We’re more than halfway through the new season of Westworld, the dystopian sci-fi drama from writer-producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. And the show is far from the halcyon days of its initial popularity.
Over the course of three seasons, Westworld has transformed into a joyless puzzle box of competing timelines and revelations nullified by the convolution and redundancy of their own execution. While it used to be a meditation on game design, the mythologizing of the American frontier, and the nature of humanity and free will, now it’s just… a lot. But now people are talking about it again — is it finally time to revisit Westworld? To tell the truth, the answer to that question is predicated on what, if anything, drew you to the series in the first place, with this latest season streamlining the overall plot of the series while at the same time indulging once again in the convoluted mystery-box reveals of its increasingly complicated chronology.
To put it frankly: I’m of two minds when it comes to Westworld season 4, so I figured the best way to sum up my thoughts about this season so far is to just put those two minds (i.e. myself, and a robot host version of my own consciousness) in a room together and have them duke it out.
[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for Westworld season 4.]
Toussaint: Bring yourself back online.
Host Toussaint: You already made that reference in the subhed of your Westworld season 3 recap. It wasn’t clever then and it isn’t clever now.
Toussaint: Says you, asshole. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. We’re not here to be our own worst critic, we’re here to talk about Westworld. So let’s get down to it: What do you think of season 4 so far?
Host Toussaint: Westworld season 4 is good so far. The show’s writers have put enough space and time between the last season and this one to allow the consequences of Rehoboam’s destruction to settle and better establish the new status quo for the show going forward.
The plot is better paced and more streamlined; beginning with two alternating stories told from the viewpoint of returning protagonists Caleb (Aaron Paul) and Maeve (Thandiwe Newton), along with a host version of antagonist William (Ed Harris) and a mysterious new character named Christina (portrayed by series regular Evan Rachel Wood), that briefly blossom into three with the return of Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) in episode three before converging back into roughly two storylines at the end of episode four.
We see the return of the parks in the form of a new Delos destination that resumes the show’s deconstruction of game design that we saw back in season 1 with a clever nod to the practice of asset flipping situated alongside a funny, albeit brief, exploration of how resistance to exploitative systems can be defused, assimilated, and subsequently transformed into entertainment.
Toussaint: Yeah, that was cool. I got my own thoughts on the new Delos park, but I’ll save that till it’s my turn. Please continue.
Host Toussaint: For sure. Where was I… Oh yeah, and then we get to the mid-season twist, which is the most exciting twist the series has done since the first season of Westworld and blows up everything we thought we knew and understood about one of this season’s characters in a way that centralizes a major concept that was first introduced all the way back in season 2.
Toussaint: You didn’t think that twist was too busy?
Host Toussaint: Eh, kind of? I’ll admit, it didn’t quite land with the emotional force of its intent, but I enjoyed it for how it upended the status quo of our initial impressions of this season and opened the door to this whole new world of post-human possibilities. The fifth episode, “Zhuangzi,” kind of reminded me of that one episode from the fourth season of Fringe, “Letters of Transit,” the one where they show the future where the Observers have taken over and Peter’s stuck in amber?
Toussaint: Dude, I was thinking the exact same thing! I love Fringe!
Host Toussaint: Yeah, it’s a fun show. Anyway after three long seasons, it finally feels like Westworld has started to course-correct itself and tie all these disparate threads together in an intriguing new direction moving forward. All in all, I land pretty soundly on the side of pro-Westworld season 4. What do you think?
Toussaint: So, Westworld season 4 is… fine. I would not go so far as to describe it as “good.” My reservations lie squarely in the fact that, for a show that attempts to probe at the question of how its characters, both human and host, are ensnared in cycles of repetition and failure born out of their own nature and design, the show itself follows in the very patterns it ostensibly is critiquing.
You can only have so many variations of the same scene with different characters asking one another, “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” before it loses all novelty and instead curdles into redundancy for the sake of arbitrary rug pulls. Dr. Robert Ford literally summed up the entire thesis of seasons 2 and 3 all the way back in episode 8 of season 1, “Trace Decay,” when he said, “We live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.” So… what exactly are we doing here that complicates or advances that idea?
Host Toussaint: But see, I feel like the twist at the end of episode 4 of this season does complicate and bring that idea full circle in a natural and exciting way. Ford was right; humans seldom ever question their own choices, just like how we the audience never thought to question or distrust the apparent stability and nature of this new future we saw at the opening of season 4 despite the dramatic events during the conclusion of season 3.
The reveal that the Caleb we once knew in season 3 is dead, and the Caleb we now see in this new season is a host, dovetails beautifully into the question of what meaningful distinction if any, apart from the obvious fact of biology, separates the hosts from the humans. Taken into account with host William’s identity crisis with regard to his human predecessor and his host master Dolores-Hale, and Bernard’s continuing arc of self-actualization, and I think you’ve got a solid trifecta of stories centered on the hosts asking the question of who they are apart from their human forebears.
Toussaint: I agree that the twist in episode 4 of season 4 is interesting, though it didn’t entirely land for me until after I mulled it over for a few minutes while the credits rolled. But even then, the twist that the Caleb we’ve seen for the entirety of this season has been a host just feels like a variation on the big twist back in season 1, that the Man in Black was an older version of William all along and that the timeline where we see a young William meet Dolores for the first time in fact takes place in the past. The same can be said of the subsequent reveal at the end of episode 4 that the setting that audiences had been led to believe was the “present day” is actually the past, and that the season’s actual present-day storyline takes place in 2083, over two decades after the death of the original human Caleb and Dolores-Hale’s subsequent subjugation of the human denizens of New York City and, presumably, the entire world. The writing for this season is running in circles, at once becoming a cleaner, leaner version of the show than any we’ve seen in the past couple seasons while at the same time relying on the same ol’ bag of tricks, just with different characters.
I also agree that the new Delos park based on the Roaring ’20s introduced at the end of episode 2 is a welcome return to the show’s roots in season 1. It even lampshades the series’ tendency to recycle plot points through Maeve’s commentary on this new park’s similarities to the original Westworld. My biggest criticism is that this new setting is promptly dropped one episode later, which is attributable more to the narrative priorities and the structure of the series as a whole than anything else. As funny at first blush it is to see Westworld touch on the practice of asset-flipping, the series already more or less did this exact joke before in the fifth episode of the second season, “Akane no Mai.” Again, another case of a good idea drawn out way past its expiration date.
Host Toussaint: Oh wow, you’re right! I forgot all about that “Akane no Mai” episode but yeah, they did pretty much do that exact same gag way back in season 2 — albeit in an Edo-period simulacrum.
Toussaint: Yeah, to be fair, a lot of stuff happened in that second season. And another thing — I’ve seen defenders of Westworld say that detractors of the series just want a dumb action show with cowboy robot shootouts instead of a deep, philosophical sci-fi parable about consciousness, free will, and the malleability of sin. But I don’t think that people who’ve grown tired of Westworld have uncultured tastes, nor do I believe the show is anywhere as deep or profound as the show or its marketing would purport itself to be. Frankly, Westworld is a classic example of science fiction that thinks it’s smarter than it actually is, and it shows through the tired, trite, Abrams-esque “mystery box” style of writing that insists on repeatedly circling around the same questions, oftentimes verbatim, for the sake of eleventh-hour twists instead of evincing any new insights into the mind or perspective of the characters to whom those questions have been asked.
Also — and admittedly this criticism is minor and kinda petty — the show in its latter seasons just feels like it was written by a stereotypical, hoverboard-riding, West Coast tech yuppie who just heard about this cool new band called Death Grips and truly believes with the whole of his heart, mind, and soul that the “blockchain” is the future of everything. If that’s not cringe, I don’t know what is.
Host Toussaint: Ouch. Well, why do you keep watching Westworld then? What exactly is keeping you coming back to watch this new season every Sunday?
Toussaint: A sunk cost fallacy? [Both Toussaints laugh] Nah, but seriously, what’s actually keeping me coming back to Westworld every season is the show’s production design. I love the creepiness of the drone hosts, which look like the Putty Patrollers from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers but imagined with the sinuous musculature of a Body Worlds exhibit and the milk-blood androids of Ridley Scott’s Alien and Raised by Wolves. The design of the Delos eVTOL aircrafts is fantastic, as are the bulky riot-control robots introduced in season 3 that remind me of the Boxguard security robots in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I just wish they inhabited a more interesting world, y’know? HBO really ought to get around to releasing an art book for the series already.
Writing aside, I really enjoy the performances of the cast themselves. Evan Rachel Wood, Thandiwe Newton, and Tessa Thompson are wonderful, and Jeffrey Wright continues to be the driving heart and soul of the series, with Bernard’s arc arguably being the most compelling of all the principal characters to date.
The score for the series continues to be one of Westworld’s strong points, with composer Ramin Djawadi continuing to find new and inventive ways of iterating on contemporary pop and art-rock tracks beyond the anachronistic phonograph and player piano covers of the first season. That said, I do believe that the show relies too heavily on these covers to contrive pathos, such as Westworld’s noted overreliance on Radiohead and the plaintive string cover of Lana Del Rey’s 2011 single “Video Games” at the end of the season 4 premiere.
Host Toussaint: Hmmm. So what’s your verdict so far? No more splitting hairs; would you actually recommend this new season or not? Even with all that’s been said, I still feel pretty positive about Westworld season 4 and would recommend someone who fell off in season 3 to at least watch the first two episodes of this season and see what they think.
Toussaint: See, for me, it depends on who’s asking the question. Westworld season 4 is admittedly the best the show has been since season 1. Unfortunately, Westworld is still... well, Westworld, with all the good and bad that entails. To understand what’s going on in this season demands an understanding of several key events from season 2 and season 3, which, as someone who has watched those seasons, I cannot recommend in good conscience. It’s just a total slog to rewatch them. If you’ve already knuckled your way through season 2 and gritted your teeth through season 3, or at the very least are willing to brush up with explainers of season 2 and season 3, then I guess my answer would be yes, you should give this season a shot.
But if you’re looking for the show to finally start moving into a more thorough exploration of why its human and host characters continue to be trapped in systems and behaviors that contribute to their own degradation beyond sophomoric “we live in a society” philosophizing, well… it’s pretty late in the game and I just don’t think that’s going to happen, no matter how much I want to believe that Westworld’s characters, and the show itself, can break out of the cycle of their own bad habits.
Was there anything else you wanted to talk about regarding Westworld season 4?
Host Toussaint: Nah, I feel like we covered everything. You good?
Toussaint: Yeah, I’m good. Until next time, may you rest in a deep and dreamless slumber.
Additional reporting by Host Toussaint.
New episodes of Westworld are released on HBO and HBO Max on Sundays.