The guiding thesis I’ve been advancing about Westworld’s fourth season is that the show has been cannibalizing itself, keenly revisiting old themes and character arcs. I’d call it a retooled show (or a reboot, even) if not for the fact that we have the same cast of characters—or, actually, the same cast. When you think about it, we do have a very different set of characters: William and Caleb, for instance, are now hosts; Dolores is basically (?) gone and in her stead we have Christine; Charlotte has gone through her fair share of transformations; and even the likes of Bernard, Stubbs and Maeve have, to some extent, evolved from who we once thought they were. This is the thrill of working with a premise as pliable as Westworld’s: When you have hosts who can be rebuilt and rewired, you can truly just reshuffle (and reanimate) them to your will. Which is all to say: I’ve been making the argument that we’ve been getting a Westworld 4.0 that looks distinctly like Westworld 1.0.
Except, of course, the very controlled environment that characterized season one of this HBO show looks very different than the diffuse one that’s become the backdrop of this fourth season. We’ve officially left the park—and even the “real world”—and are wandering a world that’s half finely constructed and half…well, empty? Desolate? Equal parts Minority Report and Mad Max: Fury Road? But the recursive nature of the show remains the same. Repetition has always been a constant narrative conceit with loops and revisited memories being central to how hosts experience their world—and, more to the point, how the show packages its own storylines for our sake. In this episode, this was most obvious in Caleb’s subplot, with him returning to his older memories before needing to literally retrace steps previous versions of himself had already taken before achieving that which none of those other Calebs had done. Hosts, it seems, are destined to live in continued loops even when they’re not in the park serving what used to be their human overlords.
Instead, some of them have found in Charlotte a leader (boss? dictator? overseer?) whom they clearly don’t vibe with. It explains why some of them are choosing death over the orderly environment she’s so painstakingly created. And while Charlotte may spout just how perfect her kind is (so much more perfect than humankind!), she can’t run away from the fact that she’s becoming if not just as petty then just as tunnel-visioned as those who first wanted to see just how far the hosts in Westworld could evolve. How else can you explain her Caleb torture exercise? She wants to figure out what’s wrong with the world she’s built but she’s also intent on extracting such information with a cruelty that belies her interest in humankind in the first place.
Perhaps that’s why she’s so rankled by Caleb’s words at the end of the episode and why, inexplicably, she goes around and builds herself yet another version of him (#279!) for…well, we’ll see soon enough.
While Caleb was living his Die Hard fantasy, we got another glimpse into the outlier rebels. Caleb’s daughter Frankie lets herself get guided back into the park so Bernard can reboot Maeve since she’s apparently the weapon that will help save humankind. (See? Old character, new trappings, or is it the other way around?) Throughout, we get some more banter about Bernard’s weird probability slash clairvoyant powers which don’t quite make a dent into the story itself but help set up another issue that’s plagued Westworld throughout its run: Who can you trust?
As with Caleb’s storyline last season, I do find Westworld struggles when it tries to have us care for folks we’ve only just met—especially when its ensemble is already so stacked. (Whither Teddy and Christine? Where’s William? Why must Clementine be so sidelined?) And so, while grown-up Frankie dominated the other half of this episode, all I kept doing was counting the minutes until Maeve would wake back up and, well, kick this episode into high gear. Which she does, setting up the ongoing battle between the rebels/outliers and Charlotte, which will no doubt find our own Caleb in the middle. And hopefully, the confrontation will involve those other characters who were nowhere to be found in this outing. We can only hope, I guess.
- “Am I now?” is a great line. A great Westworld line and one I do often find myself asking when I’m not given a human character to help anchor me in time and space: “When am I?”
- You gotta love a subplot that imagines a world where, despite having technology to capture people’s consciousness via mirrors, data transfer still requires what look like USB cables and a not insignificant amount of time.
- If this episode kept Maeve from us for far too long (though it did give us a badass return to form for the fan-favorite character), at least it showed Charlotte in full villain mode. It’s clear Tessa Thompson has been relishing playing honeyed hostility every chance she gets. Even when she’s throwing a chair across the room, there’s such control and grace that, as the kids say, you can’t help but stan. Because, honestly, humans are petty and, yes, “everything they do is so small it’s exhausting.” Clearly she speaks my language—and reminds me that maybe I would not be the main character but the villain who would rightfully expect everyone to adhere to the very strict rules I’ve created for them. (I know, I’m working on it). But honestly, it brings out the best of what Thompson as an actor can do, which is offer a steely demeanor that’s as alluring as it is terrifying.
- I’ve been trying to figure out what was striking me about the set-pieces in this latest season and now I have a wholly unsubstantiated theory: Maybe COVID-safety restrictions pushed the Westworld cast and crew to shoot mostly in exteriors and/or with small groups? I know we’ve dispensed with the packed Westworld park (and its attendant 1930s copy) but you have to admit we’ve been seeing a lot of outdoor stand-offs and open air interactions that rarely involve more than a few actors. Maybe it’s just that I’m noticing it more, especially as the aerial shots throughout the season have stressed the vastness of the desert where the park used to be or the imposing skyline of Charlotte’s city. But it’s given the season a kind of lonely and alienating vibe, with much of its actors left to stand in frames devoid of anyone else around them. Whether or not it’s by design (or by a design that’s responding to on-set concerns), it’s helped deepen the thematic concerns of a season that stresses just how important human connection really is.