Discovering Westworld felt like finding the holy grail of TV when it came out. Everything was flawless, from the cast to the dialogue, the cinematography, the music, and not least the brilliantly woven narrative that asked much of viewers and gave back even more.
Season 4, sadly, is quite the opposite — almost a perfect inversion from great to terrible. It mistakes empty riddles for intrigue, convolution for being complex, exposition for dialogue, and violence for character conflict. The showrunners have forgotten what they did so right in the first season and resorted to polished visuals alone to make up for the lack of a compelling story. At the core, the show doesn’t know what it wants to say and where to go. It’s as lost as Dolores was in Season 1, and never finds itself.
Westworld: Season 4 lacks clear direction from the showrunner’s perspective and clear goals from the characters. In the first three seasons, the characters had defined and understandable motives. In Season 4, people just move around with vaguely defined ideologies and targets. That makes it very hard to care about anything happening on the screen, which is essentially the best way to sum up how I felt with increasing intensity – I just didn’t care.
It wasn’t like that when I sat down to watch Season 4. The finale of Season 3 sparked every fan’s imagination as it pointed to the global conflict between humans and hosts that has been building up since the finale of Season 1.
So it was disheartening to watch the pilot of Season 4, a slow-burning episode that reveals we’re now seven years in the future, and have the promise of global war taken away as the show makes clear that the war we were promised hasn’t happened. This was the season’s first big mistake and a gigantic disappointment. What should have been front and center, meaning a war between humans and hosts on a global scale, was cast away off-screen. What we got to see was the dull aftermath – an unspecified and hardly explained dystopia that feels artificial in all the wrong ways.
Nothing is fleshed out or truly explained, so it’s impossible to get a good feel for the scope of Westworld’s setting and characters. One does not know who to root for, who to feel sorry for, and who to hate. Not even the villain is a real villain, and bringing back a copy of the Man in Black does nothing but evoke pity. Ed Harris’ frightening persona has faded by the act of copying him – literally and narratively.
Season 4 tries to reignite the glory of Westworld’s early days, and often ends up harking back to the first instalment, with similar scenes reiterating themes we’ve already seen in the fake Wild West. Maybe the most obvious was when evil Hale teaches humans to dance in the streets – a nice reversal of the scene of Season 1 where the humans teach the first hosts to do the same. However, the similarities only leave one thought: the show has run out of creative juice and is copying itself ad absurdum. It has become a facsimile, faded and stale.
A good example of that is seeing various host versions of Caleb dying or being murdered. Not the most compelling character to begin with, seeing multiple versions of him in different timelines felt empty. It symbolized Westworld’s concept of hosts being immortal in that one can ‘reprint’ them. The problem with doing that so often is that it takes away any emotions one might feel for the copied host. Why feel bad for a copy of a copy of a copy being killed by another copy of a copy?
The novelty of Westworld has vanished, and the narrative should have picked up the slack, but it doesn’t. Too much precious screen time is wasted on scenes that don’t propel the story forward, and each episode is lacking in actual storytelling, however beautiful it is to watch and listen to. Mixing Enter Sandman with the soundtrack shows that at least the composer, Ramin Djawadi, hasn’t lost a step.
Dolores’ identity crisis is an apt reflection of a show that has forgotten what it is. After so many copies and permutations, Westworld itself has morphed into something it and viewers can’t recognize anymore. It speaks for a show whose high concept has become its downfall. Just like the rift in the world seen at the Hoover dam (the entrance to the virtual, Matrix-like world of the hosts), there are too many cracks in this show to be fully whole, despite the production value and the great cinematography, music, and acting.
There’s no true intrigue but only riddles. No true momentum, only the occasional act of violence. No true character arc or journey, only people moving from point A to point B on what gamers would call a fetch quest.
Just like old William, the concept is kept artificially alive–in limbo, to be frozen and reheated again for viewers’ pleasure. However, without clear motivations and clear sides and goals (at least none that seem urgent, compelling, and founded in a clear ideology), the stakes are muddled. In short, there’s no tension because none of the characters really wants something that we, as the viewer, can get behind.
One of the key rules of scriptwriting is that characters drive the plot, and each character needs to want something and overcome obstacles to get there. But in Season 4, this does not happen. Even the tried story of a father wanting to protect and then find his daughter feels empty because the father in this season (Caleb) is a copy of a robot. A robot hugging his one-dimensional daughter–hardly the stuff to stir up emotions.
Comparisons to Season 1 are inevitable — to the show’s detriment. Thanks to the visual and narrative parallels and the difference between the two, Season 4’s downfall is glaringly obvious, and no amount of glitzy futuristic urban eye candy or Roaring ’20s scenery can make up for it. Just as Maeve is disappointed in the copy of the safe-stealing gangster, so are we left feeling empty seeing yet another version of the original salon being robbed. Why is it shown? No reason at all – just a callback without purpose.
Season 4 of Westworld had the chance to tell an amazing story, using the legacy of the first two seasons and building on the escalation at the end of Season 3. Instead, we got people running around on fetch quests without strong motivations or clear ideologies. The setting is confusingly constrained to a futuristic version of New York, the Hoover Dam, and some mundane settings. The park setting of the Roaring ’20s was meaningless and had no true purpose – a smoke screen to razzle and dazzle, only to be buried in the sands of time, literally and figuratively.
The final conflict between evil copy host Hale and corrupted copy host William lacks the finality of a truly built-up conflict. The show tries hard to convince us this was the conflict all along and that it always came down to a battle between William’s nihilistic worldview and original Dolores’ optimism to see the beauty of this world. Sadly, the final battle lacks the catharsis showdowns should have because it wasn’t built up at all. And it was slow, boring without even trying to inject some choreography, speed, or intensity. I’ve watched paintball battles between drunk frat boys with more magnificence and panache.
Maybe Season 1 should have been the end of Westworld. That way, it would have been the most brilliant show of this young century. However, with Season 4 being what it is and the way it ended visually, there’s nothing left but hope that the fifth and last season will wrap things up to at least leave the memory of a sweet aftertaste.
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Season 4 sports great visuals, a great soundtrack and its usual plethora of amazing actors. Unfortunately, it fails to deliver on the promises of Season 3, lacks a clear objective and ends on an unsatisfying note. A huge disappointment and missed opportunity.
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