Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Westworld, Season 3 | review by Stephen Theaker

Caleb Nichols is a former soldier making a living on the fringe of a society that doesn’t give him any other options. Meeting Dolores Abernathy in the park, a beautiful woman who has just survived an attempted abduction (for which he supplied the car and drugs), will lead him into an adventure that will turn his life upside down. That’s sort of what it’s about, anyway.

Really, Caleb, played by Aaron Paul, has been shoehorned in. It’s less “We have a great character so we need a great actor” and more “We have a famous actor lined up so we need something for him to do”. The character does nothing to explain why android mastermind Dolores would see him as a potential leader, or why we are spending so much time with him. He follows her through the series like a puppy, completely unfazed by all of her murders.

For this is a season where our protagonists are undoubtedly the villains, there’s no two ways about it. They murder tons of people in order to destroy the world for “freedom”. In this it feels very much of the pre-coronavirus era, because it’s much harder to romanticise freedom at the expense of safety these days. For each person they kill on screen, a million more could die as a result of their actions.

During season one, my guess was that their world was heading for a cataclysmic disaster, something that made our transfer into artificial bodies (or creating artificial lifeforms to replace us) an imperative. In this season we find that there has indeed been an apocalypse coming, but it was us. The supposed villain of the season has been holding it back, at great expense, with the help of a supercomputer that keeps us in line.

Which is to say, this season is as much a sequel to Jonathan Nolan’s earlier programme, Person of Interest, as it is to previous seasons of Westworld.

If this had been set years after the previous seasons and the supercomputer had been built with the Westworld data everyone was fighting over in seasons one and two, this might have felt like a more organic development of the story, but instead this computer has been around for ages, based on data handed over decades ago, and the computer is pretty good at its job, making all the fighting over the newer data seem a bit redundant.

Thematically, though, the programme is still very consistent. It focuses once again on the meaning of free will, and this time applies it to the human world outside the theme park. But it’s not quite the same. Being turned down for a job that you want, because the computer knows that you are a violent murderer, would actually be great for those of us who don’t want to work with violent murderers.

And while the show is still frequently spectacular, it feels like there have been budget cuts since season two. There are fewer episodes, only one historical location (briefly used), and many characters are left behind or reduced to guest appearances. While the cast are still excellent, doing their best to imbue it all with the seriousness of previous seasons, the grandeur and sense of wonder is missing, replaced by cheap and pointless fights.

And hardly any of it takes place in Westworld. I liked these characters, but it’s like making a season of Doctor Who without the Doctor. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed watching it. This is a dip rather than a jumping of the mechanical shark, and this is a programme that in season two delivered perhaps my single favourite episode of science fiction television ever in the glorious “Kiksuya”. It gets to have a poor season. Stephen Theaker ***

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