In its third season, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s “Westworld” leaves the hypersexualized murderpark behind, voyaging (as promised) to the wider world of a distant yet familiar future. (If you’re wondering what the visual aesthetic of the 2050s is like, the answer is apparently “sexy Apple Store.”) That decision is a sword every bit as double-edged as those so capably wielded by the Hosts of Samurai World. On the one hand, it strips the story down to, if not the essentials, at least something a little more manageable. There are far fewer realities and timelines to manage; the odds of knowing which version of a given character you’re looking at and what they’ve experienced is much higher than in previous seasons (though never fear, ambiguity still abounds—wouldn’t be “Westworld” without it.) There’s also far less talk of Valleys Beyond and mazes and so on, though the parallels to Greek mythology and grandiose moments of philosophizing remain. This is a sleeker, leaner “Westworld,” easier to follow with a much quicker pulse.
On the other hand—and this is a bit of a “be careful what you wish for” situation—that leanness seems to have been a bit of a trade for narrative potency. For better or worse, the first two seasons of “Westworld” felt like falling down a rabbit hole. It didn’t always make sense, and season two in particular was so convoluted that you can’t throw a stone at a pop-culture publication right now without hitting a “Westworld” refresher piece, but it was enveloping. It sucked you in, even when you’d rather it hadn’t. The visual storytelling is still top-notch and the acting exemplary, but it turns out that when you take “Westworld” out of Westworld you lose a little something along the way. For all its flaws, “Westworld” was one of a kind. It’s still compelling stuff, but that’s not so much the case anymore.
As is always the case with shows like this one, there’s a limit to how much can be said about the events of this third season (or at least, of the four episodes screened for critics.) We open several months after the Delos bloodbath (and I highly recommend that you consult one of those endless “Westworld” refreshers before diving in). Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), armed with a handful of “pearls”—the orbs containing the consciousness of Host AIs—she’s out for both justice and revenge. The exact plan and more specific goals remain nebulous, but the methods are clear. Scamming, seduction, violence, and the harnessing of technology on which humankind has come to rely all figure prominently. She’s joined in this by other Hosts, though who’s inside them is one of the big mysteries of these early episodes; notable among them is a Host version of Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), a powerful figure at Delos who was killed last season. In the pursuit of her “violent ends,” Dolores encounters Caleb (Aaron Paul, an invaluable addition to the cast), a human military veteran who spends his days working construction with a robot buddy and his nights freelancing through an app that’s like TaskRabbit for crime.
Of course, even a stripped-down “Westworld” has more going on than Dolores’ war. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), rebuilt at the eleventh hour by Dolores for reasons he’s only beginning to comprehend, is also living the workman’s life, alternating manual labor with sessions spent checking his own code to determine whether or not he’s been activated or altered in any way by Dolores or other outside parties. It will shock no one to learn that Maeve (Thandie Newton), seemingly cut down for good by the Delos team after securing a place in the Valley Beyond for her daughter, is back. As for the rest of the returns—some more surprising than others, most bittersweet and brief—they’re best experienced in the moment. One big advantage of the leaner “Westworld” is that when these connections to previous seasons do arrive, they’re more emotionally potent, allowing for a sense of history and, more importantly, of loss that often evaded the series. So when Maeve encounters a familiar face, or Charlotte begins experiencing memories that aren’t her own, it’s all the more affecting.
Such is the power of great actors. And “Westworld” has more than its share. Wright, Wood, and Newton all remain excellent, but the real heavy-hitters in these first four episodes are Thompson and Paul. The former, given something really substantial to do for the first time since her arrival on the series, delivers a knockout performance, marrying technical precision and thoughtful physical choices with intense vulnerability, as though an ocean of feeling was forcing its way through a tiny, lethal hole in a dam. It’s a marvel, and her scenes with Wood, when they arrive, are a highlight.
That last is also true of Paul, though he’s equally as good on his own. It’s in his suspiciously convenient connection with Dolores that the show finds its most pointed and political storyline, centered on a human character whose economic reality means a trip to Westworld was never in the cards. He is, the show argues, more like the Hosts in some ways than the park’s patrons, and as we gradually learn more about his reality (both physical and emotional) the show’s themes begin to coalesce in a new and interesting way. As ever, Paul is one of our most precise emotional cartographers, able to break big emotional landscapes into precise, minuscule beats that flit across that expressive face and then disappear. You will likely see a lot of writing comparing this character to Jesse Pinkman, and while it’s true that they share a kind of toughened fragility, to do so is a disservice to a great performer and a compelling new character in a show that just lost quite a few of both those things.
Ultimately, this paring-down is probably a step in the right direction for this flawed, unrelentingly ambitious and undeniably compelling drama. Sure, you’re less likely to spend hours scanning Reddit posts and dissecting fan theories after watching these four hours, and that’s something of a loss, but if “Westworld” the tech thriller needs to sacrifice mystery and mythos in favor of character and theme, that’s a trade worth making.
Four episodes screened for review.