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Should Westworld Go Back to Where It All Started?

Editor’s note: The below article contains spoilers for Westworld Season 4.When Westworld first debuted in 2016, it felt like an event. HBO had been looking for another high-concept genre series based on beloved source material, and for all intents and purposes, Westworld was the next Game of Thrones. Although the first season managed to hook in a loyal fanbase, the series has slowly walled itself off from casual viewers. Ratings have continued to decline, and the story has grown even more convoluted. Westworld is now catering to a niche audience.

Despite the decline in popularity, Westworld’s co-creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan intend to return for a fifth and final season. Following the Season 4 finale, “Que Será, Será,” Joy stated that returning the series to its original Western setting was the plan from the beginning. We’ve seen humanity reach its end. The robotic hosts now reside in a digital afterlife called “The Sublime.” It is in this virtual heaven that Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) intends to deliver one last test. Although the rules are different, the setting hasn’t changed. Even if Joy claims that everything has gone as planned thus far, it does seem like returning the show to where it all started is a reaction to the responses that later seasons received. Westworld was at its best when it remained in Westworld. The original park raised interesting moral questions. Will humans reveal their true selves when they’re interacting with artificial beings? What is the morality of brutalizing a humanlike figure who isn’t “real”? What defines “consciousness,” exactly? What is the appeal of going to a park based on an antiquated genre?
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The issue that Season 5 faces is that these questions don’t just revolve around the Western premise. It doesn’t really matter where the series is set. What’s interesting about the idea of a futuristic theme park is getting to see humans and hosts interacting with each other in a tactile environment. Even if Dolores’ recreation of the original park doesn’t change a thing, the stakes aren’t as high if the show takes place within a digital setting. When everyone can die and come back, actors never leave the show, and everything comes full circle, what is the point of investing in anything?

The other issue with returning the show to Westworld is that the characters have already evolved past the archetypes that they were based on. The primary hosts are all inspired by familiar Western figures within popular culture; Dolores is the passive rancher’s daughter, Teddy Flood (James Marsden) is the fundamentally honorable gunslinger, and Maeve Millay (Thandiwe Newton) is the seductive sex worker. It’s only when they discover that their existence is all part of a “game” that the characters question their societal roles. What was exciting about the later seasons was getting to see this growth. Dolores becomes the leader of the hosts’ resistance, and Maeve becomes a fearsome warrior whose agency is beyond question. Although it takes Teddy some time to move past his inherent programming, he ultimately learns to love Dolores for real in Season 4. Forcing these characters to revert to the place that they came from may feel like a betrayal.

The Western setting was interesting in the first season because it was the only window into the outside world. It’s not entirely clear where the series is set, or what society looks like. We were left to make assumptions about the state of world events if the upper class could afford to burn their vacations on their violent fantasies. However, any questions we had about the context of the series were answered when the show went beyond the park in its later seasons. We got to learn more about the economic disparity through the perspective of a blue-collar worker like Caleb (Aaron Paul). Season 5 does not have that potential; we’re left to assume that life on Earth has completely faded. On a purely visceral level, Westworld has already maximized the potential of the Western genre. We got to see the full extent of the park by the end of Season 2. We know what Westworld looks like when it is operating, and we know what it looks like when it descends into chaos. It was interesting to see some supporting characters get fleshed out, like the Ghost Nation leader Akecheta (Zahn McClaron), who ended up becoming an ally to Maeve. However, given that the only hosts in the Sublime are the characters that we’ve already met, it doesn’t seem like Season 5 will be bringing in any new faces.

Westworld’s later seasons felt exciting when the show traveled to the other parks that Delos operated, such as the Shōgunworld storyline in Season 2. The lazy writer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) essentially repurposed the same characters from Westworld into the Japanese setting; Sato (Hiroyuki Sanada) is essentially Hector’s (Rodrigo Santoro) doppelganger, and the relationship between Akane (Rinko Kikuchi) and Sakura (Kiki Sukezane) reminds Maeve of her love for her daughter. Similar to their Western counterparts, the Shōgunworld characters also learned to question their programming.

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However, Shōgunworld is just one of the many parks that Westworld has revealed. William’s (Ed Harris) daughter, Grace (Katja Herbers), is introduced in Season 2 when she narrowly escapes from a version of colonial India called The Raj. In Season 3, Maeve runs from Nazi soldiers in a World War II park known as Warworld. We’ve also seen parks that homage other HBO shows; there’s the Game of Thrones-inspired Fantasy World and the Boardwalk Empire-esque Golden Era. This is where the show’s greatest potential lies. What behaviors do these different environments inspire from the guests? What themes are relevant within all of these historical settings? What are the hosts from these other parks doing now, and have they reached the Sublime?

“Que Será, Será” ends with Dolores promising “one last loop.” There are certain questions that Season 5 has to answer, and it will be interesting to see if the show ends with an optimistic message about the hosts’ inherent nature. Westworld has already made its opinion about humanity clear, but hopefully, the hosts can create a world that surpasses their creators. These characters have evolved; it’s time that the series did too.

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