At Least 'Westworld' Season 3 Is Better Than Season 2

If Jeffrey Wright's Bernard Lowe were to sit me down in a dimly lit, subterranean workshop and quiz me about what happened at the end of Westworld's second season, I'd mostly draw a blank. (I'd also ask if I really needed to be naked for the conversation, but that's another matter.) I'd be able to recall a few broad strokes: A lot of characters "died" in the season finale's massacre set piece, trying to walk through some kind of techno-celestial door to a robot afterlife. I wouldn't be able to list the characters who made it through the doorway, or who met their end on the way, and I wouldn't even be sure if any of them were really gone from the show. On Westworld, characters are always getting rebooted, reassembled, resurrected or turned into robots so they can later be rebooted, reassembled and resurrected.

Part of the reason my recall's so faulty is that Westworld's been off the air for nearly two years. Season 2 wrapped in June of 2018 and Season 3 is finally set to debut on HBO on Sunday, March 15. But in all honesty, even if the third season had started airing immediately after all those hosts went through the door or over the cliff or what have you, I wouldn't have been able to actually explain what happened. Westworld's second season proved the show's skeptics right: The plotting was needlessly convoluted, the dialogue too dull and ponderous and the stakes were virtually nonexistent—not just because characters could always come back from the dead in one form or another, but because the series itself wasn't interested in any kind of sincere resolution. It asked questions about the nature of reality, free will and humanity's worst impulses, but really just so the principal players could (pardon the pun) drone on about them. Like Ed Harris' obsessive Man in Black, Westworld got lost in the maze.

There is one other major detail from season 2's ending that I'd be able to relay to Bernard, though. In the finale, Evan Rachel Wood's Dolores—who's gone from perennial damsel in distress to the leader of a robot uprising—escapes from the Westworld theme park and makes it out into our world (albeit a futuristic vision of it), where she's free to roam and exact revenge on humanity for all of the violence and sexual assault she's been subjected to inside the park. It was an exciting story choice, one that promised to expand the sci-fi drama's scope. And that's precisely where season 3 picks up: Dolores is out among the humans, engaging in espionage and shows of brute force.

evan rachel wood dolores westworld season 3
Evan Rachel Wood's Dolores is out in the "real world" in the third season of 'Westworld.' John P. Johnson/HBO

Just going off of the four episodes that were sent to critics, the new season of Westworld doesn't bother much with the titular murder park. The saloons and sun-baked canyons of the first two seasons have been left behind; instead, co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy explore the streets and skyscrapers of a decades-away Los Angeles. Blade Runner is an obvious reference point, considering the sleek cars and awestruck shots of the skyline, but Westworld's L.A. isn't decaying—at least, not on the outside. When the camera glides through the cityscape, it catches some buildings with lush roof gardens and vines running up and down the facades. It's a striking sight, and the sort of world-building that tickles the viewer's curiosity.

Little flourishes like that make Westworld finally feel more open, like there really is an entire world (or "system," as Dolores might say) beyond what we've known so far. The first few episodes are filled with similar sorts of details that are more fleshed out: a criminal-focused social media app that alerts users to scores that need taking, a sex-worker auction with an Eyes Wide Shut-esque dress code (black-tie and masks for bidders, not much of anything for the people modeling on platforms) and a trusty utility droid that helps Aaron Paul's character on the construction site where he works.

Oh, right: Aaron Paul co-stars in the new season! Explaining anything about who his character is or how he fits into the story would rob the premiere of some of its power, so I'll just say that he's a welcome presence, even if the cast still feels too sprawling for its own good. Ditto for Vincent Cassel, who also joins the roster. Wood's Dolores is more or less at the center of the plot, and basically inherits the "Jane Wick" handle from Charlize Theron's Atomic Blonde hero—she makes quick work of her enemies, and swats away a guy trying to pick her up with the same kind of efficiency. Tessa Thompson's Charlotte Hale is out of sorts and Harris' Man in Black doesn't know what's going on, but, hey, Luke Hemsworth gets some new notes to play, since he's paired off with Wright's Bernard for a buddy-comedy subplot. Bernard, sadly, remains a drag.

As unwieldy as all that sounds (and feels), Nolan and Joy do a better job of drawing the battle lines this season. It's clearer who characters are aligned with and what they're after in the big picture—that's a vast improvement. But this show can't get out of its own way completely. As the episodes progress, some characters reveal that they're not who they appear to be, the college-freshmen philosophizing returns and, whadda ya know, there's a new secret "project" that everyone starts alluding to. You can practically smell the chum being thrown out for the Reddit sleuths.

Odds are, Westworld won't ever achieve the sort of profundity that its writers think they're peddling. And that can be frustrating when you're forced to watch a bunch of characters try to "Wake up, sheeple" each other over and over. But if you take it in purely as a spectacle and don't think too much about what you're watching, you won't short circuit.

At Least 'Westworld' Season 3 Is Better Than Season 2 | Culture