Published on May 11th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
‘Westworld’s’ Messy Third Season Accidentally Worked
Season 3 touted a fresh, futuristic setting, yet its philosophy was at odds with its increasingly campy tone. Did that end up actually working in its favor?
Warning: The following review contains spoilers for all three seasons of Westworld.
Remember when Westworld’s first season was unleashed upon the television-viewing masses? The most common take on it was that it was TOO smart for its own good—too twisty, too solipsistic, too intellectual. It was seen as the HBO equivalent to a graduate seminar in empirical philosophy. I remember having friends who refused to watch it because it was too challenging; it promised to make them think and they just weren’t in the mood most of the time. However, I had other friends, mostly the kind of dorm room-pot smoking set, who ate it up like candy. All of its twists and teases, the questions like “who’s a host?” and “how many concurrent timelines are we seeing?” were taken up like peer-reviewed thought experiments of the highest order.
Whether or not the show was actually that smart, creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy sure proved that they knew how to make smart look sexy, finding a perfect vestibule to evoke all these ideas with a pastiche of genres and an entertaining verve. The show knew perfectly well that no one would really care about the ethical questions surrounding AI or the philosophy of what constitutes life, consciousness, et. al unless there were gun battles and boobs and mysterious mazes and soapy, melodramatic cliffhangers.
The show’s flagship season, while at its core quite thought-provoking, found a way to embrace its respective sci-fi and Western influences, to give fans that iconography they craved. And most importantly, they embraced the most important sub-genre of them all: the HBO series. They took HBO’s reputation for “smart, adult content” and illustrated perfectly why it was an alluring façade. They found just the perfect balance of smart drama and campy genre piece. Best of both worlds.
When Westworld hit its second season, nearly two years after its first, it struggled. It felt pressure, as all sophomore seasons do, to up the ante. It had to be more philosophically ingenious than the first but also more kick-ass, more visceral, more mind-blowing. What resulted was a season that kind of deconstructed the sub-genre of HBO. It illustrated the limitations of its juggling act, kind of like the house of cards The Delos Corporation built within the series itself. Delores (Evan Rachel Wood), the once enslaved host who has finally discovered consciousness and achieved sentience, has gone full Che Guevara. And the beloved character Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) is forced to come to terms with his own artificiality while stopping Delores’ reign of terror. And Charlotte (Tessa Thompson), the conniving corporate stooge of Delos, is on a mission to collect the oh-so-coveted guest data that is the key to…immortality?
The show finds itself stretched too thin, a byproduct of ambitious philosophy and mind-bending sci-fi concepts being forced to their extremes too quickly. The show doubles down on its parallel timeline gimmick, but this time making it ten times more confusing because as opposed to Season 1’s twist that the timelines are decades apart, in Season 2, the timelines are only weeks apart. It throws in a virtual after-life, multiple tertiary parks like Samurai World, body-switches, simulated consciousnesses; you get the idea. Its smartness gets in the way of its coolness and vice versa. What is entertaining is usually also confusing and what is meant to be confusing is not half as entertaining.
It seems that Joy and Nolan got the notes from the focus groups on Season 2 because, after another two years hiatus, the show returned to look absolutely nothing like its former self. It gave itself a makeover not only in setting and subject matter, but also in its narrative approach. This time around, we barely even see Westworld. Instead, we are treated to “the real world” of the future, the world so coveted by Dolores as she infiltrates its society.
Season 3’s central conceit, its excuse for why this season belongs to a show called Westworld, is that the real world is not unlike the host’s artificial reality. Caleb (Aaron Paul) is a war veteran with PTSD who is recruited by Dolores to help her take down Rohoboam, a supercomputer with a seemingly fool-proof prediction algorithm created by the enigmatic trillionaire known as Serac. The supercomputer rules society: every business’s decision, every government tactic, every person’s social status—they are all dictated by the blind faith in Rohoboam’s prediction software. We get a taste of this early on as Caleb is seen droning away at a boring construction job (his co-worker is a literal robot). He attempts to apply for a better job but is turned away because, of course, Rohoboam just didn’t see it in the cards. People are all living in a kind of simulation, a matrix of millions of narratives written in advance. Sound familiar?
With this concept serving as the show’s backbone, I was fully excited by the philosophical implications. The show set itself up perfectly to retain its reputation for conflicting thought experiments while finding a new angle to approach its themes. And Season 3 does, indeed, follow through on its promise to deconstruct the implications of a utilitarian society run by a system that insists that hierarchies–a system of pre-determined social status–were the key to a perfect world. A world that would resist the basic human urge to destroy itself.
With Serac positioned as the season’s villain and Dolores positioned as a strange kind of anti-hero, the show created a fresh idea of revolution. One that juxtaposed the plight of the hosts and their bondage in Westworld with the idea of human revolution and the concept of free will. Dolores and Caleb embark on a journey to set humanity free of its programmed narratives. They see themselves as bastions of liberty. And the show very smartly forces us to face this question of whether we root for the revolutionaries or we admonish their plight to essentially take over the world.
That’s what Season 3 has going for it, along with some other pretty thoughtful stories that intertwine—mainly the emotionally vexing journey of a Dolores proxy host who masquerades as Charlotte Hale, the CEO of Delos Corp. But within this thought-provoking and relatively fresh framework is a corny, often straight-up lazy piece of sci-fi camp. And I can’t tell if I liked it or not. On one hand, the show has always embraced its influences. The original Michael Crichton novel and its 1973 film adaptation are slices of pure, low-rent cheese. The film is basically a slasher as it follows a “host” who essentially just goes rogue and slaughters people.
The HBO series exchanges that simplicity for a tremendous amount of complexity. But it also knows that it is an outlandish sci-fi adventure. It has never hesitated to throw in a soapy twist or a gruesome, unrealistic fight scene, or the occasional Thrones-esque contrived, character teleportation. The show has always had a weird relationship with what it promises the viewer. On one hand, it so desperately wants you to take it seriously, to think long and hard about it and see it from every angle. On the other hand, to facilitate its philosophical whims, it desperately asks the audience to suspend disbelief. The classic B-movie trait of “don’t think about it too hard, just let it hit your eyeballs.”
Season 3 finds itself turning up the camp to an unprecedented degree. As I said earlier, Joy and Nolan seemed to have gotten the message loud and clear that season 2 played it too close to the chest. Season 3 constantly feels like it overcompensates so it can just let it all hang out. Dolores shuttles all around the world covertly without anyone knowing. Bernard, who has been recreated by Dolores and set up as a kind of patsy for Westworld’s violent debacle, plays a kind of de facto hero character whose plight to stop Dolores often feels more like a hackneyed ploy by the writers to even out the scales. He seems to kind of just show up whenever necessary without much explanation other than “just go with it.” And fan-favorite Maeve is used like a puppet by Serac for far too long, and when she finally does make the predictable turn toward independence, the show seems to pat itself on the back for it despite the whole thing coming off as completely rushed.
Additionally, the show doubles down on its fetish for action sequences, pulling together admittedly entertaining and visceral fight-n-chase sequences but ultimately to an arbitrary end. Moments that used to be categorized as “oh shit” moments now felt a little humdrum and commonplace. This season, the show revealed an insecurity with holding people’s attention and thus chose to lean on its least interesting elements. Ironically, that ended up making so much of the conflicting, mind-blowing, and reality questioning themes feel rushed and under-cooked.
It’s like the showrunners were very confident in where they wanted to go story-wise. The issue is more so a matter of having a kind of schizophrenia over its stylistic and tonal identity within that story. A big part of the most recent iteration of Westworld wants to methodically work through this very complex question of utilitarianism, free will, and the lesser of two evils. But the other part of the show wants to cram as much as possible into each episode (the episode order for this season was, for some reason, 8 instead of the usual 10). A lot happens in each episode, but little really hits hard. Its kind of like when you have a big movie marathon—by the end, they all kind of form one big, hazy blur that renders them all a little unsatisfying.
But despite its wonky identity crisis, I still mostly enjoyed it. And I can’t tell if that’s because I had invested enough time and curiosity into the show that I felt married to it, sucked into a vortex that I just didn’t want to escape from. Or maybe the show’s awkward series of trips and stumbles on this tightrope act it was performing were precisely its charm. Part of me enjoyed knowing how much they just went “fuck it” and threw everything at us this season. Part of me reasoned that this was very intentional, that the show was embracing its roots in campy 70s sci-fi TV and simply using it as a costume to sex up its philosophy. Part of me felt as though that costume fit quite nicely and that the show was asking us graciously to appreciate its weird pastiche of cheap thrills and sophisticated craftsmanship. Like a cute dog made cuter by putting a bow tie on it.
As the season wound down, my appreciation for its smart, winking badness began to wane. I think deep down I know that the show just got lazy. It wouldn’t be the first time a tentpole HBO genre series has suffered that fate. But a part of me wonders whether there is still a charm to that very flaw—that maybe the show unintentionally made itself more interesting by throwing a million things at the wall and seeing what stuck. As a jaded TV watcher, I found something wholly unique about Westworld’s third season mess. It’s hard to say what was intentional and what was simply a misfire. The frustrating thing about evaluating any piece of narrative art is that intention is always a subjective and obtuse aspect to unpack. But at the end of the day, each Sunday when I sat back and tuned into the show, I had a blast simply marvelling at the way it refused to cry over its spilled milk. If anything, it laughed at it, insisting that it still managed to get most of it into its big bowl of Lucky Charms. It currently stands as TV’s most successful failure.