The new season of Westworld really hammered home that showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy lack the nuts-and-bolts storytelling to deliver on the big ideas their series reaches for. It’s fine to make a show about free will, predestination, privacy, and security, but what carries a dramatic series like this forward is investment in the characters, and Westworld Season 3 showed that the writers still haven’t figured that out. The season started strong enough with the introduction of Caleb (Aaron Paul) and Serac (Vincent Cassel), but by the time Season 3 reached its conclusion, its grand proclamation was that humanity needed to be free to be messy because humanity is capable of both beauty and ugliness. It’s the kind of facile observation that would get you laughed out of an Intro to Philosophy course, but the season finale landed with even more of a thud because it became clear the writers didn’t know what they’re doing with their characters.
Take Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) for example. This entire season the writers seemed to be at a loss with what to do with him other than he’s pursuing Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and using Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) as muscle. It’s kind of a waste of Wright’s talents (for all its shortcomings, Season 2 at least gave Bernard loads to do) and because the writers wanted to keep Bernard and Dolores’ relationship wrapped in mystery, there wasn’t much room for Bernard to maneuver. But in the Season 3 finale, Bernard is supposed to get a big cathartic moment when he meets Arnold’s wife (Gina Torres) and feels emotion over a son he never had. It Bernard’s relationship to family had been a driving force this season, then this arc would have a payoff, but Bernard’s son hasn’t even really been brought up since Season 1, and this new season certainly didn’t make family or emotion a cornerstone of Bernard’s journey.
The writers ran into a similar problem with William (Ed Harris), and yet halfway through the season, they appeared to come to an elegant conclusion. William, who had wrapped himself in the game so completely to the point where he couldn’t tell if his own daughter was a human or a host, landed in a mental institution. But the writers then kept going by putting William in group therapy with different versions of himself, having him hallucinate bludgeoning those other versions to death, and then loudly proclaiming that he’s going to “Save the world,” only to have his throat slit by a host copy. No wonder Ed Harris was publicly unhappy with his character this season. There’s no poignancy or change there.
But then it seems like Westworld doesn’t even understand how characters change. The writers were insistent on keeping Dolores’ motives a mystery this season beyond “tearing down our world,” and it turned out that she was an instrument of benevolent destruction even though her plan rested on things she couldn’t have planned for like running into Caleb or convincing Maeve (Thandie Newton) that she should help humanity. But how did this change of heart occur for Dolores? At what point did she go from gunning down humans and killing anyone in her way to wanting them to be free? And if humanity is free, doesn’t that endanger the hosts? Where did Dolores’ motives lie? We didn’t really get an answer until the season finale when Dolores just said she thought humanity was messy but beautiful and deserved to be free.
Even within the context of a single scene, the writers couldn’t seem to hold the show together. In the season finale, Caleb learns that Dolores’ destruction of Incite will result in the end of humanity in 50-125 years. He seems shocked and appalled that she was using him, but then he’s like, “Oh, no, she just wants us to be free. Oh that Dolores. What a scamp.” Either the notion that humanity could be wiped out without Incite’s guidance weighs heavily on him or it doesn’t; but because Westworld doesn’t know how to create character arcs based on anything that what serves the current scene, there’s no catharsis or revelation.
It’s not like the showrunners completely fail to understand how character arcs work. We saw that with Hale-Dolores (Tessa Thompson). Hale-Dolores is conflicted about her role, she finds a bit of humanity by connecting with Hale’s family, that humanity is ripped away from her when that family is killed, and so she decides that the only way forward is to build an army of hosts and destroy all humans. It’s a little basic and a little bit supervillain, but at least you can see why this character is different at the end of the season than she was at the beginning of the season. The same can’t be said of someone like Bernard or William.
When the characterizations are so slapdash and muddled, Westworld undermines one of its central themes, which is the importance of choice. That’s where Season 3 ultimately lands, but Nolan and Joy seem unconcerned with how or why those choices are made. Bernard seeking catharsis over a lost son or William’s desire to keep “playing” make sense within a single scene, but these conclusions don’t track with the characters’ actions over the course of the season. Westworld may claim to uphold the importance of choice, but for its character, their choices are based on whatever is convenient for the plot.
For more on Westworld, check out Adam’s full recap of the Season 3 finale.