Westworld once wanted to be the biggest drama on television. Not the most popular – it was always too complex and ambitious to sweep up as many viewers as Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. But at its inception, it had designs on being the prestige box set with the widest scope, asking the weightiest questions about mankind and technology, demanding the deepest commitment to keep up with its leaping intellect.
As it returns for a fourth season, though, it’s feeling small. Dull, even. The season four opener is the least chaotic in the show’s history, with signs that Westworld has succumbed to the fate that befalls all but the best high-concept sci-fi stories when they are given too long a run: every massive idea and reality-switching twist has been another step into an ever-narrowing maze of the show’s own mythology. Now the grand point Westworld was originally making is no longer in sight.
Recapping seasons one to three is tricky, since their intention was to have more plot nuances than there are grains of sand on a beach, but quickly: season one was set in a future theme park where humans were permitted to abuse lifelike robots who couldn’t make memories or feel pain, but then these “hosts” – particularly Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) – achieved sentience and rebelled. Season two was a battle between hosts and humans, with many of the people we thought were humans having proved to be hosts, withhosts’ capacity to upload themselves into new bodies – allowing the writers to kill characters off before bringing them back, sometimes played by a different cast member. Along the way we learned that the park was less about entertaining humans, and more about studying them.
Season three was where many viewers gave up: it featured a new theme park but was mostly set in a benighted Los Angeles, with society on the brink of collapse and a wacky billionaire trying to do something funky with artificial intelligence. Dolores, Maeve and a kindly human, Caleb (Aaron Paul), stopped him in the name of free will, a quality the previously enslaved hosts value highly, but Dolores was apparently permanently deleted in the process.
What now? After a nicely unsettling pre-credit sequence confirms that the Man in Black (Ed Harris) – a surviving icon from the original 1973 film – is still around and is awesomely powerful, season four undergoes a bewildering deceleration. We are certainly still in the future, because smartphones are transparent, cars are weird and window blinds have become obsolete, but the societal meltdown that was meant to be inevitable hasn’t occurred. In what is ostensibly New York, fire escapes look down on outdoor cafes decorated with artificial grass and jazzily asymmetrical street lamps. Young professionals stride around.
A woman named Christina, however, doesn’t so much stride as trudge. She is stagnating at work, writing inane backstories for minor characters in video games, and glumly resistant when her sparkier room-mate (Ariana DeBose) tries to nudge her back into dating. Surely Westworld hasn’t devolved from an intimidating philosophical treatise about what it is to be human, and whether our conception of that can survive a hyper-algorithmic techno-future, into a humdrum dramedy about sad twentysomething singletons? It does seem that way, though Christina’s interaction with a disturbed gamer reinforces what we’ve known since we first saw her: she is played by Evan Rachel Wood and must therefore, in some way, be Dolores.
The episode’s final shot brings back another beloved character believed to be dead, but since season two used to do that 14 times a week, such resurrections are not too exciting. In the interim, we catch up with Maeve, still a sword-wielding outlaw, and Caleb, who annoys his patient wife with his doomy belief in chemtrails, government coverups and other sinister forces that she can’t see. Curiously, since the show feels as if it has got bored and doesn’t know what to do next, several other main characters we were expecting to pop up are, for now, absent.
Where are they? What will Maeve and Caleb do next, what is the Man in Black planning, and how much of Dolores is in Christina? Viewers who have come this far might not be able to resist sticking around for answers, but these are all teasers the show is posing about itself, from within its own impenetrable lore. Those big questions have shrunk from view.