Although the third season has divided fans, Film Editor Matt Taylor urges you to go west and watch Westworld
‘Free will does exist. It’s just f*cking hard.’
The latest season of Westworld has a lot to live up to. After the transcendental nature of the show’s first season (which showcased the best series premiere episode I have ever seen), and the earth-shattering events of the second season (personally I find myself in a minority who prefer the second season to the first), the third season had big questions to answer. The season two finale saw the Westworld park destroyed and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) escape into the real world with four other hosts and grand plans of bringing down the human world to give her species a home – but what form would those plans take? How would she carry them out? What would the outside world look like? What is the year, even? Thankfully, The New World delivers – and then some. Continuing the legacy of what has come before, this third season, while it may not improve on those past, is every bit as outstanding, capitalising upon the performances, storytelling, cinematography, score, and core themes and ideas that made the first two seasons so stellar, and bringing them into the real world – with life-changing consequences for all involved.
Having taken a quick glance at the online reception to this season, it seems I am yet again in the minority. The problems that many audience members had with season two I simply did not have myself, and the same could be said about this season. The main issue that many people seem to be taking is that they feel this new season is ‘no longer Westworld’ – my simple reaction to that is, of course, it is: it has just evolved. Much like Dolores herself, Westworld has grown far beyond what we ever expected from it to become something else entirely. Yes, the Old West setting of the first two seasons is missing, but the new setting of the human world is an extremely fascinating notion. Yes, the ever-manipulative plans of Anthony Hopkins’ Robert Ford are absent (mainly due to the fact that he isn’t present either), but the presence of the ever-excellent Vincent Cassel as an antagonist for the season is more than welcome. Yes, the tinny saloon piano playing covers of ‘Paint It, Black’ is sadly unaccounted for, but this is replaced by sweeping orchestral covers of tracks such as ‘Wicked Games’ and ‘Space Oddity’ courtesy of composer Ramin Djawadi. Everything we loved from the first two seasons is still here – just in a different form. And as for everything that is not in a different form – the utterly gorgeous set design, the endlessly lavish costumes, the transcendental score, the award-worthy performances, the equally engaging and fascinating characters and narratives – well, The New World has those in spades.
At the centre is, of course, Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Abernathy. The former rancher’s daughter is now the leader of a revolution against humanity for their treatment of hosts – and she will take no prisoners in doing so. It is incredibly poetic to see the first host created by humans now leading an uprising against them; although The New World may lack in places some of the subtleties that pervaded seasons one and two, the narratives are as sharp as ever. Dolores does not want to take any chances in her uprising, and so controls every possible aspect of it she can: the reveal of which hosts she decided to bring out of the park at the end of the second season is a superb example of the inherently Machiavellian nature that has been growing inside her since the end of season one. Wood is fantastic as ever; she walks the perfect balance between sympathetic and terrifying, and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty (having done many of her own stunts this season). There is also something incredibly satisfying about seeing Dolores strut around the series’ hyper-futuristic setting in a variety of gorgeous costumes (that black dress that unfolds into a golden ballgown, anyone?) and kicking ass in leather jackets and combat boots. In a sea of stunning performances, Wood perhaps leaves the biggest mark on the audience.
By her side is Aaron Paul as Caleb Nicholls, an army vet-turned-construction worker who’s been left on the periphery of this seemingly idyllic society. Paul is perhaps the most welcome addition to the cast this time around, at times feeling like a more mature version of Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, but instantly feeling relatable – Caleb is the everyman who is just trying to get by, but is forced into a war he doesn’t particularly want to be a part of until he realises how much his life has been manipulated by forces outside of his control. Also in play, and on neutral ground, are Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard and Ed Harris’ William; both do excellent jobs with what they’re given, even if they’re given less than the other players in order to set the stage for the next few seasons (an enormous post-credits scene in the season finale capitalises on both of their narratives to tease what comes next).
Opposite Dolores and Caleb are Maeve and Serac (played excellently by Thandie Newton and Vincent Cassel, respectively), the former under the latter’s control in order to put a stop to Dolores’ revolution. Maeve’s constant push for independence is tested more than it ever has been here, constantly forced to decide between her own wants and needs and those of her species. Newton is on excellent form, continuing to imbue Maeve with the attitude we’ve all come to love, while also selling some of The New World’s most emotional moments beautifully. Cassel is a blindingly good piece of casting; his natural gravitas and menace lend Serac the screen presence he needs to feel like a good antagonist. And yet, like Dolores, he is only trying to do what he feels is best for his species – and this is perhaps where this season is most interesting: in its deliberate parallels between hosts and humans.
Show creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have never shied away from the moral and ethical ambiguities that the series has raised in the past, and The New World is no different. The fascinating spin they make here is to point out that Dolores and Serac are two sides of the same coin. Each is fighting for what they believe to be the best outcome for their species, and although their reasoning is sound, their methods are morally ambiguous at best, and downright totalitarian at worst. The ‘New World’ of this season’s subtitle is not just for the hosts, but for humanity, too. In shifting its focus and differing itself from the first two seasons, The New World asks audiences how far we would go to save our species – if we had the chance to create the perfect human race by controlling every aspect of it, would we? And what would we do with those who did not fit into the plan? These are enormous questions to which the series provides no easy answers – but the pleasure is all in the asking.
On a technical level, Westworld is as enjoyable as ever. Ramin Djawadi’s excellent score underlines each big moment of every episode, and it could not be more welcome – quite frankly, his work here is some of the best he has ever produced. As mentioned, the costumes and cinematography are stellar, and Joy and Nolan’s realisation of the future is utterly fascinating, from the endless skyscrapers and flying cars all the way down to the self-driving motorbikes and virtual assistants. Its shorter run of eight episodes also perhaps makes it a tad more digestible than seasons one and two; The New World takes its time with its first few episodes, but by the season’s halfway point things really kick into gear, and the rest of the season is paced to perfection, boldly leaving the finale as more of a jumping-off-point than a resolution – but what is Westworld if not bold?
So yes, The New World is different from what we’ve come to expect from Westworld. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. You can take the show out of the park, but you can’t take the park out of the show – the latest season is a marked step away from previous seasons but almost every bit as good. There is no denying that certain characters get left by the wayside a tad, but when the rest of the season is so consistently transcendental, we do not actually mind all that much. The New World asks us huge questions about our fundamental humanity and capacity for empathy, forcing us to choose what sorts of people we want to be, beautifully summed up in the season’s final line: ‘this is the new world, darling, and in this world you can be whoever the fuck you want.’ We have no way of knowing what the fourth season of the show will bring, but if it’s half as good as seasons one through three, we are in for a real treat.
Rating = 5/5
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