Few shows on television right now are as much work to watch as HBO’s Westworld. That’s not necessarily a criticism (at least not all the time), but keeping track of who’s human, who’s a Host, which timeline the story’s taking place in during any given moment, and whether or not the things you’re seeing are actually happening in the order you’re watching them can sometimes feel like a downright impossible task.
The fact that Westworld regularly takes two-year breaks between seasons doesn’t exactly help matters, either. Season 3 aired in the spring of 2020 in what often feels like a different world now, and it’s hard to predict how a show about humanity’s struggle to choose its better angels and break its worst habits will land in a time when we see so many around us failing to do either on a daily basis. Google may have accidentally made a sentient AI in recent weeks, and suddenly the idea of Hosts doesn’t necessarily feel so far away anymore. The world is changing, and while I don’t know that we’re outgrowing Westworld, we’re certainly being regularly asked to confront the idea that maybe the themes this show wrestles with aren’t actually terribly removed from our current day-to-day lives.
But Westworld itself is a series that’s in a constant state of evolution. The show we’re watching now bears little direct resemblance to the overt Western that was Season 1, and each puzzle box mystery the show has put forth in the years since has only led to more questions than it has ever answered. The new season is fully back on its bullshit in the way it both brazenly spins out new mysteries and openly winks at the fact that it knows its audience is trying to suss out what it all means (while remaining incredibly resistant to revealing any of its secrets.) It is happy to repeatedly drop hints that something isn’t what it seems, but also seems to revel in the fact that it knows it’s not giving you enough to figure out what that something is.
Honestly, you kind of have to respect the sheer nerve of it all.
Season 4 picks up seven years after the Season 3 finale, and the robot uprising that ended Dolores’s (Evan Rachel Wood) life, saw Host Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) and human Caleb (Aaron Paul) work together to destroy sentient AI Rehoboam, and supposedly ushered in a new beginning for humanity where they would theoretically be free to make their own choices. What we see is that while a scant few have seized this opportunity with both hands, most have essentially returned to their predetermined paths. Delos not only still exists, but the company is also apparently thriving; and—as many will have seen in the series trailers—has already built a new park, based on 1920s Prohibition-era America. (Which, not for nothing, also leads to several of the season’s most sly, self-referential, and self-aware moments.)
Maeve has gone off-grid, Caleb has started over, and the character played by Tessa Thompson—a corrupted version of the original recipe Dolores consciousness in a Host body of Delos exec Charlotte Hale —has become something (or someone?) entirely new, now with her own agenda. She’s assisted by an almost cartoonishly villainous William (Ed Harris), whose mission is murkier than ever now that he is presumably a Host himself and has seemingly jettisoned anything that ever felt hopeful about his character. There are seemingly multiple versions of several familiar faces on the canvas (maybe?), including Angela Sarafyan and James Marsden, while Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard and Luke Hemsworth’s Stubbs will have to deal with the fallout from the former’s trip to the Valley Beyond. Naturally, the show isn’t terribly forthcoming about any of these characters’ secrets (or even identities at various points), and the end result is a conscious blurring of the lines between what we expect humans and hostkind to be and do.
Elsewhere, on what feels like an entirely different show, a young woman named Christina (Evan Rachel Wood) wakes up every day (in a posture that deliberately recalls Dolores’s mornings in Season 1) to go to her job writing copy for a video game company, where she’s being stalked by a man who insists her stories are real. Everything involving Christina largely takes place in its own bubble, seemingly removed from the world of Delos, its parks, and the mess they’ve made of the world, but there are enough creepy echoes of previous seasons to leave fans wondering what’s wrong here—and how it will ultimately all tie back together.
At this point, it’s not clear who out here is still watching Westworld expecting it to make sense, but if you’re heading into Season 4 hanging on to the belief that the concluding events of Season 3—the apparent deaths of major characters like Dolores and Willia), the destruction of Rehoboam, and the ascension of what felt like half of the show’s primary cast of Hosts into what is basically robot heaven—would streamline what precisely it is we’re watching, well. Sorry?
While those things certainly all have an impact on the story in this latest round of episodes, they aren’t necessarily what you might call clarifying events. In fact, the four episodes of Season 4 that were available to screen for critics (out of a total of eight) often feel as though they’re meant as a kind of soft reboot—or they would if it weren’t for the deft way that series creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan consistently drop references to and repeat patterns from what we’ve seen before, craftily using snippets of footage from previous seasons to remind us that nothing has really changed all that much. We’re all still on our loops in the end, aren’t we?
Like a lot of other popular science fiction, Westworld remains at its best when it’s asking us to question our own realities, and blurring the lines between what it means to be a human and what it means to be a Host—or outright asking whether there’s really that much difference at all. In many ways, Season 4 goes further in that regard than ever before. There are some truly fascinating choices and parallels sprinkled throughout this first half of the season that shift and muddy the show’s narrative perspective, leaving me genuinely excited for what the back half of this season could look like. (And maybe that’s my predetermined loop in the end, forever riding the rollercoaster of my expectations, disappointments, and need to believe this show is going somewhere meaningful.) But say what you will about Westworld, the show is unafraid to take risks and swing for the fences, and the rare moments it fully succeeds are more than enough to get me to plug back in.
Season 4 of Westworld premieres Sunday, June 26 on HBO and HBO Max.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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