense much to Ed Harris’ vocal chagrin. (His death was a mercy killing—once the character devolved into literally just growling about how he was “going to save the fucking world” a dozen times across two episodes, it was clearly a wrap.) Maeve sacrificed herself for a “daughter” that didn’t even recognize her as such—instead of leaving it on the bittersweet note of watching her skip off into the sunset with another mother figure, a “reunion” is still being dangled as her primary motivation. Dangled by a new villain, the personification of one of the season’s biggest fails: a complete waste of the great Vincent Cassel as a cardboard evil trillionaire who, in a clumsy retcon, has been the final boss looming over Delos, Westworld and uh, the entire world, this whole time.
Did we need this guy here? Dramatizing Dolores unleashed on the world with a quest to upend human society was always going to be morally grey. Instead of rising to that challenge, we get Cassel’s Serac, the human copout: a man so villainous, heinous and stupid—programming the world, really—it rendered the story an easy black and white. What’s worse, he was bland as hell, as underlined in a Serac-centric episode that did absolutely nothing to shade in the character. The same can be said of fellow newcomer Caleb, who allowed Paul to mope and moon over Dolores all season, fire some cool guns, and not much else. Maybe the reveal that Caleb killed his best friend Kid Cudi would’ve hit if we learned it before the penultimate episode, and before the end of an episode that telegraphed it then drew it out in the most tedious manner.
I thought a shorter season would keep Westworld brisk and light on its feet, instead the pacing has only gotten worse. Season 3 has all of Westworld’s typical problems...with next to none of its redeeming qualities. It turns out this thin arc didn’t even need eight episodes, and as such, episode 2 and onward is one lopsided, sluggish episode after another. The exception being episode 4, the rare moment when the dozen or so disparate characters remembered they were on the same show and their subplots came together in an exciting collision course. Season 2 may be a failure on a sum of its parts basis, but at least those parts are great on their own. For all the hype Shogun World had, the visit there amounted to nothing—but as directed by Craig Zobel, it’s a beautifully shot self-contained adventure. “The Riddle of the Sphinx” cribbed from the LOST storytelling book to reveal what William and his nefarious company were really up to, all while offering a path for redemption for him. And the Ghost Nation tribe-centric “Kiksuya” impressively reframed one of the show’s fringe story threads into a love story that gave the final conflict a beating heart it desperately needed. Style (“Akane No Mai”), execution “(Sphinx”), character (“Kiksuya”). Season 3 has no such silver-lining. The closest we got to stylistic flair was Aaron Paul taking a goofy designer drug that had his perspective cycling through...film genres. Paul’s Caleb staring at Dolores with heart eyes while a romantic drama score swelled as she blasted bad guys away was sweet though.
Now we're left with a world on fire, a blaze the late Dolores (now a revolutionary martyr) hopes will cleanse humanity. Joss Whedon did the whole "predatory rich people inadvertently bring about the dystopian apocalypse" thing in two episodes of his deeply flawed but underrated series Dollhouse. That show also featured a shadowy corporation indulging one-percenter fantasies at the expense of increasingly sentient beings, with the apocalypse as the endgame. The road was bumpier, much less well-funded and handicapped by the confines of broadcast network TV. Still, with a tenth of the budget and some truly awful filler episodes, I'd trade the flashes of brilliance that show awarded for the vaccuum-sealed mid HBO enables with Westworld, where my Return on Emotional Investment shrinks with each passing season. And yet, the show's potential, impressive scope and tantalizing ideas make it near impossible to just write off. Again: Jonah Nolan has co-written some of the best sci-fi blockbusters for the last decade-and-a-half. Season 4 will probably look like a billion bucks and roll out with a trailer that draws all of us back in just to arrange and execute that story in the most tedious way. See you there.