Westworld — Three out of Five stars
WHERE will it all end? When will it all end? The answer in both cases is, “Who knows?”
More to the point, wherever and whenever it ends, will Westworld (Sky Atlantic, Monday) really have been worth the considerable effort viewers — or those of them who haven’t already jumped ship — have put into it since it started in 2016?
Well, we live in hope. The trouble is, when it comes to Westworld, we’ve been living in hope for the majority of its time on air and only rarely been rewarded for our perseverance.
The first season of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s series, which reimagined Michael Crichton’s simple but entertaining 1973 movie about theme park robots violently rebelling against their human masters as a much darker, denser examination of what it means to be human, was enthralling.
A gleaming puzzle-box mystery packed with visual clues for those paying close enough attention to pick up on them, it sparked a flood of online discussions and theories.
More astute viewers correctly guessed that the story was unfolding in two different timelines, decades apart, with Jimi Simpson and Ed Harris playing younger and older versions of the same character: William, AKA the Man in Black.
There were more questions than answers at the end, yet you came away with a sense of satisfaction. Here was a series aimed at a non-niche audience that dared to be clever, ambitious and complex.
Unfortunately, Nolan and Joy confused complex with incomprehensible in a second season that got caught in a tangle of time loops. We were expected to process no fewer than five different timelines at the same time and a rash of new characters.
It was exhausting and impossible to understand what the hell was going on most of the time. Nolan and Joy obviously absorbed some of the criticism. Season three was a linear affair, set mostly in the real world rather than the theme park and centred on Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) trying to bring down Rehoboam, an AI system that controlled the population, and its villainous creator Serac (Vincent Cassel).
They’d hit the reset button a little too hard, however. It might have been easier to follow — up to a point, anyway — but it felt like an entirely different series. My main memory of it is Dolores and Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) in catsuits, battering seven shades of crap out of each other like they were in a superhero flick.
The relatively low-key season four opener is set seven years after the uprising. But free or not, life post-Rehoboam doesn’t appear to have got any better for most people, including Caleb, who’s back at his old construction job. At least he’s married now, or at any rate has a partner and a young daughter. He’s also suffering from PTSD.
Harris is back as William — now a robot version of himself, presumably. In a prologue, we see him bring down a criminal cartel, which has a mysterious something he wants very much and doesn’t want to sell it to him, with the help of what appear to be robo-flies.
Caleb’s quiet domesticity is suddenly shattered when a guy tries to kill him. He’s saved in the nick of time by Maeve. She’s been living off the grid for years, holed up in a cabin in the woods, trawling through her memories and honing her considerable powers.
She’s just tidily despatched a gang of William’s heavies and wants Caleb to join her in going after William. So far, so straightforward — until Dolores appears.
Ah, but didn’t Dolores sacrifice herself at the end of season three?
Yes, she did, but death, as we know, is rarely a permanent state of affairs in Westworld. Neither is identity.
The character here that we recognise as Dolores is called Christina. She works as a writer for a computer games company, penning stories for non-player characters (NPCs). She’s being harassed by an apparently crazy guy who claims her stories are having real-world consequences.
But is any of this real or is it some kind of simulation? Is Christina the host who used to be called Dolores playing a character in a theme park narrative?
At least this feels a bit more like Westworld when it was actually good. But will it be enough to steer the series back onto the right track? We have seven more episodes to find out — but it’s a big ask of the audience.