Westworld restarts in safe mode
One of the obnoxious things about people who watch a lot of TV is their insistence on claiming "It Gets Better." "It starts slow," I've been told about more shows than I can count. "But just wait until you get to the third season." If you ask me, though, life is short; who has the time to pay a 20-plus-hour toll to get to the good stuff?
That's why I hesitate to tell you about Westworld, which has rebooted itself for its third season with impressive results. The second season was, generously, a slog; I did a full rewatch of it this past week to get all my facts straight, and had forgotten just how infuriating it gets, as if the creators' entire goal was to get you to abandon it — as many fans did. Westworld reportedly saw a 14 percent decline in viewership over the course of its last season (I mean, that whole Shogun World side-quest was bad).
But based on the premiere of season three, which airs Sunday, we have a whole different show on our hands. This new and improved model of Westworld is more focused and easier to follow (really!), while still remaining ridiculous in all the right ways. Yes, now I'm the one saying it gets better.
The second season of Westworld had followed the robots' revolution against their human masters, as led by Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). In the finale, we saw the farmgirl-turned-Robespierre smuggle five "pearls" off the island, each containing one of the park host's consciousnesses (all the while in the guise of an android shaped like the Delos CEO Charlotte Hale, played by Tessa Thompson). The third season opens 92 days later; Dolores is back to looking like Wood, has gotten a haircut, and traded her corset for power dresses. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), whom she brought back to life to be her enemy, is living as a fugitive, working at a meat plant.
But if it weren't for those two familiar faces, and a brief scene with the Charlotte Hale android, you might think you've turned on a completely different show. The first episode opens with a minimalist title card telling you the scene is set in Beihei, China, a stylistic choice that Westworld has never used before, and for a moment I wasn't even sure if I'd put on the right screener; most of the rest of the episode is set in a futuristic Los Angeles, and none of it is in the park for which the series is named. Westworld additionally trims some fat by narrowing its cast in the first episode too. Instead of juggling dozens of hosts this season, we're working with the five that Dolores smuggled out of the park, those being presumably herself; Bernard; whoever's in the Charlotte skin; whoever's in the android doppelgänger revealed at the episode's end; and a still-MIA fifth character.
There are new characters, too, but for the time being they seem clearer and tighter than the is-he-human-or-is-he-robot characters that populated season two. Aaron Paul is here now, as a petty criminal named Caleb, who's trying to get straight while being oppressed by the system. Caleb serves as a kind of thematic bridge for the ongoing android metaphor; he lives in his own loop of existence, and vents that "they built the world to be a game and then they rigged it, to make sure they always won." Westworld had needed to adapt, since stretching the enslavement metaphor outside of the park would have been pushing it, and Caleb is their neat answer. Importantly, he also makes it clear from the start what the exploration of this season is going to be.
But for all the changes, Westworld still has the pieces of the show that made it fun to watch its first season. The world-building remains extraordinary, and the enviable HBO budget is put to full use. The self-driving cars! The architecture! The rooftop bars! The show liberally pulls from a variety of inspirations — it's more demented than Her, brighter than Blade Runner, and less baby's-first-Baudrillard than The Matrix — while remaining its own product. Jonathan Nolan, the show's co-creator along with Lisa Joy, directs the premiere and orchestrates a creative shoot-out using a car's backup camera to give a 360-degree view. We might not be in the old west anymore, but there are plenty of adventures, and firefights, to be had here, too.
Westworld still falls into some of its sillier habits, but without the inscrutability of season two, they feel less wearying and more excusable. The show tends to overuse characters barging in to intervene right at the most pivotal moments (the bad-guy fixer shows up just as Dolores is about to find out the name of the inventor she's after? Really?). It also brushes away some of its more confounding questions, like the exact parameters around what Dolores can and can't do — apparently she now has the ability to hack all technology, and make smart homes and motorcycles do her bidding?
Still, even if Westworld season three wants to play with some cheat codes, it's back to the goofy android fun of season one. The question going forward will be if it can resist the temptation of making everything simulations all the way down, the way it did in season two (that's something I can't promise, since HBO hasn't shared the full season with critics). What I can say, though, much to my chagrin, is that season three seems poised to make enduring all of season two's ridiculousness worth it. Hey, you're in quarantine anyway — catch up. It really does get better.