Westworld is a series on taking the familiar, established dynamics of its world and turning them on their head. First, it was the robot hosts of the Westworld theme park gaining sentience and wanting freedom. Next, we witnessed the hosts turning the tables on the humans who terrorized them for entertainment and returning the favor, which then led to the surviving hosts entering the real world and fighting for a place there.
All that sounds great on paper, maybe even logical in its progression, but after the initial intrigue of the show, the execution was way off, resulting in some messy seasons of TV. Season 4 has arrived and fixed some of the major problems that had plagued the show in what has been a mostly coherent season of television that, most importantly, has been fun.
Following consecutive seasons of diminishing returns both critically and ratings-wise, with storytelling decisions that tested the patience of even die-hard fans, Westworld has found its footing again. Its fourth season is easily its best since its initial season that became a phenomenon, finding a narrative sweet spot that has allowed it to return to its strengths in new ways that feel very familiar, in true Westworld fashion.
The Hosts have essentially won, relegating humanity to a city (park) where they are under complete control, with the illusion of free will and predetermined loops set for their daily lives. Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), who is also Dolores (very confusing), rules over the humans along with her people made up of other hosts, including William (Ed Harris), who she kidnapped last season and turned into a host. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) has woken from a multi-year simulation to try and save humanity from extinction, and Maeve (Thandie Newton) is thrust back into action to try and stop Hale's plans along with Caleb (Aaron Paul). Meanwhile, Christina (Evan Rachel Wood), who looks just like the original Dolores, uncovers the reality of the city she lives in and that she has the power to control the humans that make up the park/city.
That seems like a highly complex array of plotlines. Keep in mind that it is a very bare-bones explanation of what's going on minus any theory crafting or predictions, which have been hallmarks of engaging with the show. It's a credit to Westworld that everything going on in its world is digestible and clear. The beginning of the season did a clever thing when it established that everything is going on at different points of time, decades and hundreds of years apart, but it smartly reveals everything is happening relatively at the same time, and the characters and factions are on a collision course. The result of season four’s focused approach has allowed the show to rebound in a major way.
Season 1 had an exciting mystery box of things to learn about the world that fostered week-to-week engagement. It was understandable, but at the same time, every new detail would raise more questions as the viewer, like the show's characters, delved deeper into the rules and structure of the world. Things got out of hand quickly in the following seasons, where the complicated nature of the show ceased to be engaging and became a burden.
The show now balances its narrative and the puzzle it wants the viewer to solve better than ever, laying out key mysteries that need to be solved while consolidating every character's respective arcs in a way that makes actual sense. The series has smartly ignored/downplayed everything that has happened in its previous season, resetting the status quo for the characters fans have been riding with since day one and allowing for newer additions like Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul to feel important.
In the previous season, Paul was the avatar for humanity, who is thrown to the front lines of a shadow war between humans and hosts who have now infiltrated the real world. He also was supposed to show that regular everyday people are slaves to the system just as much as the robots programmed to serve. Westworld is good at presenting big ideas, but as previously stated, the show has a low batting average regarding execution. Paul’s Caleb felt less like a character and more like a nameless protagonist in a video game, bland dialogue and all. Season four has remedied this by giving him an actual stake in the narrative, an actual character to play, and some scenes where he can show why he was so beloved on Breaking Bad.
Tessa Thompson has been incredible this season. Even when she hasn't had the most depth to work with, and especially when she's able to do things like command and sit on a throne of humans, she has been amazing, giving some gravitas to situations that need it. Ed Harris has been given a lot to do. He is easily one of the best parts of the show every time he pops up, whether as Hale's second in command or his original human self, who has been cryo-frozen and used as an impromptu therapist for his robot self. It is nice being able to enjoy these great actors and feel confident the story is actually going somewhere.
It's not perfect, and there are still problems with the scale of things in its world (the city at times seems small and cheap). Some decisions characters make have you questioning the logic behind them. But all in all, those problems and others have been there from the beginning.
The important takeaway is that Westworld is the best it's been, worthy of jumping back into if you were put off by the third season (you can actually skip it). With two episodes left, it would be perfectly in character for Westworld to undo all the goodwill it’s achieved this season. If it does tail off in the end, it won't be without some very confusing and beautiful fireworks.
Westworld is streaming on HBO Max.
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