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Can ‘Westworld’ Reset All Motor Functions?

The third season, debuting on HBO on Sunday, is a changing of course—but it’s much harder to leave ‘Westworld,’ the show, than it is Westworld, the place

HBO/Ringer illustration

Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) wants to build something new. She says this a lot, telling anyone who’ll listen. “Think of it as an investment in a startup,” she sneers at her latest target early in Westworld’s Sunday premiere, having just extorted him out of a not-so-small fortune. “The origin of a new species.” Dolores was once a “host,” a sophisticated AI in a synthetic body created to satisfy the eponymous theme park’s sadistic customers. Now, the only thing Dolores wants to welcome is a future in which humankind atones for its sins at the hands of the robots it once regarded as disposable objects.

Westworld, too, is trying something different in its third chapter. For two seasons, the increasingly labyrinthine story unfolded almost entirely within Westworld itself, funded by the shadowy Delos Incorporated and overseen by the mysterious Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). The park was expansive enough, and the pace deliberate enough, to accommodate all of Westworld’s twists and turns. It took all of the first season for the hosts, led by Dolores, to realize the nature of their existence and rebel en masse against it. The second installment tracked the chaos and bloodshed that followed, widening its scope to include other park subdivisions set in colonial India and feudal Japan. Save for a few flash-forwards, only at the very end of the season did Dolores, and Westworld, cross over to where the latest season begins: the “real” world, home to the guests about to get a taste of their own medicine.

The change of venue comes with an implied change in approach. Westworld has gained a reputation for opaque, convoluted storytelling that prioritizes suspense and surprise, often at the expense of clarity and character. The issue was apparent in Season 1, when the identity and motivations of several protagonists were obscured long past the point of Reddit sussing them out, but deepened in Season 2, which only upped the confusion instead of dispelling it. Westworld’s increasingly sour critical reception reflected its popular one, as ratings dipped from 12 million viewers in 2016 to 10 million. That dip was hardly a disaster, but it shifted Westworld’s narrative. After Season 1 rose from the ashes of a long development and delayed production to become a runaway hit, by the end of Season 2 enthusiasm had cooled, devoted internet sleuths aside. Twist fatigue, perhaps, was real.

Westworld seemed to know this, too, promising a fresh start with Dolores’s move. The season’s advance marketing has emphasized novelty and simplicity, with an early trailer focusing exclusively on Aaron Paul’s newcomer Caleb, a character without a clear connection to Delos or its holdings. (The clip was even soundtracked by Pink Floyd’s actual “Dark Side of the Moon,” not an old-timey piano cover of the same.) Neither creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy nor the cast have done much press ahead of the premiere, but Tessa Thompson, who plays cold-hearted corporate raider Charlotte Hale, recently reassured audiences Season 3 “feels like the show is starting all over again.” There’s an implied understanding that Westworld is still a success, particularly to a post–Game of Thrones HBO that wants to maintain a reputation for big-budget world-building, but it’s a success that requires a few adjustments to maintain its stronghold.

Changing course midstream is not an impossible task; in fact, it’s one of the built-in advantages of TV, a medium that’s made over time and can tweak itself accordingly. AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and Westworld’s distant cousin The Leftovers both famously took creative leaps in their second seasons, the latter with a similarly drastic change of locale. Some of history’s best high school shows, from Friday Night Lights to Skins, have avoided the genre’s traditional pitfalls by switching out much of their ensembles when characters aged through their teen years. But whether Westworld can have a second act is a different question from whether it actually will.

Visually, at least, Westworld’s refresh is real. No series about the blurred line between man and machine can escape parallels to Blade Runner, but transplanting the action to a near future marked by sleek skyscrapers, frequent night scenes, and porous international borders, the comparisons become inevitable. (Location is one area where the season makes a good-faith effort to be more straightforward, with title cards that hopscotch from one major metropolis to the next, including Blade Runner’s native Los Angeles.) Westworld’s influences may be obvious, but they’re also realized with a sumptuous production budget, and a larger canvas gives Nolan and Joy more space to shock, awe, and stash expositional Easter eggs. We already knew Westworld’s patrons are their world’s 0.01 percent, the kind of people with millions to drop on a role-playing murder vacation. Dolores’s escape is an opportunity to show what that wealth looks like in context, complete with modernist mansions, driverless cars, and an underclass to oppress.

Caleb is a member of that underclass, turning Westworld from an allegorical uprising of a persecuted group into a literal one—and suggesting the hosts’ enemies may not be humankind, but simply those in power. (Though it doesn’t help much that Westworld can’t resist making even near-future poverty look clean, sleek, and cool.) Such a defined adversary promises a streamlining of Westworld’s otherwise insistently un-streamlined master arc, and the season does foreground some easily accessible pleasures. You don’t have to follow who is or isn’t a host to enjoy Dolores putting on her best femme fatale drag after two seasons in frontier gear, or understand which of the many (many, many) timelines you’re in to be intrigued by what this hypothetical future holds, even for its most disenfranchised. A traumatized veteran with both a deceased best friend and a sick mother, Caleb doesn’t make for the most complex or nuanced character. Still, after two full seasons of inscrutable pronouncements and shifting identities, it’s mostly a relief to get a protagonist whose motivations are so easy to understand.

And yet, leaving Westworld’s more frustrating tendencies behind isn’t as simple as leaving Westworld itself. It’s too early to say whether Season 3 will devolve into the same jumbled mess as Season 2 based on the four episodes screened for critics, out of an eventual eight. But the tangle Westworld has left itself is still too much to unwind. It’s been almost a year and a half since the show was last on the air, making it hard to recall where things stand even if Westworld were the kind of show that made it easy to tell where things stand. The writers often resort to either clumsy exposition dumps to remind us of basic facts, like that Maeve (Thandie Newton) just wants to reunite with her daughter, or dei ex machina meant to jump-start the story that end up bogging it down further. Vincent Cassel plays the season’s new big bad, a secretive oligarch whose retconned omnipotence raises more questions than it answers. Assured fresh starts aside, this is not a season you can walk into cold. And while Westworld is well within its rights to cater to the hardcore codebreakers who make up its core demographic, it still can’t figure out how to balance that service with accommodating the less research-inclined.

However disorienting, though, Westworld’s plot contortions obscure a much more fundamental problem, one Season 3 only exacerbates instead of trying to fix. Westworld borrows heavily from the world of video games, and as in video games, many of its characters can regenerate or be regenerated an infinite number of times. The result is a fundamental lack of stakes, and as more characters—including, as of the revelations in last season’s finale, Charlotte Hale and Ed Harris’s The Man in Black—become hosts, this rootlessness only becomes more integral to the experience of watching the show. When anyone at any time can die, come back to life, switch bodies, or live inside a simulation, it makes their behavior and even survival increasingly meaningless, a potentially powerful observation Westworld turns against itself. And while I can’t disclose the specifics of what Season 3 adds to the hosts’ arsenal of capabilities, I can conclusively say it widens the gap between viewer and viewed.

Westworld is a show that gestures at big ideas: the constructed nature of reality; as of Season 3, the ever-raging class war; the debatable nature of free will, also pondered in Alex Garland’s Devs. But where Devs is slow and deliberate, allowing space to dig into its weightier themes—too much space, some might argue!—Westworld is too overstuffed to digest its own food for thought. Even its attempts to reset leave the show right back where it started. “It’s hard to break our loops, isn’t it?” Dolores asks. Westworld would know.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.