If you’re a fan of Westworld – HBO’s ambitious sci-fi epic – you’ll already know how frustrating it can be. Set in a world where sentient robots fight to take control of their destinies from shitty, exploitative humans, seasons one and two were, at times, difficult to follow. Showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan made use of multiple delayed timelines to spin their futuristic yarn, but often, this wasn’t pointed out to the viewer until much later. As you can expect, fantasy fans switching over from Game of Thrones between seasons, weren’t keen. The last series, in particular, was mauled online by those who labelled its characters confusing and its plot lines messy. Luckily for them, season three cuts out the super-complex storytelling in favour of a more linear approach.
A quick update for the uninitiated (and those who got lost somewhere previously). After spending the first 20 episodes held captive in the titular theme park – a wild west utopia where rich people murder, maim and have sex with ultra-lifelike machines – some of the ‘hosts’ have escaped. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the architect of their jailbreak, is determined to wreak vengeance upon mankind by toppling the humans’ society and taking the throne for herself. Meanwhile, former park employee and ‘host’ himself Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) is on the run from basically everyone. Maeve (Thandie Newton) – another clever bot who’s achieved sentience – is now in Warworld, a neighbouring park with a different historical theme (Nazi-occupied Europe). But is she really where she thinks she is?
Set largely in a Blade Runner-style metropolis – complete with flying cars – the batch of new episodes benefits enormously from bumping up alongside human traffic. Before, the dusty dunes of Westworld had started to grow monotonous – there’s only so many times you can traipse around a desert and look surprised about stumbling upon another skeleton-strewn cave. But thanks to the gift of another world to explore, we get several much-needed new characters.
Aaron Paul (of Breaking Bad fame), is perhaps the most pivotal fresh addition. He plays construction worker Caleb, an ex-serviceman suffering from PTSD who wanders onto Dolores’ radar. Meanwhile, a mysterious business magnate, Serac (played with typical French slickness by Vincent Cassell), is determined to track Dolores down. Cleverly, she nicked all the illegal data Westworld had been storing on its customers – and Cassell wants to use the stats to tighten his grip on society. Other new faces include Lena Waithe, who pops up as an agent of the city’s criminal underworld, and 10 Cloverfield Lane star John Gallagher Jr. in the role of Liam Dempsey Jr., the son of a very rich, very famous venture capitalist.
With the influx of additional talent, Westworld has done what many had hoped it would and mixed things up a bit. Now that Bernard, Dolores and Maeve have all gone off in search of different things, the narrative has been split into three equally absorbing parts. They intersect, of course, but the difference between this season and the others is that they all happen at the same time. There’s also a whole lot more action – and none of it features dodgy highwaymen or all-too-killable Native Americans. Frontier-era rifles are replaced with James Bond-style handguns and spy gadgets, while tough gangs are grouped around ethnicity. The comparisons with 007 don’t stop there. Protagonists spend plenty of time peaking around corners to avoid precision sniper rounds – and Caleb’s character has a whiff of the psychologically disturbed, strong, silent-type about him, all traits that Daniel Craig has come to embody in the long-running franchise.
Elsewhere, the show retains its knack for exploring highly-topical themes. This series it’s ‘Big Data’, and the corporations who abuse its power. Focusing on Cassell’s dastardly Serac – and the high-tech system he controls which can predict anyone’s future based on an algorithm – Westworld season three asks: what is free will in a digital world, do we really have it, and at what cost? Deep stuff, especially if you followed the Cambridge Analytica fallout last year.
So, first impressions of the latest episodes are strong. They’re simpler to understand, exciting in innovative new ways, and the modern locations are utterly breathtaking. Seriously, with the introduction of Los Angeles (and Singapore, to a lesser extent), Westworld makes a strong bid for the title of most beautiful show on television. It’s that gorgeous. But despite all the improvements, you can’t help feeling HBO’s flagship property has lost something special. Each chapter still unwinds slowly, and there are several twists – sudden realisations that flip the viewer’s understanding of the story upside down. But they’re less frequent than before. Part of what made Westworld so unputdownable was that fans could never be off their game. Nip out for a cup of tea, and you’d be scratching your head with confusion for the rest of the series. Sometimes art demands you invest a little of yourself in it – and during an age of quick-fix iPhone games and drop-in reality TV, that’s no bad thing.
For the most part though, Westworld season three is a fun, engaging thrill ride across a rich dystopian landscape that should bring some former fans back into the fold. With Game Of Thrones finally over, and many of us heading into coronavirus-induced isolation periods, HBO may have just transformed its most expensive show into a ratings magnet.
‘Westworld’ season three premieres at 2am on Monday 16 March on Sky Atlantic. It will be repeated at 9pm