The problem with high-concept television is it subverts expectations of the medium. Television was never supposed to be this hard, dense, or complicated. Television is supposed to be the white noise in the background, the place to catch up on the day’s news, watch the game, get the weather or traffic, and enjoy a few jokes before bed. But cable and streaming changed all that, and the advent of high-concept television ushered in a whole new landscape of challenging tv. It could be said that no show dares television audiences to embrace the renaissance of the medium’s new worldview more than creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s Westworld, a show that’s impossible to be consumed casually. One that even its most dedicated fans get lost in. It’s what makes the show so addictive. It’s what also makes it so maddening.
It wasn’t always this way, though. The first season of Westworld, based on the 1973 film written and directed by sci-fi author Michael Crichton, was high-concept for sure, but it was also accessible, built around the idea of a theme park in which people can live out their wildest fantasies. The show came to suggest that humans, at their core, when given the chance to do anything if it meant there would be no consequences, would prefer to be terrible instead of good. What made it even easier to be bad was that they could act out their deepest, darkest desires on robots (known as hosts), who could and would never retaliate—or even remember what happened to them. When it turned out the hosts were becoming sentient but could not remember everything, and were not happy about it, they started to rebel against their human creators, and that’s when it all got really interesting. But that’s also when it got really, really complicated.
Seasons two and three were examinations of a world in which hosts start to take over, revealing that humanity itself is controlled by a single AI. I have to admit that I got lost quite a few times when the show got too into the weeds of corporate machinations and megalomaniacal motivations. Still, I stuck around for many other parts of the show that kept me returning, specifically the performances and the production values. But even those features left me wanting by the end of the third season, and I was willing to give up on the journey.
However, I’m here to report that Westworld finds its groove again in season four, at least in the first four episodes, which harken back to the simple questions that made the show so initially compelling: who is good, who is bad, who is real, and what are we all doing here? But, mostly, the best part about the first four episodes of season four is that there is very little of that pesky sitting around and talking nonsense. The revolution is finally here, and it’s about time.
There is very little, plot-wise, that can or should be discussed here, but the trailer itself reveals some significant things, like the fact that, despite her apparent death at the end of season three, Delores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, is back (how could she not be). Maeve, played by Thandiwe Newton, is finally taking center stage, as she should. Aaron Paul is back as Caleb, the good-hearted human who wants to bring down the AI that controlled him, as is Jeffrey Wright, who plays Bernard, the host whose self-awareness sits at the center of the ethical conundrums posited by this show. On the flip side of the revolution are Westworld villains William (Ed Harris) and Charlotte (Tessa Thompson), who have their own reasons for keeping the AI control in place. It is an all-out war between the two sides, and the fight to eventually control humanity’s destiny will no doubt be brutal.
Caught in the middle is the most central figure of all, Delores. How does she fit into everything in season four after seemingly being wholly erased at the end of season three? We shall see, but I have to confess I enjoyed seeing a badass Evan Rachel Wood last season, so let’s hope Nolan and Joy find a way to get her back.
And yet that’s the thing that continues to make Westworld so tricky and sometimes frustrating to watch. Nolan and Joy seem to thrive on keeping the audience somewhat in the dark, if not completely baffled, so they may shock them with twists along the way. It’s hard enough to keep these characters and their motivations straight without further muddying the waters by decoying and teasing us, then taking us into a whole different direction. But Westworld wouldn’t be Westworld without the obfuscation, so we will take it because the journey is still so alluring.
The top-quality production values are back in season four, from the stunning and continually eye-popping production design (from Jonathan Carlos) to the music (Ramin Djawadi) to the cinematography (John Conroy, Peter Flinckenberg) and costumes (Jo Kissack), Westworld is a below-the-line marvel, one that can easily hold itself up next to Game of Thrones as a jewel in HBO’s crown.
But the performances keep me coming back, particularly those of Wood, Wright, and Newton. All three are in a class by themselves in this show. Newton, in particular, continues to create a deep and layered character, complicated and vulnerable, tough and determined. Her performance this season deserves her fourth Emmy nomination (and her second win). Still, with the show missing the eligibility window for this year’s awards, we will have to count on voters having long memories.
Having only seen half of the fourth season, it’s impossible to compare it to the previous three or offer a full season review. Still, if the first four episodes indicate the pace, story, action, and performances that are to come, it can safely be said that Westworld is not only back to doing what it does best, it’s quite possibly better than ever.