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Is Westworld trapped in its own circuit?

Written by TV, TV Reviews

Back in 2016, Westworld debuted with a fury, captivating audiences with both its intelligent themes and its mainstream high-budget production values. Since then though, the hype for this water-cooler phenomenon died down throughout its second season, which aired in 2018, and the third season that began earlier this year. So, what’s happened?

I recently began watching the third season despite the lack of hype that the trailers generated for me personally. After all, if you’ve been around at all in this earthly realm as of late, you’ll know that there isn’t much new content to watch. Three episodes in and I have to say, I don’t have any strong feelings towards it one way or another.

The production value is still of a very high standard, though I didn’t doubt that it wouldn’t be given HBO’s generous budgets. However, the design itself is weirdly uninteresting. For the first time in the series, we are introduced to the outside world through neo-Los Angeles. The buildings are tall and pristine white, while the vehicles are shiny and (strangely) rather cubicle. In many ways, neo-Los Angeles feels unlived in and ultimately – at least from a personal perspective – undesirable.

And this is where Aaron Paul’s newly introduced character – Caleb Nichols – comes in. A human, as far as we know, that is struggling to adapt to this new world after returning from a military tour of duty for an unknown war. As you could imagine, Caleb quickly becomes the audience’s surrogate for this new world as a neutral observer, particularly since Dolores, who escapes Westworld at the end of season two, is hell-bent on destroying it.

Aaron Paul and Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld
Credit; HBO, IMDb

Aaron Paul is a terrific actor and Caleb is a welcome change of pace from the rotation of characters from the previous seasons. His involvement so far has been pretty exposition heavy for his characteristics and so I can’t say too much about him at the moment. I imagine though that he’ll be the ying to Dolores’ yang through the whole bloody affair.

To get back onto the location side of things, neo-Los Angeles futuristic and clinical undesirability has made me extremely nostalgic for Westworld (and its sister parks). I feel that this is an intentional choice, making the audience question whether the reality of the outside world is anything that someone (Dolores) would fight so hard to achieve. These sorts of creative choices are what keeps Westworld a clever and thoughtful show, but it doesn’t make it the most entertaining.

the second season was convoluted to the point of pretentiousness and let down the show’s ability to tell a great story

At this point I should mention that I believe that the first season of Westworld was perfect and that the series really could have ended there. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the second season as well – albeit not as much – for its let’s-look-at-other-ideas-that-we-couldn’t-fit-into-the-first-season approach. However, the second season suffered from an anachronistic approach that was convoluted to the point of pretentiousness and let down the show’s ability to tell a great story.

I’m mentioning this because it’s important for me to find out what I loved so much from the first season that isn’t in the third. The obvious one is the park, of course. The aesthetic antiquity was really warming and made the violence of the guests that much more harrowing. In neo-Los Angeles, the violence feels detached in the cold backdrop.

The second absence is the characters that didn’t make it through the Dolores’ conquest. This is particularly true for many of the hosts that we spent so much time with. As far as this loss goes, I shouldn’t have to acknowledge it as a great depletion; shows remove characters all the time. I think what this tells me though is that I’m just not that invested in the characters that are still left.

Thandie Newton as Maeve
Credit; HBO, IMDb

With the exception of Maeve, who is perpetually elevated by a marvellously cast Thandie Newton, I’m struggling to invest in characters that are trapped in their own loop. This loop is a major theme in the third season, as it often is in contemporary science-fiction and Westworld’s seasons past. You could say that this repetition of themes is part of a grander meta-narrative, and if you were writing on the show for academia it would be a fascinating place of study. But just like the use of locales, the circular motions of these character arcs and themes don’t make for compelling television and storytelling.

Nevertheless, I’ve started the third season now and, especially since it is only eight episodes, I’ll probably complete it to see if it can break its own circuit. Until then, be safe, stay at home, start up your gaming console of choice and lose yourself in your own Westworld.

Last modified: 6th April 2020

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