The Loops Keep Looping
Westworld: Season 4
I am a big fan of WestworldWritten and directed by Michael Crichton, Westworld depicted a theme park with thrills and dangers unlike any that currently exists, all to highlight the hubris of man when the park inevitably descends into chaos. The movie spawned a second film, Futureworld, and a popular (and twisty) HBO series.. Not just the HBOThe oldest and longer-running cable subscription service, HBO provides entertainment in the force of licensed movies along with a huge slate of original programming, giving it the luster of the premiere cable service., mind you (although the early seasons of that show are great) but the classic movies and everything to follow. Yes, sure, the original film is campy at times but it has a great sense of self and it really builds to a solid and thrilling conclusion. If the films and shows that have come since haven't always lived up to the promise of the original film they've at least tried to expand the world in interesting ways.
The HBO Westworld certainly had promise when it started out with a fantastic (and at times jaw-dropping) first season and a very violent second. This started to really go off the rails with the third season, a convoluted story that pit the show out in the "real world" and away from Westworld. It made the show about the robots trying to control the humans instead of the humans controlling the hosts, and something of the special magic was lost. It was still interesting but it didn't entirely feel like Westworld anymore.
Sadly, the fourth (and maybe final, depending on the machinations at WB/Discovery) season of the show carry on that trend. While the show still boasts big ideas (and some fairly violent delights) it also feels like it's spinning, going round and round on the same stories again and again. The show tries to say, "hey, this is all about the loops hosts play," but that excuse was already starting to grow thin back in second season (when it really was a joke about the writers of the park not being very creative). Eventually, though, you have to wonder if all the really fresh ideas were used up in the first season and the creators as just grasping at straws to make everything about the show still work.
There are a lot of moving pieces in this fourth season of Westworld, so we can only broadly gloss over the salient points. In one part of the show there's Caleb (Aaron Paul) and Maeve (Thandiwe Newton), the two resistance fighters (one human and one host, respectively) fighting against Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson). Hale (who, it should be noted, is a replicant of a human but possessing the mind of the evil Dolores) is working on a grand plan to map and take over the human mind, and if she succeeds then all of humanity is doomed to play as "hosts" for Hale and her cronies, including a host made up like the Man in Black (Ed Harris).
While Caleb and Maeve work on one side we also have Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), the one-time engineer of the park who is also a host as well. Bernard has spent many years inside the Sublime, the engineered afterlife for the hosts, using predictive algorithms to predict the future. He wants to stop Hale at all costs, at least in some way so as to preserve whatever scraps of humanity he can. he goes to the outskirts with his battle-tested buddy, Ashley (Luke Hemsworth) in search of the resistant, those not playing within Hale's game plan, all so he can search out a weapon that could stop Hale in her tracks. Oh, and then the rug is pulled out from under us halfway into the season.
Much praise was heaped on the first season of the show for the way it told its twisting tale. It had a large cast of characters going through stories along multiple timelines, all to reveal the truth about the park and the "violent delights" within. That first season was masterfully constructed and, frankly, I think the producers have struggled to find any twist as the stories told in that first season. Season four tries, even pulling the trick of multiple timelines again, but the impact to the story just isn't there.
The biggest issue with the season this time around, and why it's twists don't work as well in comparison to first season, is that the characters don't come alive like they used to. None of the characters this season, from Caleb to Maeve, Bernard, and Hale, have any kind of real development. They're all on prescribed paths (in the case of Bernard, quite literally), following the linear path of the story (even if it doesn't feel linear at first blush) so they can all meet their violent delights by season end. They have missions, they run missions, and then it's job done. They feel like NPCs in a game, not characters.
Maybe that was kind of the point, if we're being charitable. The season is all about treating humans like pieces in a big game (with the Man in Black even running a game within the game to suit his own violent ends). For every character, whether they're in Hale's game or not, maybe the writers were trying to comment on the nature of their reality and how everyone is forced to become an NPC. That certainly makes the ideas of the season more interesting but it's still hard to invest when everyone is so bland this time around.
Worse, though, is the sense that none of it really matters. Especially in the later episodes (which I won't spoil as the season just ended at the time of writing) we get a lot of people running towards their goals only to get cut down. Each time someone is built up for a purpose they're almost immediately shot down. People that should be important die just as things are getting interesting. The whole idea, I think, is to clear the plate for either the next season or, if that doesn't happen, as a way to make this a series finale. But whatever the case, everything feels so pointless.
I've seen reviewers Online praise the final episode of the season saying it somehow built the season into a satisfying finale. I don't see it, though: nothing that happened here really matters, at least not until the finale (when everything goes tits up at the behest of the Man in Black), and no one really does anything truly worthwhile. The season spends seven episodes build up one idea for itself, a war between the heroes and Hale, only to get bored and go do something else right at the end. It's not satisfying, its frustrating.
If this is the finale (due to a premature cancellation of the show) I can't say I'm going to miss Westworld. The magic of that first season has long since been lost on a really convoluted and, frankly, silly show. If somehow a fifth season does happen I will watch it, but only because at this point I feel like I've sunk too much time in to stop now. Will I enjoy it, though? My gut says no but I'll still give it a try. Maybe the producers can pull the show out of the tail spin and right the ship. That hardly seems likely at this point but worse shows have managed to bring back the magic for their last seasons. Maybe Westworld can, too.
And hell, if not, at least we'll always have that fantastic first season.