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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled A new mind behind a familiar face as iWestworld /ihits its stride
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)
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Three episodes in, and it’s safe to say that the third season premiere wasn’t a fluke. Westworld has reinvented itself; in leaving the park, it’s streamlined its focus, simplified its approach to narrative, and become far less withholding in terms of thrills. And while I can see being disappointed in this if you were a fan of the old approach (which did, at least in the first season, achieve something unique and weirdly compelling), so far I’m having a blast. The simplification means that the stakes are clearer, characters are easier to connect to, and the story is easier to follow. Tonight’s entry, “The Absence Of Field,” has two plots running in parallel, and both hit shockingly hard for a show that has spent so much of its life keeping its distance. If you’re looking for stunning new insights into the nature of artificial consciousness, you may be disappointed. But in terms of holding attention and keeping it, of delivering on the pulpy, high-budget excitement the series always promised but rarely delivered, you’ll have a good time.

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“Field” opens with a crash course in just how the Charlotte Hale replacement came to be. Last season she served as a surprise double for Dolores herself, but it turns out the Charlotte we saw in the premiere is actually a new construction: a host Dolores built to have someone running Delos, working towards her vision to overthrow the human world. What’s striking is that the show has apparently given up its never-ending routine of playing with our assumptions about who’s human and who isn’t. While it’s possible some last minute twist could throw everything out of whack, the duplicates we’ve seen so far have been introduced in a way to underline their duplicity. Hell, even Stubbs, whose identity was something of a mystery for seasons one and two (well, less “mystery” and more “we all assumed he was human, but then he wasn’t”) was upfront about his true nature. The new Charlotte is no exception, and the only time we see the living Charlotte, in a flashback to before her death and in the recording she made during that flashback, the distinction is very obvious.

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In fact, new Charlotte’s storyline rests entirely on that distinction. She’s a host with a job, and she’s good at pretending to be her human counterpart. Yet she’s also a conscious being struggling with the role Dolores has made her for. Their first scene together, new Charlotte is confused and unhappy, and even as Dolores reassures her, the conflict remains. It’s a fascinating concept, and one which I’m not sure the series had really hinted at before now. Up until this point, the discovery that some people were actually machines was mostly focused on delivering the big twist, building paranoia and fear out of undermining what seemed obvious. Bernard is a big exception, and in some ways new Charlotte is an expansion of Bernard’s angst from last season. Except new Charlotte is also a double agent who is pretending to be someone, someone she’s not comfortable pretending to be. She knows the real Charlotte wanted them all dead, and the prospect of “becoming” that Charlotte, however falsely, sits uneasily in her mind.

It borders on horrific. As new Charlotte integrates herself into old Charlotte’s life, both at Delos and at home, the strain takes its toll in unexpected ways. She starts cutting herself, the intensity of her discomfort finding release in physical distress, leaning more and more on Dolores for reassurance in a relationship that sits in the compelling gray area between infatuation and cultish dependency. It’s not explicitly sexual, because it doesn’t really need to be; the physical connection is more about new Charlotte’s need for someone to center her, remind her that she’s real. But it plays like something almost romantic, albeit in a deeply unhealthy way.

At some point during the last two seasons, I mentioned the movie Futureworld, the sequel to Westworld that the show seemed to be riffing on in some ways. One of the big twists in Futureworld is that the company was killing people and sending out robotic replacements in their stead, in order to extend their control. It’s a deeply creepy idea, and I love how the show has taken it and found a way for us to sympathize with the robot replacements. New Charlotte’s job is complicated enough; we learn by the end of the hour that Serac has been working behind the scenes to buy up shares of Delos and take control, and also that the original Charlotte was his mole inside the company, a role he still expects her to continue. But she also has a son, and in trying to establish her identity (something the show has been concerned with from the start), she seems to be connecting emotionally with parts of original Charlotte’s life even as she works with Dolores to undo everything else.

It’s a fantastic idea, and I already care more about what happens to new Charlotte than I ever cared about the original. Having her watch original Charlotte’s recorded message to her son over and over while tears stream down her face; and then seeing her murder a man in the park who threatens “her” son; it suggests agency and direction in a show which has often lacked for both. I’m not sure where this is going, but I am absolutely on board for it.

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The episode’s other story is more conventional, building a relationship that was clearly going to be foundational to the season in fairly predictable ways. But predictability doesn’t hurt Caleb and Dolores’ “meet cute.” The details count: Dolores using the computer system’s transcript of one of the most important moments in young Caleb’s life allows for some striking editing and visual tricks, as well as a clearer connection to Caleb himself. It’s obvious from the start that she’s eventually going to ask him to join her (even if it’s not completely clear why Dolores wants his help yet), just as it is that he’s going to accept, but that doesn’t make it less satisfying when it happens. It’s not just seeing Caleb get a chance for some payback down the line; it’s the knowledge that this is going to lead to places neither of them can predict.

That’s the best way to explain why this episode, and the two that preceded it, have me so optimistic about the show: the fact that it’s found a way to deliver on potential while still suggesting more to come. Yes, Westworld seasons often start strong, but the show’s muddled structure tended to show itself fairly early on. But each piece of season three has been both serialized and self-contained, with arcs that serve to make each individual make clear emotional points. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Jonathan Nolan’s previous series, Person Of Interest. This season has obvious story parallels with it (the machine that predicts the probability of individual behavior based on statistics and algorithms is more or less a direct lift), and it’s possible as the show continues, these parallels will begin to feel repetitive. But for right now, it’s more like Nolan (and Westworld’s co-creator Lisa Joy) have finally become comfortable leaning into their instincts and just letting this be a TV show, as opposed to some kind of revolution. Again: that may be disappointing for people invested in the mind games. But right now, I’m just relieved to see something this well made actually be good again.

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Stray observations

  • I’m not sure I absolutely needed Caleb to tell Dolores she’s the first real thing to happen to him in a long time (especially given that he literally said he wanted something real to happen to him in the first episode), but it’s fine. The show is less subtle now, and the clunkers may get harder to overlook eventually, though.
  • The Riot Control robot has strong ED-209 energy.
  • Nice use of the Westworld theme during one of the later Dolores and Caleb scenes.
  • I also appreciate how much this season has been about Dolores’s fallibility. Now that she’s out of the park, she’s more of an underdog again, taking risks that don’t always pay off.
  • Still no sign of Ed Harris.
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