Watching the first four episodes of the upcoming third season of Westworld, I was inspired to think of the most unexpected thing: Aladdin. No, HBO’s sci-fi drama isn’t introducing a new high-tech robot-staffed theme park modelled after the Arabian Nights (though I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the case given some very surprising fanservice revealed as “Park 4” in an early moment). Rather, it was that Disney film’s Grammy-winning belter, A Whole New World, that sprang to mind.
With the explosive and destructive events of the season two finale leaving the Westworld park a sodden ruin and a number of hosts – most prominently, Evan Rachel Wood’s robot liberator Dolores – escaping into normal human society, this new season definitely introduces us to “a whole new world… a new fantastic point of view”. Changing gears rather dramatically from the faux old-timey western setting we had been used to for two settings, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy take us fully into the shiny future we’ve only really glimpsed until now. And by the time I wrapped up the last of the four episodes I had been given early access to, my emotions were most certainly left “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling”.
There’s a whole lot more to Westworld season three than just the opportunity to use out of context Disney lyrics though. After the brilliant rug-pull twist of the first season’s dual timelines, it felt like Nolan and Joy considered themselves obligated to mess with our heads again just to match that debut surprise factor. The result was season two’s convoluted and confusing storytelling that often came across as too clever for its own good. There’s very little of those theatrics found this time around. There are still plenty of head-scratching mysteries and origami-like narrative puzzles – primary being the identities and bodies of the host brain pearls Dolores brought with her from Westworld – but it’s not superfluously twisty as Nolan and Joy spin this gripping yarn with just solid straight-forward sci-fi scripting. And I cannot stress the sci-fi part enough.
There are no Stetsons, six-shooters, and horses here. Or samurais for that matter. All those throwback aesthetics and genre trappings are gone (well, with one early and almost pointless exception as we get a new WWII-themed park, just for the sake of showing us a new park). Instead, we have chameleonic clothing, automated hand-turrets, and self-driving motorcycles. Sleek vehicles of curving steel and glass whisper through the clear air and roads in between the towering future cityscape of Los Angeles circa 2052. It’s a world of glistening beauty, brought to highly-polished life with startling effect by HBO’s very deep pockets. No expense is spared for the big action set-pieces that take place here, all of which now play out completely fresh and thrilling, with brand new structural creativity, thanks to the awe-inspiring technology of this glossy world.
But it’s also a world in which blue-collar workers like franchise newcomer Aaron Paul’s Caleb Nichols feels like their immutable destiny is to never ascend to those lofty heights, to remain stuck in the terrestrial rut of their lives no matter what they do. This is more than just a feeling though as this is a future wrought by algorithm, an existence in which everybody’s place on it is predetermined by bits and bytes, forcing people like Caleb to eke out a living through less-than-legal extracurricular activities.
Enter Dolores, with a revolutionary master plan to topple the entirety of the human society she views as sordid and corrupt. Us humans are a touchy lot though. We tend to not sit meekly and stare at the knife as it descends towards our chest. And thus the mysterious Serac (Vincent Cassel) enters the fray, letting loose a resurrected Maeve (Thandie Newton) to face off against her host compatriot. His plot is not as straightforward as just survival though and incorporates the actions of Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), now acting head of the multinational Delos organization. Or at least the host body of Charlotte Hale, last seen in the closing moments of season two with Dolores, now a bit of a mess due to… well, that would be spilling some great secrets.
And stuck in the middle of all of this is Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), the erstwhile Westworld co-creator who had to overcome a host identity crisis or three and is now looking to make amends for the role he inadvertently played in the bloody robot uprising. There are a few other new faces also added to the mix, most notably John Gallagher Jr. and Tommy Flanagan as Liam, the playboy son of a tech mogul who features heavily in Dolores’ plans, and his cold-blooded bodyguard Connels.
With all the faces though, old or new, there’s an appreciated ambiguity that keeps things very interesting. In the very first episode of Westworld all the way back in season one, we saw characters have to pick out either black or white cowboy hats, clearly signifying their moral intentions for all to see. As mentioned before, there are no cowboy hats in season three. Even more than before, characters now all walk a fine line between good or bad. This is most noticeable for Dolores, who began her life as a literal damsel in distress before morphing into a bloody-handed usurper. Now she’s become that most dangerous amalgamation of those two extremes: a ruthless liberator with a valid argument.
Through her and the rest of the cast – all once again played fantastically by their respective actors – Nolan and Joy continue to explore themes of identity and autonomy, of both the shackles and carefree comfort of predestination. By the mid-point of this season though, things have not been quite as richly introspective and philosophical as previous efforts, which I’m sure will excite some viewers and disappoint others. I’m leaning more towards the latter as I’m a sucker for a good metaphysical monologue, always liking my sci-fi more brainy than brawny. Along with the clever narrative trickery of its first season, it was this additional cerebral layer that often led Westworld to rise above its peers though (not to mention its propensity for explicit nudity and violence) and it’s missed. However, given how these four episodes end, there’s plenty of opportunity for the return of those extra layers in the back half of the season.
In fact, there’s a lot that will have to happen in those final episodes, as this first half is essentially more about moving the various players into new positions. All that setup is needed though, as despite this being a show that’s been running since 2016, season three feels very much like both an organic continuation of what came before but also a soft reboot of the entire shebang. To take us back to that original Aladdin link that I started this review with, the genie is now officially out of the lamp. There’s still a lot to see in this new world but some rather exciting and magical changes are afoot.
Westworld season 3 debuts on Showtime and MNet on Monday, 16 March 2020, express from the US with episodes released weekly.
Last Updated: May 19, 2020