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‘Westworld’ Comes Back Online

The fourth season of HBO’s dystopian sci-fi drama arrives after consecutive season finales with declining TV ratings. Now the question is: Is enough of the ‘Westworld’ audience still willing to put in the work?

HBO/Ringer illustration

“Let me ask you this,” one Westworld character asks another of last season’s climactic events. “Has your life changed since they destroyed those machines?”

If it has to be asked, the answer is obvious: not much, either for the character in question or the show they lead. Over three seasons, Westworld has repeatedly set up a series of seismic reversals. First, the “hosts” of its namesake theme park gained sentience; then, they turned on their flesh-and-blood guests; finally, they escaped altogether, bringing the robot revolution into the real world and raising the stakes accordingly. Last season even ended by killing off a major character, a commitment her creators insisted they would stick to. Each time, Westworld teases a trip into uncharted territory.

But, in its fourth installment (premiering this Sunday), Westworld feels drearily familiar. A woman played by Evan Rachel Wood lives a routine life that isn’t quite what it seems. Protagonists pontificate ad nauseam about “this world.” Swarms of flies serve, once again, as a foreboding symbol. And, in the most symbolic backtrack of all, Westworld heads back to the park, where guests’ exploits are soundtracked by vintage-sounding covers of pop artists like Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish. After making the grand gesture of evolving past its initial setting, Westworld ultimately ends up right back where it started.

As the quote up top suggests, one could argue Westworld repeats itself intentionally in service of a larger point. The show has never explored the ethics or philosophy of artificial intelligence as deeply as its premise might allow, but it has often invoked the idea of hosts and humans alike getting stuck in a loop—trapped in a status quo by forces outside their control. (Hosts, of course, are programmed by humans to follow the park’s scripted storylines; humans, as was revealed last season, were under the thumb of Rehoboam, a supercomputer secretly manipulating world affairs until its destruction.) Constant reversion, in a certain light, only underlines the theme—though there’s a fine line between highlighting a problem and becoming a part of it.

Then again, Westworld’s been gone long enough that viewers may appreciate the reminders of its older self. In the show’s world, we learn it’s been seven years since the events of the previous finale (a post-credits scene where a host wakes up covered in dust suggested a time jump was in the works). In the real world’s timeline, it’s been just over two years, an absence prolonged by the pandemic—though not much longer than the 20-month hiatus between Seasons 2 and 3 (a byproduct of the show’s sky-high production values and labyrinthine plot). Even without social distancing, it takes some time to build a maze.

Westworld was already past the peak of its cultural relevance before its extended break. Ratings for last season’s final episode were down almost 20 percent from the season prior, which were in turn a decline from Season 1. And, anticipation for Season 4 doesn’t seem especially high; the show’s recent Google Trends chart, an imperfect yet useful metric, is essentially a flat line. Even Westworld’s creators, the married couple Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, have been busy with other pursuits. Joy made her feature directorial debut last year, to mixed reviews; she and Nolan also signed a nine-figure deal with Amazon, where they’re producing an adaptation of William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral—starring Chloë Grace Moretz—and another of the hit game series Fallout, with Walton Goggins and Yellowjackets’ Ella Purnell. There’s far more than just Westworld on their plates. And if Nolan and Joy have already started to move on, surely some fans will follow suit.

Mystery boxes take effort to pry open. That’s the whole fun of them: providing an extracurricular activity to fill time between episodes. The longer Westworld has gone on, the less it’s relied on withholding information in lieu of straightforward storytelling. Former enigmas, like the Man in Black (Ed Harris) or Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), are now just clones of Wood’s original Dolores Abernathy, turning once-obscure motivations into a simple desire to kill humans and create more hosts. The show still has convolution in its DNA, making subplots asynchronous for no obvious reason, apart from force of habit. (The reveal that Jimmi Simpson’s character was actually a younger version of Harris worked back in Season 1, so Westworld keeps running back the hits.) And in 2022, that leads into an all-important question: is enough of Westworld’s audience still willing to put in the work?

After all, the show no longer has a monopoly on big, expansive genre stories––once a niche that HBO pioneered with trademark ambition. Since the launch of Game of Thrones in 2011 and Westworld in 2016, the field has exploded to include series like Stranger Things and the TV satellites of Star Wars and the MCU, which deliver spectacle at similar scale. At its start, Westworld could at least make a claim to highbrow aspirations like exploring the nature of consciousness. Yet, as the show has backed away from its more cerebral side and is now largely confined to faux-profound dialogue—one speech this season comes dangerously close to recycling “time is a flat circle”—it’s ceded that territory to newcomers. On Apple TV+, the breakout drama Severance artfully combines intellect with intrigue. By obscuring the ultimate aims of its all-powerful corporation, Severance conveys the power employers hold over in-the-dark employees. With its own secrets, Westworld never achieved such a synthesis of form and function.

In the face of increasing competition, Westworld has little to offer but more of the same with some slight alterations. It’s now Caleb (Aaron Paul), not Maeve (Thandiwe Newton), who’s driven solely by the desire to protect his young daughter. Some version of Dolores, now going by Christina, lives in New York City, a far cry from a simulacrum of the Old West (her roommate is played by Ariana DeBose, a fairly surprising follow-up for a recent Oscar winner). But she’s still a sweet, kindhearted young woman whose life is upended by a violent encounter. In the four episodes screened for critics, we don’t yet learn Christina’s true nature. Still, it’s hard to muster up much curiosity when her latest scenario feels so much like her last.

By the time Caleb and Maeve make their way back to the park’s latest attraction, which simulates the Jazz Age, they only make explicit what’s already implied. (Crowds flocking back to a corporate playground less than a decade after a fatal massacre is a shrewd bit of satire, though Michael Crichton created a whole other franchise out of the same observation after making the original Westworld in 1973.) The battle lines have partly shifted; instead of humans versus hosts, the conflict now pits the genocidal Dolores-as-Charlotte against more empathetic adversaries like Maeve and Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard. But, the battlefield itself is almost identical. Once in the park, Maeve watches with amusement as another host reprises her role as a wisecracking madam—same script, different actor.

As ever, there are aspects of Westworld the show could make more of if it chose. But, Bernard and Maeve never get to actually debate their points of difference with Charlotte and their henchmen––a conversation that would actually flesh out their competing points of view on humanity, forgiveness, and class solidarity. Instead they just fight, leaving an absence that lays bare Westworld’s basic contradiction. The show has earned a reputation for being too elaborate for its own good; at its core, though, Westworld is stubbornly simple. Four seasons in, it’s stopped trying to say anything new.