What is Westworld now? The high-profile HBO series created by husband-and-wife showrunners Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy was once hailed as the successor to the HBO Sunday throne. But throughout a few rocky seasons—the less said about the unevenness of Season 2, the better, and I challenge you to remember anything about the interlocking intricacy of Season 3’s plot without reading Wikipedia—the show has still maintained a fervor amongst its diehard fans. Sure, it drove watercooler discussions because its viewers saw it as a puzzle to be solved instead of a show to be enjoyed.
Season 4 of Westworld arrives in a position where it feels as if the weighty expectations once placed upon it are gone, thanks in part to the overhaul of its direction last go-round. We pick up about eight years since the events of the Season 3 finale, wherein Dolores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) death gave Caleb (Aaron Paul) the information he needed to end the reign of the predictive AI Rehoboam, which was being used to control all of humanity. Turns out, Caleb and Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) decision to destroy Rehoboam didn’t have as much of an impact—life, more or less, continues at the same pace; both have moved on and haven’t seen one another in years.
Caleb is on to new adventures, and Maeve lives off the grid in a forest-clad cabin that would make Dexter smile. Everything is relatively status quo—until the robot versions of Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) begin to execute a nefarious new scheme, bringing Caleb and Maeve back together to stop them. Elsewhere, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) awakes after spending an undetermined amount of time exploring the robot afterlife and partners with his stalwart friend Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) on a new quest. Despite Dolores’ death, Evan Rachel Wood returns—albeit as a new character named Christina, who works as a narrative writer for the NYC-based Olympiad Entertainment—who lives with her roommate Maya (Academy Award winner Ariana DeBose) and begins to wonder if there’s more to current reality.
If all of this sounds complicated to you, well, welcome to Westworld. But one of the season’s biggest surprises is how straightforward the plot is for once. A nice refresher on the events of Season 3 won’t hurt if you want to understand the nuance of every single moment. Still, even without it, I found it easy to track the various stories which unfolded across the four episodes sent to critics (I watched all four) ahead of the Sunday, June 26 premiere. While the show is still trafficking in mysteries and plot reveals, those answers and revelations come at a steady clip and aren’t obscured behind inscrutable plot devices; it seems after three bites at the apple, Nolan and Joy finally figured out how to tell their story in a way that’s naturally compelling instead of making it needlessly complicated. The resulting series is a breath of fresh air in the way Season 3’s reboot was initially supposed to feel. The show still looks and feels as crafty (and expensive!) as ever, excelling at drawing viewers into this world.
When it comes to what happens once you’re in, the series still isn’t without its issues. There’s still a lot of gesturing about the nature of reality, which is now a feature of the show and not a bug. If you’ve grown tired of those conversations, you’ll likely be checked out on the series a long time ago, and there’s nothing here that will bring you back into the fold. Additionally, the whole storyline with Christina is a bit undercooked at this point in the season. While it’s admirable the series wants to keep Wood around, Christina is more mystery box than a character at this point; even with Wood’s superlative acting—she infuses Christina with that same vibrant warmth we saw her bring to Dolores’ early days—on display. I’m hopeful the back half of the series will provide juicier material for her to dig into. DeBose doesn’t have much to do either, as her role is pretty thankless and doesn’t provide her any of the magnetic charisma she radiated throughout West Side Story. It’s evident the writers are building this storyline to result in something, but it’s a little challenging to tell what exactly that might be at this point in the season; as a result, Season 4 falters a bit when it focuses on Christina.
Westworld does fare better regarding its plotlines for the rest of its returning cast. Season 3’s overall direction didn’t feel totally aligned with Paul’s strengths, despite feeling more alive than many of the series’ previous human characters. This time, the material is better suited to him, allowing Paul’s natural caregiving sensibilities to shine through in a compelling and engrossing way for his character. However, the scars of past battles still linger and give Caleb a suitable—and understandable—edge to him, which Paul wonderfully renders. The best moments are when the series partners Newton and Paul together; the two only shared a handful of scenes together in the season prior but had an immediate spark which the series further refines this season.
With Wood slightly off to the side, Westworld becomes the Thandie Newton show, which benefits everyone involved; she’s consistently electric, and the series gives her no shortage of fun things to do. Equally as active are the duos of Wright/Hemsworth and Thompson/Harris; both pairings are singularly focused on their goals this time around, but even those one-minded objectives are interesting and engaging. Thompson, in particular, seems to relish turning heel and chews the scenery accordingly, as does Harris, who is fully back in black hat territory with the Man in Black, as the show jettisons any of the character’s conflicted backstory in favor of just letting Harris be a right bastard.
Forgive my tired analogy, but Season 4 of Westworld feels like a bit of tech that’s been through significant firmware updates and is now, at long last, finally delivering on its promise after years of squashing bugs. There are flashes of a great show here and there—it’s still well-made and is more compelling than it has been in a while—but even at the midpoint of the season, it’s too early to tell if everything will ultimately come together in a meaningful or satisfying way. But it seems after a few tries, Westworld understands its problems and is setting itself up to address them in real-time. That’s a welcome level of self-awareness even the robotic hosts who have long remained at its center would aspire to have—and the show is stronger for it.