The very first season of Westworld was a seminal moment for this new era of television series, an era that has proven that series can rival even the largest, most ambitious and most expensive silver screen productions and nail set-piece design, storytelling effectiveness, and do it all with a sense of style. While series such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad could be considered the true beginning of this new era, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy's impressively designed, viscerally-visualised and impressively cohesive first season proved that HBO was so much more than just a Game of Thrones platform.
But then the second season arrived, and few would argue against the notion that much of the energy, the mystery and the intrigue of the initial premise was only partially continued. Furthermore, the second season proved inconsistent, inconclusive and incoherent in its attempt to put the genie back in the bottle. It was, all said and done, a major disappointment, so much so that it put the future of the franchise in jeopardy - the higher you fly, the further you fall.
And so this new third season had the weight of the world on its shoulders, and luckily, by expanding the universe and broadening its overall scope, this latest season is a clear improvement over the second, although it's still not exactly what we'd hoped it would be.
So for a quick recap (and it's impossible not to delve into spoiler territory here for those who have not seen the second season). Dolores escaped the destroyed remnants of Westworld, and is now hell-bent on carving out a portion of the world for herself and her kind. This mission takes her around the globe, where she eventually runs into Caleb, played by Aaron Paul, who joins her mission and aids her in taking down modern society bit by bit, starting with Vincent Cassell's enigmatic character. That's as far as we can go, without taking away some of the joys of discovering the various plot points for yourself.
However, this is mainly about broadening the scope of the Westworld universe, and to escape the confines of the park, of the constructed reality, and into the real... well, reality. It's incredibly refreshing to see the world that real humans live in throughout the third season, and the directors, set designers and scriptwriters have done a wonderful job of creating an almost Cyberpunk-like world filled with expressive visual detail and lovely colours.
The series is much more linear in terms of its structure, something even the most die-hard fans will appreciate. Yes, it still relies on pulling the rug from under the viewer every now and then, and while some may consider it trite at this point, the overall narrative of the third season is simpler, easier to follow and understand, and is much more streamlined as a result.
Both of these things are good news for a series that has been struggling to maintain focus and was so intent on surprising you that you constantly expected to be surprised. Linearity and simplicity, these are qualities not be scoffed at as narrow storytelling for the feeble, but a better way to efficiently expand the narrative scope of the series' universe and the tales told within.
So Season 3 must be pretty good then? Certainly, it's an improvement, but sadly, it still has a tendency to repeat past mistakes, and there are even some new missteps here as well. First off, while the ensemble cast delivers powerful performances one and all, many characters are pushed to the background and only serve as meandering, passive observers to the story. For instance, Jeffrey Wright's Bernard is simply an on-looker, and so is Luke Hemsworth's Ashley Stubbs. They neither receive exciting material nor have anything remotely interesting to do, apart from spewing narrative context so that we may better understand the motivations of the characters that do act.
Not only that, but series continues to rely on too much exposition-heavy dialogue that has a middling effect, and even though the overall structure is more straightforward, there's still too many flashbacks, too much repetition, as if the creators were too scared to truly leave behind Westworld, and the safe enclosure of the park.
Luckily, Westworld's third season does mainly take place in the here and now; the here and now where there are high stakes, risk and consequence, where a person's death is a person's death and not part of an endless loop of brutality. The fight scenes here are beautifully choreographed, the set-pieces grand and unquestionably clever, and to its credit, it does an effective job of setting the series up for future seasons in a better way than the previous one was able. We just hope it can shed the last of its narrative cocoon, and fully embrace its redefined self, new and improved, without many of the familiar trappings of the old Westworld. We hope it gets there eventually.