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Westworld looks fresh with its hard reset, but Season 3 feels like a long con

  • "After the many frustrations of Season 2, from the laughable glibness of the hosts’ last-minute ascension to an overarching sluggishness that suggested the writers were running out of ideas, I appreciate the comparatively quick pace and novel visuals of the new episodes," says Judy Berman. "Much of the season takes place in a futuristic Los Angeles—with flawless production design that nods to the cyberpunk aesthetic but doesn’t photocopy it—now a city of tall, plasticky towers covered in windows and greenery, where people with money ride around in insect-like hovercrafts and self-driving cars that resemble Elon Musk’s Cybertruck if it actually looked appealing. This fresh setting enables the kind of immersive world-building that made it possible to be patient with Westworld in the beginning. The acting remains fantastic, as substantial storylines for (Aaron) Paul and (Tessa) Thompson (who finally gets the challenging material she deserves) complement the consistently sharp performances of (Evan Rachel) Wood, (Thandie) Newton and (Jeffrey) Wright. Action scenes are as slick as ever. Sadly, though, all that polish effectively functions as a distraction from the aimlessness of what is starting to feel like a loose collection of characters, ideas and cool narrative tricks in search of a story."


    • Westworld being confusing is a feature, not a bug: "Westworld is an artfully produced trip through topical and imagined wormholes, and the fact that it loses its way as often as its characters lose their minds is at once apropos and frustrating," says Lorraine Ali. "It ushers viewers into a web of dueling narratives and terrifying insights about the collision of humanity and technology and the dangers of overindulgence — all themes that speak to our own modern struggles while grappling with the melee in a fictional realm. Sure, Westworld is so chronologically complicated it would take an actual team of robots, replete with high-level decryption programs, to explain exactly what the show is about, or where it’s going, or even where it’s been. It’s both comforting and disturbing, though you can take heart that future L.A. has no traffic because hover cars are a thing. The demise of humanity has a bright side after all!"
    • Leaving Westworld’s more frustrating tendencies behind isn’t as simple as leaving Westworld itself: "The change of venue comes with an implied change in approach," says Alison Herman. "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 is so much less alluring in Season 3: "This new iteration of the show is, to use a dated word, a bit basic," says Richard Lawson. "It’s got some cool sci-fi stuff going on, but the twists and loops have been ironed out to create a smoother surface for more action-movie content. But will the show’s transformation into something more easily legible and digestible be enough to attract new eyeballs? Or should Westworld have not worried so much about an imagined wider audience and just stuck to its six-shooters, delivering a third (and final) season that stood strong in its idiosyncrasy—putting it in the same league not as Game of Thrones, but HBO’s The Leftovers? At this point, the latter seems like it would have been the wiser—or at least more fulfilling—option. I don’t love this leaner, meaner Westworld. The show suddenly seems so much less sexy and dangerous and alluring than it once did: it’s flat, more obvious, occasionally hokey. It tries a bit too hard to appeal to those who only want a shoot-and-stab-’em-up about sexy robots."
    • Season 3 is a blessedly streamlined one, but not as fun: "Provided you can grasp the general gist of who’s alive, who’s a host, and who knows what is 'real'—and don’t mind the otherwise straightforward introduction of a few new characters, it’s a sleeker, mission-focused ride this time," says Kevin Fallon. "Now, I’m fully aware that I’m about to go into my closet and dig out my Goldilocks wig when I complain about this, but this new, simpler Westworld is also no fun. Take at face value what’s going on with this shift."
    • Westworld doesn’t need to be alienating to be good; it still is -- but it may need to be alienating to be Westworld: "The show’s second season was widely pilloried for its purposeful deployment of audience confusion, a way of depicting its characters’ shifting experiences of their lives that frustrated expectations," says Daniel D'Addario. "The new Westworld seems designed to meet expectations precisely where they are. The new capabilities it’s aiming for — to satisfy fans with crisp, straightforward storytelling — have obvious virtues, but limit the show’s power, too."
    • Season 3 streamlines Westworld into a tale of two worlds, but only one works: "Even when some viewers complained watching felt like homework, Westworld is made to be a weighty, wild science-fiction brain-bender and, at least at times, it’s wielded that bulk with enjoyable panache," says Ben Travers. "But after Season 2 , it’s just not that fun anymore — you know, the kind of fun that seems inherent to a show about the robo-pocalypse. Westworld stopped questioning the nature of its own reality: At its core, the series is about about a theme park that’s overrun by sentient, vengeful hosts. (They’re not even called robots, as such a basic term is borderline blasphemous.) All this pomp (some earned, some not) elevates Westworld beyond such silly origins, but it also keeps the series from letting the air out often enough to have a rollicking good time."
    • Even outside the park, Westworld is gonna Westworld: "The nagging fear that humankind is on the brink of ceding its dominion thrums under every scene," says Matt Zoller Seitz. "It’s the power source that keeps the dramatic electricity running whether the show is delivering on its considerable promise, shambling into a narrative or rhetorical cul-de-sac, or certifying its HBO-ness by piling on gruesome murders, tortures, and eviscerations that feel like narratively unimportant time-wasters. It’s the most frustratingly not-quite-there show on TV: structurally bold, visually arresting, often brilliantly acted, show-off-ily erudite (to the point of having three rich folks argue the accuracy of a Plutarch quote during a society gala), and woefully predisposed to turn subtext into text. But its sense of dread is so effective that it draws even skeptical viewers into its narrative mazes, and the self-regarding metafictional overlays invite viewers to compare the series to video games, Choose Your Own Adventure books, myths, fables, philosophical and ethical systems, the assembly-line production of series like Westworld, and the larger corporate forces that affect TV storytelling."
    • Aaron Paul brings much-needed humanity to Westworld: "Aaron Paul’s addition to Westworld Season 3 is mainly exciting because he’s giving us something different than what we’ve seen before," says Meghan O'Keefe. "In a show that has become increasingly devoted to leaning on wild plot twists and resurrecting its fallen characters, Paul’s character Caleb feels refreshingly real. Unlike the wealthy and powerful patrons of Westworld or the offbeat geniuses running the park, Caleb’s a true everyman. It’s not just that he works in construction and struggles to make ends meet; Aaron Paul plays Caleb like a man used to being ignored. He’s been kicked down, counted out, and yet, he’s still managed to somehow survive."
    • Season 3 feels like the beta version of what it ultimately wants to be: "The $100 million-plus series is still far more entertaining than most of the drivel in the Peak TV era," says Brandon Katz. "It’s still fun to watch Dolores go full Jason Bourne. But the show’s undeniable imagination doesn’t extend to the substance of its content. Westworld is more focused on answering questions we were never really asking than developing new frames of reference. Is free will a myth, like unicorns or Adderall (it’s meth in pill form), and does humanity need either a benevolent dictator or a righteous destroyer? I don’t know and, honestly, I’m not all that interested in Westworld‘s answers."
    • Season 3 is shockingly straightforward: Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan "learned their lesson in Season 3, which steps back into the challenging (but not TOO challenging!) groove of Season 1," says Tim Surette. "In fact, many of the first four episodes of Westworld Season 3 are almost straightforward (I know, SHOCKER!) enough to make you think that you've gotten smarter since watching Season 2. This is a ridiculously exciting turn of events, a chance for the show to return to its promising start and bring back some of the audience that's somewhere in a straitjacket rocking back and forth and muttering, 'The Forge, the Valley Beyond, fidelity...'"
    • At this point, the Westworld actresses are only aspect of the show worth watching: Evan Rachel Wood, "who started the series as a lead but was pushed into a secondary capacity for much of the last two seasons, is utterly front and center here and she's sleek, stylish, marvelously icy — a badass pleasure to watch at every turn," says Daniel Fienberg. "(Thandie) Newton remains the series' vulnerable heart, if such a thing exists, and Thompson has an enjoyable expanded capacity this season as if Nolan and Joy only just realized that they have a burgeoning movie star under contract and they've barely used her. There's nothing the show's directors love nearly as much as letting one of these actresses sweep across the frame, sometimes in slow motion and always immaculately styled and coifed. It's a beautifully shot show, featuring some of TV's most ambitious special effects, but you could take nearly every dialogue-lite scene and turn it into a commercial for perfume or some luxury automobile, the type of thing an A-list actor would shoot for audiences in Japan or Italy."
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    • Tessa Thompson says Season 3 "feels like the show is starting all over again": “In a weird way, it feels like this is the premiere of the show again because we have entered the real world and the show continues to ask the question what it means to be human, but it’s asking a host – pun intended – of new questions. We have lots of people that have come to join our cast, fresh blood, so it feels like the show is starting all over again,” says Thompson. “It’s a show that surprises not just the audience, but surprised the people that are lucky enough to work on it.”
    • Why Aaron Paul was cast in Season 3: "If you want to create from the ground up someone who embodied the kind of qualities of humanness and humility and kindness, but also introspection and depth, and wrestle with the deeper questions, Aaron Paul is a terrific actor," says Jonathan Nolan. "We had early conversations about trying to work with him when we were putting the pilot together, so this is a little bit of unfinished business. I think in terms of finding someone to stick up for the human side of the equation, you simply could not do any better."
    • Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy say Season 3 was always intended to be like a reboot: "We had planned this," says Nolan. "With TV you have to be careful to adjust not to what people may or may not be saying on Twitter, but to what your actors are doing and where the story is going and what your writers are putting out there. The truth of this season is this was the whole payoff for us. This is the last thing we pitched when we pitched the pilot seven years ago, and we had actually figured out how to shoot it then, too. We were sitting there having pitched the general shape of the first two seasons. And as we walked out they said, 'Well, what happens after that?'"
    • Nolan and Joy insist Season 3 isn't a response to criticism over Season 2's convoluted narrative. “Did we dumb the show down?” Nolan says before shaking his head no. “We’re very lucky in that we’re at a place with HBO where they let us make the show we want to make.”

    TOPICS: Westworld, HBO, Aaron Paul, Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, Marshawn Lynch, Tessa Thompson