‘Westworld’ Returns to Irritate the Hell Out of Us Again
TV’s most inconsistent drama—for every stroke of unparalleled brilliance, there’s a tangled web of confusion—returns with a streamlined reboot. That also means less fun.
I, like, know that I watched the second season of Westworld. I’m positive I did. Every episode, in fact. Just in case, I double-checked. Yep, wrote thousands and thousands of words about it. Confirmed. Westworld season two? Watched it. Yessiree.
So why don’t I remember a damned thing that happened?
Part of the reason is circumstance. The season two finale aired all the way back in June 2018, which may have well have been the early 1800s given the relentless chaos with which the world has moved in the 21 months since. Most of it, though, is substance. Holy hell was that finale annoying.
Uncountable jumps back and forth through timelines. Multiple red herrings about what was reality and what was illusion. Incessant trickery surrounding who was real and who was a robot. Everyone died, but also no one died. Hats are magic.
For the elements of the season that were ambitious, bold, and elegant—“Akane no Mai, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” and “Katsuya” rank as great as TV episodes come—the intentional confusion became too much to handle, especially once the chore of untangling the heady plots and puzzles was completed and revealed answers that were so ungratifying.
Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores offered the series’ refrain, “These violent delights have violent ends”—which, yeah girl, like my sanity. To prepare for Sunday night’s season three premiere, I think I studied what happened in season two more than I did for any college exam.
Here’s this show that, for two seasons, posed what may be the most existential question: How much of our fates are predetermined, and to what extent is there actually free will? Well there are some pretty provocative points being made, because I have to wonder: If there truly is free will, then why the hell do we still feel so compelled to keep watching this show?
The easy answer, of course, is Maeve. To say that Thandie Newton’s performance elevates Westworld is the understatement of this #PeakTV/#TooMuchTV/#MakeTheTVStop era. And this is why I am bound by duty to reveal the crucial spoiler that Maeve does not appear in Sunday night’s premiere!
Fear not, the former Westworld madame turned sentient robot on a mission to free her daughter is the focus of the second episode, which is, unsurprisingly, the most engaging of the first batch provided to critics to screen. It’s not just Newton’s performance—still one of the best on TV—but that the show feels more vibrant when it is writing Maeve’s world and arc.
While so many other plots can feel like hurtling down a rabbit hole of hooey, the show always feels so clear-eyed and purposeful surrounding her, with even the production value seeming to rise to meet the level of excellence.
We’re introduced to a new World War II-themed world as Maeve attempts to navigate her way out of the... well, not park—Illusion? Construct?—she’s trapped in. The entire episode is everything that makes Westworld tick, from world building to existential meditation to full-throttle acting and action, all in full bloom.
But alas, that is not Sunday’s premiere. Sunday’s premiere is—something I thought I’d never actually say about Westworld—a bore.
If you recall (LOL, of course you don’t), we last saw Dolores finally finding a way out of the park, by inhabiting the body of Delos executive Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson). She smuggled the control units of several other hosts with her, including Bernard’s (Jeffrey Wright), though the rest are unspecified. When she gets to Ford’s house, she finds a host-making machine, which she uses to recreate an actual Dolores host for her to inhabit again, as well as one for Bernard.
Honestly, that explanation could have used about 1,500 more words, but let’s instead just all embrace the Westworld rally cry, a hearty shrug and a disengaged mumble: “I’m confused as hell.”
The only thing that is truly important to know is that Dolores is on a cleansing mission. She wants to destroy the human race, retribution for not only what they’ve done to the hosts but also for the dystopian future they’ve ensured for themselves. And it’s through this concept—revenge—that Westworld, very on point to this whole robot theme, reboots itself.
From the premiere’s start, this doesn’t feel like the same show. Part of that is a literal geographical shift. We’re not in Westworld, or Shogun World, or the Raj. For the first time, we’re in the real world.
We open in China, where a rich tech mogul, who some might recognize as a guest who once assaulted Dolores at the park, lives. He used to work at a company called Incite, and has access to confidential files that will help Dolores on her mission to, I guess, kill everyone? In any case, she kills him. It’s gruesome, surprising, and gorgeously shot—the show’s cinematography is still aces—heralding once and for all the death of Dolores, prairie ingenue, and the arrival of RoboCop Bond Girl Dolores, sexy assassin.
Back in Los Angeles, we see that she’s dating the Incite heir, Liam (John Gallagher Jr.), in an attempt to gain control of some sort of omnipresent “system” the company controls—and which seems to control everything else in the world, or something. But there are people who are on to her, both some skeevy goons within Incite, and—have you forgot about him?—Bernard, who is desperate to find and stop her.
She drafts some unexpected human help, however, in Aaron Paul’s Caleb, a down-on-his-luck construction worker who uses an app that matches criminals with crimes to earn extra money. It’s through one of those gigs that he gets inextricably swept into Dolores’ orbit.
The whole thing is a change of pace for Westworld. This is a show that once employed a, let’s say... novel strategy. Rather than create a linear narrative map, instead toss a plate of boiled spaghetti into the air and use the damp tangle that plops on the ground as guiding lines for the action.
Season three is a blessedly streamlined one. Provided you can grasp the general gist of who’s alive, who’s a host, and who knows what is “real”—and don’t mind the otherwise straightforward introduction of a few new characters, it’s a sleeker, mission-focused ride this time.
Now, I’m fully aware that I’m about to go into my closet and dig out my Goldilocks wig when I complain about this, but this new, simpler Westworld is also no fun.
Take at face value what’s going on with this shift.
We spent two seasons in a world populated by cowboys, bandits, Indians, gunslingers, samurais, geishas, and game hunters, not to mention the lushness of these imagined environments, the debauchery of human nature when left unchecked, and the pointedly exaggerated “narratives” attendant to the guests’ wish fulfillment. Now we’re in Los Angeles.
Back in the park, stock characters were the point. But now that Dolores and her army of cohorts have infiltrated a different sort of depraved world—the upper echelons of the tech industry and the corrupt billionaires that populate it—they’re surrounded by clichés of the more egregious kind: dastardly 1-percenters, class warriors, and digital-age douchebags.
Even Dolores herself, once a complex character questioning the boundaries of the expectations literally scripted into her “role,” isn’t immune. Here, she’s yet another cable drama femme fatale, buddied up with’s Paul’s wounded, quiet antihero. How fresh.
Dialogue that seemed rich and poetic in the meta context of the park’s scripted soap operas veers dangerously close to cringe-worthy when uttered now out in the “real world.”
“You had no God, but you tried to build one,” Dolores warns one of her targets, gun pointed at his face. “Only that thing you built isn’t God. The real gods are coming, and they’re very angry.” Even considering he was facing certain death, we’re still surprised he did not involuntarily chuckle.
There’s reason to be optimistic. All this said, there’s an unmistakable confidence this go-round, a steady hand at the helm that appeared all-but severed as season two neared its end.
If there’s a theme of the first few hours we’ve seen, it’s lucidity at last. More characters than ever are in on the nature of their reality, even while having to constantly, insufferably question it. The series seems more lucid than ever, too, and there’s no reason not to blindly hope that will usher in an invigorating build to the season.
If nothing else, there’s a one-word reassurance always there to carry us: Maeve.