Movies & TV

Westworld Season Three Enters the Real World. But We Miss That Horrible Theme Park.

After teasing it for years, Season Three of HBO's expensive sci-fi finally exits the theme park but leaves some of its most interesting layers behind.
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For the human contingent, Westworld has always been a show about escapism. In two seasons, we’ve seen wealthy gaddabouts flood the park to flee personal miseries ranging from desolate marriages to crushing grief, professional dissatisfaction to soul-deep despair. They came in search of escape from reality’s obligations or the yoke of conventional morality, and for $40K a day, they found that escape in the forms of gunslinging, sex, and gratuitous violence. But what, in the grander scheme of things, was anyone escaping from?

For two seasons, Westworld has declined to pull back the curtain on the human world beyond the park’s shores. What little we’ve known of the outside world has come filtered through the trials and tribulations of Delos Incorporated, Westworld’s parent company, valued at hundreds of billions of dollars. Through Delos, we can glean something of the capitalist dystopia at work beyond Westworld’s borders, yet the information arrives mediated only through their ethically dubious activities, which range from data mining to selling immortality to the highest bidder. In the date announcement trailer, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy teased more information about the political landscape of this brave new world beyond Westworld, listing a series of events leading up a butterfly effect moment, all of which amount to what fans call the “divergence timeline.” That eerie timeline includes the impeachment of the 45th president of the United States, as well as ecological collapse, a thermonuclear event, and a Russian civil war, all culminating in a “critical event” in 2058.

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Two years after the widely panned season two finale, Westworld performs a hard reset with its paradigm-shifting third season. In the four episodes made available to critics, we plunge into the big, wide world beyond Westworld’s borders, where a pair of flashy specs can transport users to an alternate reality, Transformers-esque robots patrol a sleek, futuristic Los Angeles, and yes, glass-paneled cars zip Jetsons-style through the smoggy skies. Additional innovations on display this season include a quasi-TaskRabbit app for criminal tasks, augmented reality mirrors that project purchasable clothing onto the body, and biotechnological capsules that inject a steady stream of drugs (legal or not) into the body. AI is as ubiquitous as the polluted air these Angelenos breathe, appearing everywhere from robot job recruiters to automated versions of long-dead friends. This world is one of technocratic plutocracy, where the ultra-wealthy control the world through algorithmic predictions, and the rest toil obscurely for meager earnings in lofty glass towers. Yet at the end of the day, these gestures are ultimately inconsequential; instead of advancing the show’s themes or lending dimension to the human characters who grew up here, they read instead like nifty little easter eggs about the world that was long hidden from us. They’re flashy and fun, but they don’t add up to much.

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Photo by HBO.

The show’s efforts to reimagine itself go beyond these technological bells and whistles to a new lease on life where the all too often opaque story is concerned. Westworld has long been criticized for its baroque, puzzle box plot, which regularly prioritizes “gotcha” moments over characterization or emotional payoff. All along, Westworld has been like one of those blasted story problems in a math workbook, jam-packed with unnecessary information one has to sift out in order to drill down to the necessary. Joy and Nolan promised that this season would be “a little less of a guessing game,” and indeed it is--the story moves at a healthy clip, fueled by truly terrific fistfights and car chases.

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Yet the real question remains: is this leaner, meaner Westworld any good? As every science fiction fan knows, flashy, futuristic technology isn’t substance--it’s just window dressing. Certainly substance can and should arise from fictional technologies, but it requires a deep investment in interrogating how those technologies shape human behavior and human identity. That investment isn’t felt here; instead, there’s a cool, clinical distance from human feeling, with this cast of fine actors turning in performances that hit all the right notes, but ring hollow when set adrift from deeper meaning. As a result of streamlining the narrative, the thematic territory Nolan and Joy have long mined--poignant questions about free will, self-knowledge, and the nature of human existence--are largely absent from this sleeker, bleaker Westworld. What emerges are slick, thrilling action sequences and some memorable twists, but all of it with a cold, distant gleam--like Blade Runner without the cyberpunk grit.

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One character, reflecting on the differences between Westworld and the real world, puts it best in remarking that the real world almost makes him feel fondly about his time in a "murder simulation theme park."Westworld had to leave Westworld to save the show from its own worst impulses, but its departure comes at a cost. With all the soul hollowed out of this new Westworld, it almost makes one miss the days of yore, inscrutable though they may have been.

Photo by HBO.
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Inside the parks, Westworld had the ideal narrative landscape to explore its profound, resonant themes. In the tension between humans and hosts, the show questioned free will and the nature of sentience; in the human exploitation of hosts, it explored our deepest, darkest impulses. The show was even able to make a smart meta commentary on the nature of entertainment, wherein we as viewers became just as implicated as the guests, all of us titillated as we watched these violent, exploitative delights splash across the screen--all of us tuning in for the guns, the sex, the gore. Outside the parks, with the hosts answering to no one, these thoughtful layers of inquiry are gone, meaning Westworld is just another science fiction show with a bloated budget--all flashy tech and no heart, all glossy style and no substance. In the end, pulling back the curtain on the real world in the third season is a textbook Westworld move: withhold the necessary information until the eleventh hour, at which point any emotional heft has gone out of it.

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And so we’ve arrived at the now, where viewer questions about the human world are tied up in a slick, satisfying bow, yet somehow the windy thrills have gone out of the show’s sails. As it turns out, the mystery we thought we wanted resolved was the wrong mystery; elucidating the mystery of life on the outside was never the show’s problem. After all, it’s the questioning of our reality that makes life interesting--and without the questions, everything just feels pretty automated.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Adrienne Westenfeld
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