HBO’s robot-revolution series reinvents itself and throws Aaron Paul into the mix.
It’s been nearly two years since Westworld has been on our collective cultural radar, and you’d be forgiven for not having a complete grasp on everything that happened in season two. (We weren’t really 100% on it while the season was happening, after all.) But the tale of Westworld did seem to come to a fairly definitive end in that season: we learned that Westworld, and all the parks really, was nothing but a huge data mining scheme to collect personal information on human guests so evil corporation Delos could learn to download human brains into immortal robot bodies. The park was shut down after the ‘hosts’ revolted, embarking on a make-or-break bid for a virtual paradise free from human oppression, and primary human-hater Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) escaped the park to begin her righteous cleansing of humankind.
However, for creators and showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, there’s still more story to be mined from this tale of artificial intelligence rising up against its human oppressors, even if its scope has expanded outside the Wild-West theme park from which the series takes its name. Though we know we’ll return to Westworld soon enough (stay tuned next week), season 3’s premiere took its time establishing the new status quo for Dolores, and a new human(we think?) protagonist to rally around.
Long story short, it’s been months since the public debacle of Westworld’s violent robot uprising, leading to the deaths of Delos’ board of directors, CEO Nathan Ford, and several others at the park. Dolores, now walking free as a ‘human,’ is beginning her quest to eradicate humanity from the planet to make room for her superior species. The extended cold open gives us a glimpse of her plan in microcosm, as she sneaks into the home of a Delos exec (Thomas Kretschmann), who raped and abused her when she was a host. Sure, she wants to steal his funds to bankroll her revolution, but she also wants to throw his faults back in his face — including a haunting image of his first wife, whom he killed in a fit of rage. He’s killed, Dolores’ mission is solidified, roll credits.
From there, we’re introduced to one of the season’s major additions — Caleb (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul), a construction worker and combat veteran who moonlights as a petty criminal thanks to a Grand Theft Auto-like crime gig app. He robs ATMs and occasionally subdues tweaking CEOs in a way that keeps them out of trouble, though his mantra is “I don’t do personals”.
He’s haunted by his wartime experience and burdened by poverty and a dying mother who doesn’t recognize him; his only respite are the occasional calls from his old war buddy Francis, with whom he was close when he was deployed. Paul’s a welcome addition to the Westworld family, all Jesse Pinkman in El Camino haunted, though he lacks that character’s sense of humor. One gets the impression he’ll be our narrative anchor to Dolores’ story, the ‘good human’ now that there are so few in supply. Fitting for a show about the rampaging greed of capitalism, it’s nice to finally have a working-class fella to reflect the indentured servitude corporations often rely on, but rarely reward.
But what about the folks at the top? Well, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) is still around, though not as we know her: Dolores built a host copy of her and killed the real Charlotte, so we know the version we see walking into a Delos boardroom is under Dolores’ thumb. In Kretschmann’s absence, she’s acting CEO, and she says that the parks must stay open, despite the liability it poses to their stock and ‘brand.’ “Robots don’t kill people, people kill people,” Charlotte asserts. Given her status as a double-agent, one wonders what her ultimate game plan for keeping the parks open may be.
Season 3’s premiere took its time establishing the new status quo for Dolores, and a new human(we think?) protagonist to rally around.
And what of Bernard (Jeffrey Wright)? Well, the former Westworld programmer/secret host/reincarnation of Ford’s creative partner Arnold Weber has been laying low on a futuristic cattle ranch elsewhere in the world. But he’s not quite himself; thanks to a key fob-sized button doohickey, he can switch personalities between Bernard and a second, unknown personality.
Is it a ‘diagnostic’ version of Bernard he’s hacked into? Is it the glimmer of Ford that he was infected with in season two? We don’t quite know yet. What we do know, however, is that it turns Bernard into a Jekyll-and-Hyde killing machine when two other employees at his ranch recognize him on wanted posters and try to collect the reward. (Note to self: rewatch Upgrade.) Left with no other choice but to sort out his code and stop Dolores, Bernard charters a boat to Westworld.
Meanwhile, Dolores has been busy courting another rich tech guru for her own purposes: Insight CEO Liam Dempsey (John Gallagher Jr.), son of a famous AI programmer who “saved the world with algorithms”. She’s got him wrapped around his little finger, but his security chief (Tommy Flanagan) has his suspicions. Still, that doesn’t stop Liam from taking her to LA and showing her his company’s — and father’s — greatest creation: Rehoboam, a giant, glowing spheroid containing an AI supercomputer dedicated to predicting the future through probability. (With FX on Hulu’s Devs, now we have two shows exploring that concept.)
She’s got more on her mind besides looking at Insight’s shiny new toy, which will undoubtedly end up playing a huge role in the show’s narrative. Following Liam to an emergency meeting with a corporate partner (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Pom Klementieff), heavily implied as being from Delos, who informs him that someone on the inside is trying to break into Rohoboam for unknown purposes. It’s all vaguely-defined gobbledygook, like a lot of Westworld‘s expository scenes, but at least we get the thrill of watching Dolores matter-of-factly tell a guy sidling up to her at the bar she’s spying from to “fuck off.”
Her position at Liam’s side doesn’t last long, though, as Flanagan’s security chief tazes her and informs Liam that, actually, the woman Dolores has been impersonating has been dead for a decade. Tasked with dispatching her, Flanagan flies an unconscious Dolores to a nearby park, where Caleb’s been Evil-Taskrabbited to deliver a car and a bag of what turns out to be mysterious future-drugs they plan to OD her with. Caleb’s scruples activate, especially as he sees the vulnerable, unconscious woman they’re undoubtedly going to do horrible things to, but he walks away anyways. He tries to find comfort in Francis’ calls, but something gives him pause — maybe the fact that the real Francis died years ago, and the call is just a subscription therapy app meant to help him with his grief. “I need to find something… someone… real,” he admits, just before unsubscribing.
Just in time, too, as Dolores makes her escape from Flanagan’s goons in a thrilling shootout underscored by Pulp’s “Common People,” in which Nolan (who directs) finds ample use of a rear-facing parking camera to economically convey 360 degrees of a fight in a single, unmoving shot. While Flanagan gets away at first, Dolores catches up with him, and shows him his ultimate fate before killing him: a host copy of Flanagan, set to replace him. Rehoboam isn’t God, she explains; “the real gods are coming… and they’re very angry.” Still, she’s wounded, and left to hobble down an alley… where Caleb happens to find her.
There’s a lot to juggle in episode 1; after all, Nolan and Joy are practically reinventing the show in season 3. It’s hard to tell whether this neo-future cyberpunk thriller version of Westworld will set itself apart from the million other tales of sentient robots and corporate intrigue out there. After all, the robot cowboy thing was what made Westworld unique in the first place! Now, the show has to rely on its characters to succeed, which means they’ll have to become more than exposition machines for thematic dialogue. The show may be more stripped down and (hopefully) freed of the conflicting time-frames that made the show so opaque. But has it lost its identity along the way? Episode 1 set up the chessboard; now we’ll have to see how they play the game.
- Every season makes subtle changes in imagery to reflect the themes of the new season, and there’s plenty to chew on this time around. A robotic eagle burns as it flies toward the sun (shades of Icarus); a host reaches to touch its reflection in a pool of water; a dandelion’s seeds float until they form arrows, then the LED lights of the giant predictive AI ball in Dempsey’s possession. Plus, that Ramin Djawadi theme remains perfection.
- Chapters of this episode and future episodes are marked by black-and-white visualizations of a circle highlighting “divergences,” first Beihai, China then Los Angeles. What do these divergences mean? And what is the circle supposed to symbolize?
- Yes, that’s Lena Waithe and the Marshawn Lynch as Caleb’s literal partners in crime. (I very much want Lynch’s LED mood-Scrabble shirt that lights up whatever mood you happen to be in.)
- Charlotte literally mutes one of the Delos execs in a board meeting; God, I wish I had that ability.
- Dolores’ answer when a suspicious party guest asks where she came from: “A little town out west… off the beaten path.”
- The drone-like hovercraft Liam and Dolores ride in on is a sweet bit of production design; we’ll probably see more of this minimalist futurism as the show veers further away from the
- Stay tuned after the credits for a bit of a sneak peek into episode 2 – Maeve (Thandie Newton), waking up in a simulated version of Nazi-occupied France. We may be done with white hats and black hats, but the gimmicky parks are still going strong, baby!