Coronavirus Bingewatch: When Real Life Gets Apocalyptic, Westworld’s Sci-Fi Dystopia is Comforting

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Coronavirus Bingewatch: When Real Life Gets Apocalyptic, Westworld’s Sci-Fi Dystopia is Comforting

Two years ago, the last season of HBO’s science-fiction-by-way-of-philosophy-lecture epic, Westworld, came to its conclusion. Ever since, Westworld fans can be broadly grouped into two major types: Those who remain invested in its constantly shifting plotlines and ruminations on the nature of free will, and those who were dizzy from the ride and wanted to hop off. Today morning, the show’s third season premiered on Hotstar, and in the first episode, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have found a way to cater to both groups.

Though their opinions on the show may differ, both sets of fans – the loyalists and the wantaways – were asking the same question: Is it worth returning to Westworld? Funnily enough, even Westworld doesn’t feel like returning to Westworld (yet), as Season 3’s first episode takes place entirely outside the titular Wild West-themed park. However, despite the new milieu, this is still Westworld, and the premiere episode feels familiar to long-time viewers, with more character monologues about free will and feeling powerless over one’s own narrative. Luckily for viewers, these don’t feel indulgent or detract from the pacing of Season 3’s first episode like they did for so much of Season 2.

But the question remains: Is it worth returning to Westworld? My answer, for both fans and detractors, is the same: A resounding yes.

The new season of Westworld promises a return to form, to fans both faithful and lapsed.

It’s the doubters who are going to need some convincing, and they’re not entirely wrong. Westworld’s second season was a case study in unfulfilled potential, and how there can be too much of a good thing. In trying to replicate the appeal of the intricate, elegant puzzle box that was Season 1, the show went off track in Season 2 and became wilfully, stubbornly, even confusingly cryptic, leading to the criticism that the writers were adding mystery just for mystery’s sake.

Season 3’s first episode, titled “Parce Domini”, marks an attempt at course-correction. Rather than focusing on lofty themes or delivering surprising twists, Nolan and Joy have injected Westworld’s plot with a much-needed dose of urgency and pacing. The episode’s main storyline features the android Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) operating under her own will outside the park for the first time, and her violent exploits underscore the message that the time for philosophical monologues has passed. So, for those worried that Westworld had devolved into a stoned humanities student’s ramblings masquerading as a TV show, I’m happy to inform that era of the show has passed. “Parce Domini” is like a mission statement promising to refrain from straying into the weeds.

It’s the doubters who are going to need some convincing, and they’re not entirely wrong.

That doesn’t mean that Westworld is completely devoid of its signature character reveries. Only, these are no longer brought to the viewers by the park’s dozens of robotic hosts discovering their sentience, but via a new human character, a blue-collar war veteran named Caleb (Aaron Paul). Using Caleb as a single conduit for these ideas, as opposed to a vast array of tertiary characters, gives them a sharpness that was missing in Season 2. Caleb’s helplessness to improve his lot in life reflects the frustration the hosts felt at having to repeat their fixed loops in the park in the earlier seasons. Knowing that Caleb is in fact a flesh-and-blood person and not a pre-programmed robot makes his predicament even more sympathetic and poignant than we’ve seen with some of the secondary characters.

The new season of Westworld promises a return to form, to fans both faithful and lapsed. It feels refreshed, yet familiar, and there is a sense of purpose to the plot that was missing in the last season. All of which adds up to being a good reason to revisit HBO’s garden of violent delights.

And for those who’ve never been, there’s no good reason to continue missing out. All three seasons of Westworld are available for streaming, and with a global coronavirus pandemic coinciding with the new season’s release, there’s enough time to sit on the couch and binge the whole series. When real life feels apocalyptic, Westworld’s science-fiction dystopia feels oddly comforting.

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