Review: ‘Westworld’ Has Entered the New, Better Frontier of Sci-Fi
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When it premiered six years ago, Westworld epitomized prestige sci-fi at its peak. An expensive HBO series with an old-school Michael Crichton pedigree, it featured a stellar cast and a mind-trippy premise: What if all the sentient robots, or “hosts,” at a Western theme park decided they’d had enough of being kicked and dragged around? Subsequent seasons revealed the influence of artificial intelligence and reached far beyond the borders of the Westworld attraction, a global mess of money, corruption, and consciousness-tampering that was nightmare fuel for viewers watching at home while scrolling through Twitter. It was a hit—even if a modest one.
But like many popular shows do as they sail past their second season, it went a bit off the rails. By Season 3, Westworld had become exhausting—a show with perhaps too many good ideas and not enough places to put them. As the host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) made her way out of Westworld and attempted to destroy and/or save the humanity that enslaved her, she inspired a revolution that led to the destruction of the reality-manipulating AI known as Rehoboam. The Man in Black was revealed to be William, son-in-law of the founder of Delos, which built Westworld. Everyone had a part to play, lots of people (and androids) died, and by the end, keeping track of all, or any, of them felt like a chore.
For the first two episodes of Season 4, which launched June 26, things have changed—and for the better. Caleb (Aaron Paul), once a soldier in the resistance against the machines, now has a family and a steady job, and while he also has PTSD, he’s not as prone to histrionics as before. He’s once more being called to join Maeve (Thandie Newton), since they’re both again being hunted by shadowy hosts, but now their quest has the feeling of a think-y character drama, rather than a third-act scene in a Terminator film. Perhaps Westworld is going for a slow burn for the first half of its current season. Regardless, it seems as though creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan got the hint that with modern sci-fi, less is sometimes more.
The best shows and movies are often character dramas at heart; even Westworld was in its first season. But as we enter whatever new golden age of television this is, the show’s more focused direction signals a shift that’s been blessedly happening for a long time. Rather than science fiction with some interesting characters, the best shows now are thrillers or political dramas with a science-fictional backdrop. It’s For All Mankind playing out like Mad Men in space. Or After Yang’s family drama about the persistence of memory wrapped in a story about a defunct droid.
Or, in perhaps its best current incarnation, Severance. Apple TV+’s breakout hit functions primarily as a workplace thriller about coping with loss, but it’s built around genre premises like “Should we bifurcate our brains?” and “What if you lived in a company town where the company was extremely shadowy and maybe a cult?” Futuristic sci-fi can often come off as cold, which works when seeding a dystopian vibe but can also be kind of a bummer. What shows like Severance and Westworld are doing is burying philosophical dilemmas beneath that sleek veneer. The internal world-building is as strong as the external. It’s an ideal that’s been at the center of sci-fi for decades, but one that can get lost in the quest for ratings and razzle-dazzle.
For Westworld, the move has paid off. In the weeks since the show’s new season premiered, Vanity Fair wrote that the latest installments were “an upgraded model.” Daily Beast said it was “worth watching again.” This, too, feels right. Genre franchises often lose their way and then course-correct. Westworld’s latest season is the reboot it needed.