Remember when Season 2 of Westworld began -- after a short prelude featuring Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) speaking with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) -- with Bernard waking up on a beach completely disoriented? He may as well have been any of us as HBO's sci-fi series launched its sophomore season with a severe intent to disorient us as well, telling us nothing about when or where scenes were taking place. After a debut season of being dissected down to the atom by invested internet theorists -- leading to certain major twists spoiled to anyone brave enough to venture into Reddit -- showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy set out to stay as far ahead of Westworld viewers as possible in Season 2, leading to multiple timelines that didn't fall into place until late in the season, characters playing charades as other characters unbeknownst to us, and viewers going through mazes just to figure out what going through a maze meant in the show.
It was such a blatant effort to try to defeat the non-stop internet machine that what was once a promising heir to Game of Thrones as cable's biggest event became a mental chore to suffer through. In fact, while telling several friends I was watching the first four episodes of Season 3 for this review, many reminded me that they never made it past the first handful of Season 2 episodes because they sat down to watch a TV show, not struggle their way out of a mental escape room. That excessively complicated structure of Season 2 wasn't the best choice by Nolan and Joy, a game of catch me if you can gone too far, and viewership and praise for the show suffered as a result. (For the record, I enjoyed Season 2 for the most part -- especially Akecheta's standalone episode and adventures in Shogun World -- but definitely lost much of the interest I had from Season 1.)
They've learned their lesson in Season 3, which steps back into the challenging (but not TOO challenging!) groove of Season 1. In fact, many of the first four episodes of Westworld Season 3 are almost straightforward (I know, SHOCKER!) enough to make you think that you've gotten smarter since watching Season 2. This is a ridiculously exciting turn of events, a chance for the show to return to its promising start and bring back some of the audience that's somewhere in a straitjacket rocking back and forth and muttering, "The Forge, the Valley Beyond, fidelity..."
The change in heart comes at a great time. Season 3 is a major control-alt-delete for the series as a handful of hosts have left the theme park so synonymous with the first two seasons and taken their war on humans to the real world (well, a world set a little over 30 years from now). As you could tell by the trailers, it looks absolutely nothing like the first season and a lot like the few peeks of the outside world we got in Season 2. Urban. Futuristic. Self-driving cars. Robots incorporated into everyday life. No longer subservient to us meatbags or taking the battle directly to our faces, the few now-sentient hosts secretly move around this world pretending to be humans while executing Dolores' plans. And it works, for the most part.
One of the reasons it works well is because Season 3 of Westworld is reminiscent of Nolan's previous work of greatness, the "I can't believe this is on CBS" A.I. procedural Person of Interest. Lynchings and horseback riding are gone, replaced by technology-driven espionage carried out right beneath the population's nose. The stakes aren't just for the theme park, they're for humanity and artificial humanity as a whole. And the privacy issues breached in Season 2 come back in ways so big in Season 3 that you'll be putting masking tape over your laptop's webcam. In fact, the driving "character" of Season 3 is eerily similar to Person of Interest's The Machine, an all-seeing artificial intelligence that was able to predict crimes before they happened. This is clearly Nolan's wheelhouse, and once again he's able to prod your brain into asking questions of how far is too far when it comes to technology, as if machete-wielding robots weren't enough.
Person of Interest was also well-known for knowing how to play both sides of an argument (in one episode of the series' run, a lunatic held prominent officials hostage and put them on life-and-death trial that was broadcast to the world, and I couldn't help but think, "You know, he has a good point..."), and that same feeling comes through in Season 3 of Westworld after what was a severely lopsided Season 2. I'm talking of course about Dolores, who spent the season as a war-mongering maniac killing any and every human she came across. Dolores is a complicated character who was mostly reduced to caricature in Season 2; she was rage embodied, driven so hard by one directive that her boyfriend chose to kill himself rather than stand by her side.
Season 3 Dolores is a vast upgrade. She's pissed off, but not blindly ruthless. She's bent on giving humans what she thinks they deserve, but smart enough to know this world doesn't operate like Westworld did. This is the kind of Dolores she should have been all along: a victim you feel empathy for with a cause worth fighting for -- she's seen the worst that humans can be and believes her kind is the next step in evolution. She's not a one-note horseman of the robo-apocalypse.
On the other side of the argument, once again, is Bernard. More empathetic to humans and a believer that Dolores' plan is a wee bit extreme, he's positioned to be Dolores' foil, or at least the voice of reason in the face of genocide, which is a lot better than the unreliable narrator he was in Season 2. He's got a higher hill to climb as an extremely wanted man and with an interesting glitch, but he's unable to sideline himself with a mission to stop Dolores. Again, his reasons for this are salient and valid, perpetuating the debate over who is right and who is wrong in this war of the machines. Plus, Bernard gets a familiar and much-improved traveling companion that provides this season with rare humor (you'll be excited when you see who it is).
The most notable addition to the series is Aaron Paul, who joins as the (probably) human Caleb. Caleb is a regular old dude, a spare part in the machine of life that's run by corporate interests and those who think they know what's best for you. He crosses paths with Dolores, and some of their interests align enough to where they form an alliance early even if Caleb doesn't know exactly the extent of Dolores' plans. But his inclusion in the series represents a new, intriguing layer for Westworld.
Previously a series mostly about artificial intelligence and robot rights, Season 3 addresses ideas of classism among human beings. Turns out the rich run the future, too, and Dolores' conversation with Caleb that locks him in as a supporter is very much in line with something Bernie Sanders might say on the debate stage. By taking the argument against humans displayed when the wealthy tortured, raped, and murdered the hosts of Westworld and applying it to real-world humans -- specifically the working class and lower rung of the money ladder -- Westworld becomes incredibly relevant instead of something we'll have to think about once Boston Robotics makes a huge breakthrough.
But it remains to be seen if all these changes, especially the move from the dusty trails of Westworld to the sleek future downtowns of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore, and other cities will be too jarring for casual viewers. (Things really feel like Lost Season 4, with all the action taking place off the island and in the future.) One of the attractions of the first two seasons was the dichotomy of the Old West and advanced technology. That's largely absent in Season 3. It almost feels like an entirely new show, one that was always set in the far future. However, it's actually a natural progression of what the show was always meant to be, and let's not kid ourselves, we always figured it would go here, but that still doesn't help us get over the fact that we probably won't see any more player pianos. To be honest, I don't think everyone will like the new season, especially those who didn't enjoy Season 1. Dialogue is still overly academic -- get your rewind button ready -- and some puzzles get close to being unnecessary. But those who appreciated the philosophy of technology's place in our lives should feel free to flock back.
This is a show that, like the most successful new tech, has shed its previous form and evolved into an entirely new product, which Nolan and Joy hinted at from the very beginning. It might take time to get used to, but after a while, we'll hopefully recognize it as an inevitable improvement that we couldn't imagine being without. At eight episodes, there's still four episodes for the bugs to show, but halfway through the season, Westworld looks like a vital show again.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Westworld Season 3 premieres Sunday, Mar. 15 at 9/8c on HBO.