clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Westworld’ Is Good Again, Somehow

As it turns out, the dystopian HBO series is still capable of engineering shocking twists, and Season 4 delivered perhaps the biggest one yet: The show is actually good again

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

We don’t need John Landgraf and FX’s research department to know there’s an exhaustive amount of television available for consumers. (That being said: 357 scripted series airing in the first half of 2022 is definitely overkill.) The process of choosing something to watch these days might seem overwhelming, but the upside of Peak TV is that nobody should have to settle for shows that aren’t living up to their potential. So why, pray tell, would Westworld still warrant anyone’s attention?

After a promising first season that invited thought-provoking questions about free will and humanity, Westworld quickly fell off the rails. Over its next two seasons, the series tried recapturing the magic of its initial twists—humans secretly being robotic “hosts,” the use of multiple timelines, characters questioning the nature of their reality—in a manner that came across as gimmicky rather than a natural extension of its storytelling. (Just one ridiculous example: Cocreator Jonathan Nolan decided that Westworld head of security Ashley Stubbs was a secret host the night before shooting a scene instead of, you know, actually building the reveal into the show.) On a series where hosts navigated a metaphorical maze to achieve consciousness, it sure felt like Westworld’s architects got lost in the grandiosity of their own narrative design.

With how underwhelming the second and third seasons ended up being, you wouldn’t blame anyone for leaving the robot sex-murder theme parks in the rearview. (Based on the ratings for the fourth season, Westworld fatigue appears to be a real thing.) But despite years of disappointment, I couldn’t give up on Westworld. The unsexy reason is that, as a staff writer for a pop culture website, following a prestige HBO series is just part of the job. Beyond that, though, Westworld still has its charms, including sumptuous production design, a wonderfully ominous score from Ramin Djawadi, and one of the strongest casts on television. I wouldn’t exactly say I had faith the show could right the ship, but even a meh season of Westworld remains expensive eye candy in which A-list actors make dorm-room philosophizing somewhat tolerable.

But as it turns out, Westworld is still capable of engineering shocking twists, and Season 4 delivered perhaps the biggest one yet: The show is actually good again. Westworld being Westworld, there’s always a possibility the series will ruin all the promise of the fourth season in Sunday’s finale. (Note: There is also a small chance I have been replaced by a host version of myself programmed to publish positive blogs about Westworld, which I won’t find out about until after the finale airs and I wake up in a conference room with Casey Bloys running a diagnostics test on my robo-brain.) But Westworld genuinely appears to have steered away from its worst impulses, streamlining its story to arrive at what was teased in the show’s earliest moments: robots fighting back against their human oppressors and creating a new world order.

While Westworld was originally confined to its theme parks and the ways hosts were mistreated by guests, the series has since branched out beyond Delos Incorporated to explore the real world. At first, the show struggled with this expanded scope: The futuristic Los Angeles of Season 3 was both unimaginative and oddly constrictive, hinging on an advanced AI called Rehoboam using a predictive algorithm to control humanity. (Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather see a proper robot uprising than find out humans are at the mercy of a giant ball.) But the Rehoboam nonsense at least paved the way for hosts like Charlotte—a.k.a. a copy of Dolores in Charlotte’s body—to put themselves in positions of power. To that end, Charlotte replaced William with a host replica and started a chain of events in Season 4 in which influential figures were swapped out with robot doppelgängers.

There is a perverse thrill in watching, say, Host William lure the vice president to a golf course, hit three consecutive holes in one to freak the guy out, and then whack him over the head with a driver before an identical robot takes his spot in the White House. More importantly, rather than intentional (and annoying) obfuscation to keep the audience guessing, Westworld mostly clued viewers into Charlotte’s diabolical scheme, which combined a host takeover of the rich and powerful with a creepy experiment involving parasitic flies so that the rest of humanity would become obedient sheep. The setup for Season 4, then, was refreshingly simple: on one side, Charlotte’s plan for global domination, and on the other, the ragtag group of humans and rational hosts determined to stop her.

Of course, Westworld’s fourth season couldn’t totally resist old habits. There’s a new story line following a woman named Christina, played by original Dolores actress Evan Rachel Wood, who works in New York and begins questioning the nature of her reality when she meets a man named Teddy. (Yes, that Teddy.) Meanwhile, Bernard returns after spending considerable time in the Sublime—the virtual space where a host’s consciousness can exist—living through every scenario of humanity’s future, and then talking about the experience in the vaguest of terms. But even though these are typically areas where Westworld tests the audience’s patience—enough with the characters who are needlessly mysterious!—the show actually knows how to have fun with them. Christina is initially introduced with her roommate Maya nagging her to give dating a chance in the big city—a rom-com subplot that feels knowingly corny—before Teddy confirms her suspicion that there’s something wrong with their world. As for Bernard, his apparent clairvoyance becomes hilariously nifty, whether he’s anticipating coffee spills or someone’s moves in a fight sequence.

The fact that Westworld isn’t taking itself as seriously or constantly trying to outsmart viewers with a barrage of twists also means that moments when the show does set up a big reveal have carried some weight. Halfway through the season, we learn that Bernard spent so much time in the Sublime that Charlotte’s plan already succeeded in the decades he was gone; Christina’s sense that something is amiss is because she’s in the middle of a city under host control. Four seasons after introducing hosts as human playthings, the robots have flipped the script—most devious of all, the city’s inhabitants are completely oblivious to their own subjugation.

Westworld has never been shy about pulling from other works of science fiction, and the conflict at the heart of Season 4 is right out of The Matrix, with a little Invasion of the Body Snatchers sprinkled in for good measure. (Whenever rebels infiltrate the city, Charlotte can essentially program her human puppets to attack them; it’s quite unsettling.) But even as Charlotte and the hosts achieve everything they could have hoped for, these characters are stuck on the other end of a narrative loop that’s been repeating itself from the start of the series. And while repetition isn’t a quality that enhances most shows, Westworld isn’t most shows.

When given the choice between messing with humans in the city—i.e., the new park—and “transcending” to Charlotte’s Robot Heaven™ similar to the Sublime, many hosts get drawn into the same cycles of violence that doomed their former oppressors. As fewer hosts transcend in favor of spending time in New York, and some that do stay end up killing themselves after interactions with human “outliers” who discovered they’ve been controlled their whole lives, Charlotte is convinced the hosts are somehow being “infected,” not unlike her parasitic flies. It’s a clever role reversal of what Westworld has cautioned going back to its very first episode: Violent delights have violent ends.

The repetitive nature of Westworld’s narrative, and the characters ensnared within it, can become the show’s own worst enemy. There’s only so many times Westworld is able to introduce familiar elements like a new theme park—for example: Season 4 gave us a glimpse of the Prohibition-era “Temperance” World—before the series collapses in on itself. But as Westworld embraces the latest stage of its human-host conflict, it has a clearer sense of purpose. In the lead-up to the season finale, history is repeating itself: Host William has embraced his Man in Black alter ego, executed Charlotte, and ordered a free-for-all in New York reminiscent of the initial massacre in the park. (As far as parallels go, William killing Charlotte is not unlike Dolores shooting Robert Ford to cap off Season 1.)

With the chaos spreading from Delos’s parks to the rest of the world, and with nothing less than the future of both humanity and host-kind at stake, Westworld seems to be much closer to the finish line. (Pending renewal, all signs point to Season 5 being its last.) Between the intentionally cyclical story lines and misguided twists from earlier seasons alienating viewers, Westworld winding down is certainly for the best. But while the series may never reclaim its former glory, it appears Westworld has finally worked out the bugs in its narrative software and become a better version of itself.