“It’s all a construct. None of it is real, and we’re not here so where the fuck are we?”
So says a character somewhere along the way in the first four episodes of Westworld season 3. The fact that I’m wary to even tell you who says it, let alone the context, just goes to show how much that statement is an accurate summation of the entire Westworld experience. Returning this month, Westworld is back in its singularly confounding form with creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy remaining committed to creating complex narrative architectures.
A show that layers mystery upon mystery, wedging legitimately fascinating existential, technological, and societal musings between the overlapping narratives, and then twists all that up into kaleidoscopic timelines, Westworld’s second season wound it’s way to a surprisingly tidy endpoint from which to make a fresh start. With identities revealed, most of the stray supporting characters killed off, and the bulk of our lead characters leaving Westworld behind for the mainland, HBO’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes baffling sci-fi hit set the stage for something of a soft reboot in its third season.
To make the shortest work I can of a very complicated season for recap purposes [deep breath]; Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) tweaked Teddy’s (James Marsden) code to make him go along with her violent ends so he shot himself; Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) had another identity crisis and grappled with Ford’s ghost in the machine; Hale (Tessa Thompson) killed Elsie (Shannon Woodward), then Dolores killed Hale but not before creating a Hale-bot body; Lee (Simon Quarterman), Hector (Rodrigo Santoro), and Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) sacrificed themselves for Maeve (Thandie Newton); a bunch of host consciousnesses (including Teddy, Maeve’s daughter, and Akecheta) uploaded to an artificial paradise called The Forge; and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) whoopsie-daisy killed his daughter under the false belief she was a host, went a bit batshit crazy, and squared off with Dolores once again before she left him to die. Oh, and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) pretty much confirmed he’s a host when he let Dolores slip off the island in the Hale-bot body.
But it wouldn’t be Westworld without some mystery. In its final moments, the Season 2 finale revealed that Dolores didn’t leave the island alone; she took five host brain pearls with her. One was Bernard, for whome she built a new body and set free on the mainland, she also built herself a new body, and dropped another mystery consciousness in the Hale-bot. The post-credits scene revealed that William is alive, maybe. Or maybe in some sort of simulation, or possibly a host sometime in a dust-bowl future, where he might be being tested for fidelity by his probably dead daughter.
Westworld may be taking the action out of the park and introducing us to the future society that built it, but what becomes immediately clear is that life outside the park isn’t much better than life inside. In fact, it’s pretty much the same. During the Westworld panel at San Diego Comic-Con last year, Nolan spoke about his fascination with and fear of algorithmic determinism; in short, the idea that everything in contemporary life is becoming increasingly determined by algorithms, from what we watch and listen to, how we solve crimes and diagnose illnesses. Extrapolate that further and algorithms start telling you how to vote, how to live and what to believe. And at a certain point, those algorithms become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy – are your most-listened-to songs on Spotify topping those lists because they’re your favorite songs ever or because the algorithm keeps recommending them to you?
In Westworld‘s third season, Nolan and Joy apply those questions to society at large, creating a culture entirely driven, motivated and determined by data. Much like the hosts inside Delos’ park, the people living in Westworld’s future are set upon paths determined by what the people in power program for them. That leaves folks like Caleb (Aaron Paul) S.O.L., scrounging for pennies in a world that doesn’t seem to have a place for them. Or as Caleb puts it, “they built the world to be a game and then they rigged it to make sure they won.” Sound familiar?
A veteran haunted by the losses he suffered during his service, Caleb has reluctant heart-to-hearts with a mysterious voice on the other end of a phone and can never seem to find a job. In the meantime, he works construction and keeps busy doing the “night shift” on an app called Ri¢o. “Make money motherfucker!” the app shouts when he opens it, offering odd jobs that range from petty crimes to “Redistributive Justice” (aka, stealing money from the rich) to “Red Rum”. One night, one of those jobs leads him to Dolores, and from there, Caleb gets wrapped up in her fight for a revolution he doesn’t even begin to understand.
Aside from the ongoing mystery of which hosts’ consciousnesses she keep shoving into the newly-minted host bodies, Dolores and Caleb’s story is the most straightforward and rewarding in the four episodes provided to the press. Dolores has often been a difficult character to track thanks to her regular identity crises, veering between damsel-in-distress and utterly unsympathetic villain, but in the third season, she finally seems to have hit a pleasant and steady middle-ground. We don’t fully know Dolores’ endgame, but we do know the ruthlessness with which she’ll pursue it and the remarkable capabilities she possesses to see it through. And she sees herself in Caleb, the way his trapped in his own tiny little loop, stuck in someone else’s design, and their dynamic positions the character for her most interesting evolution yet.
At the same time, this beautiful but horrifying future world is fascinating to explore and allows Westworld to shape-shift into a new type of sci-fi story. The previous seasons often hid the high-tech behind Western or Samurai packaging, playing with those genre tropes as much as they explored their existential sci-fi constructs. Now, Westworld steps into more traditional sci-fi aesthetics, shiny flat surfaces and neon lights everywhere, and it changes the tone and type of set pieces the series can deliver. And oh boy, Season 3 delivers a lot of high-energy action, and you better believe that big HBO budget shines through every step of the way.
But again, this is Westworld so not everything is so straightforward. Bernard is trying to slip under the radar in the real world while also attempting to figure out Dolores’ big game and save the human race. Maeve is still stuck in the park, and as the trailers revealed, part of her journey takes her to War World, where she has to find her way out of a Nazi-occupied version of Westworld. Meanwhile, whomever is in Hale’s body struggles to keep Delos running in the aftermath of the massacre and accept the reality of living in someone else’s skin.
It’s tough to talk about any of their stories without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that almost every time the show slips back into its now-familiar reality-bending tricks, the tension slacks, the pace drops a bit. That said, Season 3 definitely doesn’t suffer from as many ponderous and overly complicated pitfalls as Season 2, and instead of trying to outsmart the audience to the point of losing us, they invite us back into the game. It’s still a bit too much focused on the mystery-building rather than the character-building, but you can once again feel the twists serving the narrative rather than the other way around.
Ultimately, Westworld remains a series that’s determined to push the audience to question the nature of our reality, for better and for worse. Sometimes that makes it feel like its running diagnostics on the viewer, but sometimes it’s wonderfully thrilling and surprising. While Season 3 seems to be shaping up to be a new bag that’s full of familiar tricks, you probably know if that’s your bag. And if it is, what a stunning and ambitious one at that.
Westworld returns to HBO on Sunday, March 15th