Westworld is a show about storytelling. Throughout its first three seasons, creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have made clear they are fascinated by the way narratives rule our world: Concepts like free will and agency are, in the show’s cosmology, intimately tied to the stories we tell ourselves and the characters we allow ourselves to be. If such simple tenets have become muddled over its three-season run, it is because the HBO show has always been a tad more ambitious about the convoluted storytelling it expects its audience to follow. (Seriously, ask me in earnest to walk you through season three and you’ll find me fumbling even as I enjoyed parts of it.)
Which is to say, it was refreshing to watch this first episode of season four and be in almost familiar territory. Sure, I wouldn’t have pegged Westworld to flash-forward seven years since “the riots” that closed out its most recent season finale — or even imagine that it would open with a bilingual set-piece where William (yes, Ed Harris, back again as the man formerly known as the Man in Black) brings a cartel to its knees with the help of… I want to say fly-hosts? But once that prologue was done with, I was back in the kind of Westworld world I most enjoy: namely, following Evan Rachel Wood as she tried to decipher what it is her character (this time: Christina — unclear where Dolores is nowadays) wants from her life as she ponders the pleasures and perils of writing and living in certain stories. Oh, and she fears she’s being watched. (Trust the show to keep its meta-ness going; not only are we in the realm of storytelling but in the realm of broadcasting. Every performed story requires an audience, after all.)
The callback to season one, where we followed Dolores ’waking moments and experienced her continued narrative loops, was a welcome one. And a reminder that maybe Christina’s world could be just as constructed as that small Western town Dolores lived in.
One thing that struck me about this episode was — how to put it lightly? —How coherent it was. Westworld has probably spoiled us in thinking each and every one of its narratives is a Rubiks cube of a puzzle, often encouraging us to discern (or get lost) in various competing timelines. Not so here. William, Christina, Caleb, and Maeve may all be scattered but it seems we’re all in the same timeline (give or take Christina? Okay… maybe there may be some red-yarn-wall conspiracy artwork in our futures to help us figure all of it out).
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But for a reintroduction to these characters, the subdued, almost studied way in which we were reacquainted with them all was surprisingly refreshing: sure, we may not know who Christina is (though let’s hope we get more of her roommate, played by Academy Award -winner Ariana DeBose), but watching Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) go feral in the snow-capped mountains as she’s hunted by William’s men, and later seeing Caleb (Aaron Paul, arguably a character that still feels a tad out of step with our other leads) coping with his newfound life as a family man felt like a slow ramp-up to bloodier stuff. A calm before the storm, perhaps.
There is, of course, that pesky guy who keeps harassing Christina, who believes the stories she’s writing are somehow having real-world effects — or effects in whatever world she and he are in. Just as in seasons past, it sounds like who tells whose stories and who controls our own narratives (“I want to write a new story,” Christina tells herself) will continue to be the guiding philosophical principle under which the violent delights that we ‘ ve come to expect from Westworld will reside. We got a taste of it but there’s more to come, I’m sure.
The line that echoed for me throughout the episode and which strikes me as possibly giving us a hint of what’s to come is one Christina utters when trying to explain her work (oh god, I’m just realizing it’s because I so often find myself doing the same when I tell someone I’m a writer and then feel the need to buoy why I do this and why it matters!): “What if I’m not the one that’s broken, what if it’s the world that needs fixing? ”
We’ve seen what happens when Dolores tries to fix a broken world. Might Christina be itching to follow in her footsteps? Or is that, perhaps, what William is after?
- Let’s talk about that final reveal. We all knew it was coming (James Marsden’s involvement had already been announced) but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. Not just because I am very ready to look at the actor’s beautiful face this entire season but because the Dolores / Teddy dynamic was the beating heart of season one — again, another callback I can get behind.
- The choice to use New York City’s High Line as backdrop for a confounding dystopian urban landscape that’s supposed to feel both green and sterile, catering to a population that seems to dope themselves to carry on and has no time for self-questioning moments that would threaten their livelihood? Almost too perfect.
- Speaking of: Does Westworld have some of the most enviable production design in cable television? I’ll admit I have a weakness for its brutal-meets-minimalist aesthetic, where its characters move through houses and bedrooms that feel inhospitable, so those first scenes were truly catnip for me. How Nathan Crowley (season one) and Howard Cummings (seasons two and three) lost their respective Emmys for their work on the show is beyond me. Here’s hoping Jonathan Carlos, taking over this time around, may have better luck next year!
- Thandiwe Newton can make any line sing, but hearing her go “Oh, for fuck’s sake” and later “Hello, darling” and make both feel instantly iconic is a true testament of the (Emmy-winning!) Work she’s been doing as Maeve for four seasons and counting.
- Speaking of Maeve, we didn’t really dwell on what exactly she was doing when trying to access her old memories while out in her cabin in the middle of nowhere. What is she looking for? Who might she be looking for? And what might have prompted the desire to do so as it put her so at risk of being found?
- The maze makes its triumphant return! Thankfully it is now in some fire escape soil and not, you know, in some guy’s scalp (though there was some scalping; wouldn’t be Westworld without some of that).
- “This is America. Everything is for sale. ” (I may have cringed at this line because, while its sentiment feels accurate, I also find it become increasingly played out, no?