Westworld built a reputation on being mysterious. This made the first season irresistible, the second incomprehensible, and the forthcoming third season… well, you might have some questions — including “Is it still confusing?” “Who is a robot again?” and “Wait, is that Marshawn Lynch?” These are excellent questions. Some of the answers are good; some of them less so.
In its third season premiere, the show does very little to catch new viewers up to speed, so here are the broad strokes: Westworld, the show’s eponymous park, is one of several theme parks where astonishingly lifelike robots populate re-creations of various historical periods. For a very large price, the wealthy can come and roleplay the fantasy of their choice for a spell, tourists for whom morality is completely optional and hedonism is encouraged — because, after all, the robots (called “hosts” here) aren’t real people.
Season 1 was about complicating that, as the hosts of Westworld developed consciousness and became aware of the atrocities their creators forced them to live through over and over again. Season 2 was about revolution, as the hosts began to fight back and tear down the park around them. Throughout both, there are running threads tied to the elite who run and attend the park. This mostly related to an internal power struggle within Delos (the corporation that owns Westworld and its sister parks) and teasing that the actual purpose of Westworld is not entertainment but data: a perfect psychological profile of all the elite guests who visit it, built using their unfettered behavior in the parks.
Unfortunately, this summary (and any summary, really) leaves out a lot by necessity because Westworld is perhaps the most over-plotted show on television, obsessed with nonlinear storytelling, symbology, constant references to literature and philosophy, and regular plot twists or status quo shifts. It would be nice if the third season was a clean break that let viewers ignore it completely because catching up is exhausting. To a certain extent, you can! But as things begin to unfold, you’re probably going to need to open a wiki.
The show’s third season begins with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the Westworld host who began the robot revolution, out in the real world and eager to enact revenge on her creators. From the four episodes provided to critics in advance, this seems to be the glue holding the season together: what does Dolores’ revenge look like? Which other hosts are out in the real world now? Who are her targets and why? It’s easy enough stuff, and it’s compelling to watch, too. While the show is named after a theme park that made for a fun setting, Westworld slowly began to flesh out what the real world looked like and exploring that world is the best part of these early episodes.
A big reason for this is that our guide to this world isn’t Dolores but Caleb (Aaron Paul), a disillusioned construction worker and veteran. He’s forced to pick up gig work via an app best described as “Taskrabbit but for crimes” in order to pay for his mother’s hospital bills. Through Caleb, we see this gilded cyberpunk world through working-class eyes, and few eyes are as good at charismatically conveying constant internal suffering than Paul’s.
Things get more unwieldy as the show sprawls outward from there, catching the viewers up on who survived the massacre at the conclusion of last season and what their status is. The show does this at a languid, perplexing pace, sometimes grabbing your attention with an alarming twist, and in others, it falls back on its cryptic ways. There is, however, a glimmer of hope: by the end of the fourth episode, these seemingly disparate threads come together. The show seems to have a sense of purpose it has not had since its pilot.
Early in its run, Westworld invited a lot of comparisons to video games. It made sense on multiple levels: the show was about a park that adhered to a game-like narrative design, and it cared about detailing the push and pull between the desires of players, designers, and the emergent behavior of the system itself. Pull the lens back more, the way Westworld season 3 does, and the metaphor continues to work astonishingly well. The games built by the characters of Westworld are, like many of the biggest video games, power fantasies. Crucially, they’re power fantasies that map onto the inequality of the world: where labor is not valued, laborers are barely treated as human, and the innovations of science and technology disproportionately benefit the wealthy.
But as Dolores notes at one point, these are all the products of systems, and systems are more fragile than the people who made them think. It’s a turn that has taken on a strange prescience given the rapidly changing state of the world due to a pandemic, shocks to said systems have a way of exposing just how much inequity is wholly unnecessary, perpetuated simply because there are profits to be made in sustaining it. To refer back to Westworld’s favorite paraphrasing of Shakespeare: violent delights have violent ends.