Westworld is bringing itself back online for a third season on Sunday, a proposition that isn’t as exciting as it once seemed. Most of the goodwill the thought-provoking HBO series carried into Season 2 has now dissipated, thanks to unnecessarily confusing nonlinear storytelling that made watching Westworld more akin to an overwrought homework assignment than anything resembling fun. It’s as if the creators got lost in their own maze.
This has turned me into one of The Ringer’s more vocal Westworld haters, but something in my, uh, programming, prevents me from fully giving up on the show. Maybe it’s because I’m naturally inclined to roll with works of science fiction; maybe it’s because I know shows can improve after a bad season; maybe it’s because Westworld’s material is still so ripe for a compelling treatise on free will and what makes us human. (If you want a better-executed example of this sort of series, I highly recommend watching Devs.) Whatever the cause, Westworld has become my new Walking Dead: a show that, against my better judgment, I can’t quit because of its potential to be something better. Call it Frank Ntilikina Syndrome.
That’s why I’m approaching Westworld’s third season with some optimism along with the understanding that the show’s not going to live up to its initial promise. But even though Westworld won’t be breaking down any philosophical walls, I still think it’s possible that the show can put fun back into its vernacular. Here is a sort of skeptic’s guide to loving the upcoming season of Westworld. (There are some very minor spoilers ahead, so freeze all motor functions if you’re against that kind of thing.)
Thank God, the Parks Are Basically Gone
One of Westworld’s biggest issues is that, with the parks’ various Hosts trapped within their own sex-and-murder loops, it was inherently cyclical. But even when the Hosts began revolting against the humans at the start of the second season, there was only so much the series could do to mix things up. That mostly came in the form of Shogun World, a cool-looking detour that nevertheless made it clear that Westworld would need to leave the various themed robo-parks of the Delos corporation in order to keep the show interesting.
Dolores had successfully infiltrated the real world by the end of the second season, bringing five spheres containing the consciousnesses of other Hosts with her. We knew one of those spheres held the consciousness of Bernard, and that Delores put a Host’s consciousness into the replicant body of Delos executive Charlotte Hale. Later, in a representative moment for the show, co-creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan admitted they hadn’t decided who the other spheres belonged to when they’d wrapped up Season 2. (Boy does this show test one’s patience!)
Discovering the identities of the other Hosts that Dolores brought with her is perhaps the most overt mystery-box framework of the third season, and while Westworld’s insistence on maintaining this sort of Reddit thread–spawning plotline can be frustrating, the show has effectively left the parks behind. Much of the new season takes place in the real world, and delves into the ways in which tech has snuck into every part of society—and the way Hosts can so easily assimilate alongside humans, Blade Runner–style. World-building has always been one of Westworld’s strengths, and the third season allows the series to lean into interesting ideas that are as simple as “What does a day in the life of an average human in Westworld’s future look like?” (A reminder that the sex-and-murder parks are expensive and have mostly been visited by rich clientele, so for the most part we’ve just met the people who comprise some of the worst of humanity: the 1 percent.)
Even when the third season does return to the park(s), it doesn’t feel superfluous—Bernard returns to the town of Sweetwater and finds it burned down, reflecting the real-life fire that destroyed many of the sets on the Paramount Ranch where the show and other productions were filmed. Also, at the start of the season, Maeve finds herself stuck in a World War II–themed park where she has to take out Nazis. I’ll say this much for Westworld: Having Thandie Newton kill Nazis is not not a bad idea.
The New Cast Is Wild(ly Random)
Since Westworld is going into the real world, that means our Hosts are going to have to interact with a lot of new, theoretically human characters. (You can never know for sure which characters will be human, and neither, it seems, do the creators: Joy and Nolan decided that Delos’s head of security, Ashley Stubbs, was a secret Host the night before they shot his big reveal.) Anyway, the Westworld casting department was put to work, and it added some solid actors to the show’s rotation. It’s never a bad idea to cast Aaron Paul (yeah, bitch!), Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., or Lena Waithe—let alone all four of them.
But Westworld did more than just assemble likable actors for new roles; things got weird. You see, the show’s newcomers also include the rapper Kid Cudi and, more inexplicably, NFL running back Marshawn Lynch. To give away too much about either of their characters would ruin the fun, but suffice to say, Lynch isn’t just in the background of a scene or something; he’s playing an actual character, with, like, dialogue. Enough people in charge of Westworld did a brainstorming session and agreed that their vision of humanity’s future needed to include the dude who bulldozed his way through the entire New Orleans Saints’ defense because he’s swole and loves Skittles more than some people love their children.
Are there other series superior to Westworld? Oh yes, many. Are there other shows on TV that feature Marshawn Lynch pulling off heists in the future with Jesse Pinkman? Sadly, no. Credit where it’s due: Westworld Season 3 has an all-time WTF cast, and I’m here for it.
Westworld Is Dumb Sometimes, but It’s Also Fun, Expensive-Looking TV
There is simply too much television these days to spend an interminable amount of time committed to a bad show, but there can be exceptions to the rule. CBS’s dearly departed Zoo—about animals uprising against humans and starting a new world order—was by no means a great series, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t an absolute joy to watch and worthy of a spot in your viewing rotation. Only one show on TV let Bob Benson from Mad Men slap a military general and then ask, seriously, “Where’s the sloth?” with the fate of mankind at stake; we’re all better off with Zoo’s three glorious seasons. (I cannot say the same about The Walking Dead, which I should’ve quit years ago.)
While I’m sure the creators of Westworld won’t appreciate their show being compared to Zoo—hey, they both deal with an uprising against humanity!—this is the kind of mind-set I’ve maintained for the show’s third season. Forget taking Westworld as seriously as it takes itself or trying to unpack the show’s latest mystery box: instead, just accept that it’s a series where humans and robots are at war and cool stuff occasionally happens. It’s fun to engage in the show’s stupid, arch theatrics if you aren’t expecting something better.
There’s also few shows, for better or worse, that can compete with Westworld’s incredible production value. As befitting what was once a Michael Crichton creation, HBO has spared no expense making Westworld one of the best-looking shows on TV—which this season means tons of futuristic transports, holograms, and other nifty visuals requiring a lot of CGI. It might not be natural splendor, but it’s good-looking television nonetheless.
Westworld, in retrospect, might’ve peaked with its terrific pilot—punctuated by Dolores swatting a fly and exhibiting the show’s first step toward a Host rebellion. But just because the show didn’t live up to its potential doesn’t mean it’s not worth a low-stakes investment. The best way to appreciate Westworld in 2020 is to take the show’s lead and just let the violent delights wash over you.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.