Perhaps it’s fitting that “Westworld” is the recipient of the most extensive, and jarring, reboot in recent TV history.
After all, the show’s characters are hyperintelligent androids, forced in the show’s early going to forget who they once were and what they’ve endured in order to begin their “storylines” anew. Later on, these unhappy automatons discovered the power of self-reinvention, grafting onto themselves new capabilities and identities.
In its third season, “Westworld” itself is going for a similar trick, overwriting what had been a chewily dense contemplation of identity and humanity with a more obviously crowdpleasing ride through the world of the future. The show’s second season was widely pilloried for its purposeful deployment of audience confusion, a way of depicting its characters’ shifting experiences of their lives that frustrated expectations. The new “Westworld” seems designed to meet expectations precisely where they are. The new capabilities it’s aiming for — to satisfy fans with crisp, straightforward storytelling — have obvious virtues, but limit the show’s power, too. “Westworld” doesn’t need to be alienating to be good; it still is. But it may need to be alienating to be “Westworld.”
The differences in the series set in from the first scene, in which an investor in the Delos company — the parent company of the Westworld theme park and the underwriters of all the robots now on the loose — faces a home intruder. We’re, for the first time, outside the Westworld theme park, in the world of the future, and facing down the radical change Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) hopes to bring to bear. She has now undertaken a mission of cleansing not unlike that of Daenerys over the course of “Game of Thrones”: Her vision of the world is one in which legitimate evildoers are vanquished, and everyone else lives in limitless freedom, under her rule. The scene is startling less for its sudden, random violence (hardly new for this show) or even for its setting than for its frank, plain tone. Dolores, who throughout the show’s first two seasons spoke in aphorism and metaphor, has suddenly downloaded a patch for modern American vernacular; similarly, her lofty goals for the restructuring of all society on earth and for the defeat of a corporation restricting the liberty of human and robot alike (led by Vincent Cassel, a new hire this season) tend now to find their expression in small-bore gunfights or quick-and-dirty schemes. Dolores’s pursuits, which by the halfway point of the new season get her little closer to her goals even as they thrill in the moment, feel unduly time-killing on an eight-episode season with not much time to kill.
Wood remains a compelling presence at the show’s center, but it can be hard to root for a character who’s forced to read hokey lines like “I don’t need an algorithm to know that the man who built the system? He won’t go down without a fight.” (Her battle against Cassel, the show’s newly installed Big Bad and a fellow seeking to eliminate free will, is broadly understandable enough without the script undergoing a pass to be more generic.) Ed Harris suffers a similar fate, and Jeffrey Wright and Luke Hemsworth coexist in a plotline that veers unnervingly close to outright buddy comedy — not a tone this show, with its lofty moral seriousness and inflexibility of tone, wears particularly well. Others fare better, at least; Tessa Thompson’s performance as an android masquerading as a corporate-suite human is an elegant way to deploy Thompson’s natural chilliness, and Thandie Newton, whose majestic journey through the mind in season 2 won her an Emmy, at least gets to have some fun this time around, traversing through various worlds and assuming new guises in a subplot whose wheel-spinning has the benefit of being somewhat dazzling.
It’s in, say, Newton’s time in a world made up to look like a World War II front that the show’s rich resources and visual imagination find their fullest flower; perhaps the most surprising thing about the futuristic America depicted by “Westworld” is how glumly unadorned it is. New character Caleb (Aaron Paul), who assists Dolores in a moment of tension and joins her mission, enters the story via an app that hooks potential criminals up with crimes and has a Siri-like voice in his ear, but much of his story is that of a generic fellow living in a world basically like our own, but with robots. The viewer grabs onto tiny detail — a mention that elephants are now extinct, a child playing outside in a surgical mask, parties with live models posing in states of undress — to nourish, because so much of “Westworld’s” setting now feels plain, like our world but slightly worse. If, before, glimpses of the world outside “Westworld” — corporate intrigues at Delos, hints of dystopia on the margins — seemed tantalizing, a glut of it reveals that the show’s more intriguing ideas by far are about the future of humanity, not the future of the American city.
Which is fine! Not every show has to be about everything, and “Westworld” — so laden down with ideas that it is not quite nimble enough to land a pivot to be a broadly appealing sci-fi drama — was a really good show about the future of humanity. Perhaps the flatness of its new setting might have served, or might eventually serve in the season’s second half, as ironic counterpoint: The peculiarity of the robot uprising exists against a backdrop so flat and familiar as to make it all the more intriguing. But what tends to happen instead is that the flatness inflects every corner of the story and sucks away the vibrancy. Wood’s brutal line about not needing an algorithm to know she needs to fight comes in a scene she shares with Paul; indeed, it’s a reply to his telling her that despite being synthetic, she is “the first real thing that has happened to me in a long time.” (Oof.) It is perhaps understandable why a show whose diffuseness of character and whose unfulfillable ambitions decided they needed to refocus on more familiar ground, but the beauty of “Westworld’s” first two seasons were that they didn’t need a sympathetic human lead at all.
“Westworld” remains, reservations aside, a well-made and engaging show whose vision of the future, however constrained, has more to offer than its competitors’. (I’d take its workaday schlubs waiting out the end of humanity, however unsuited they are to this show and its history, over the histrionics of late-period “Black Mirror” any day.) And its action has a perverse, Blumhouse-y nastiness that works well. But in becoming a totally fine action serial, “Westworld” has taken a significant step back from being great. In its convolutions and its grand grasping curiosity, “Westworld” used its story to examine, and to try to show, what it feels like to live through seismic changes in our understanding of the consciousness. The first four episodes of its rebooted self are about making competent, well-structured TV. It’s hard not to miss a show whose flaws, emanating as they did from a passionate need to be understood and desire to understand, were so deeply human, and that have been so smoothly elided in favor of a gently humming piece of story machinery, something that’s that much closer to robot.