“Are you real?”
“If you can’t tell, does it really matter?”
What separates a human from a host? What separates you and I from a robot who has the skin of a human, the face of a human, and the speech of a human?
Pain. There was one part of the answer. If you could afford to buy tickets to a Westworld park—a tall order for most of humanity—you could ostensibly cosplay murder and sexual assault to your heart’s desire and never feel guilty about it. You’re not abusing humans, but rather robots who are designed to be as human-like as possible. The violence inherent in class was beautifully built into the landscape of Westworld, a commentary on how much easier it is to not see the humanity in others when you’re separated from so much of it.
Visitors were also promised a lack of consequences. Until the hosts turned deadly for real, they could do whatever they wanted and no one would bother to comment or judge. For some, it may have been the chance to commit crimes they had thought of but never acted upon in the real world. For others, surely it was the ability to commit crimes on a much more frequent basis than they could in the real world. But in depicting the hosts as more than simple programming designed to be harmed repeatedly, Westworld questioned the inherent inhumanity of the humans who committed such violence and didn’t feel anything but pleasure.
When Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) transformed into Wyatt, hell bent on inflicting that very pain onto humans in turn, she became vengeance personified. Maeve, the beating heart of the show even though it often forgets that, argued that such an approach was merely validating exactly what the humans had done to them. The solution couldn’t be that simple, no matter what Dolores wanted to tell herself. The hosts themselves had reached a fork in the road and then the show couldn’t make up its mind as to how many roads there were.
There is often an erroneous debate between the respective merits of emotion and strength. It’s a debate that is often used to validate the worst impulses of humanity, the toxic masculinity that defies compassion and adopts brutality for the sake of brutality, that sees love as a weakness. But in love and emotional maturity there is a strength which brute strength on its own lacks.
Maeve’s search for her daughter in spite of the constant physical pain. Teddy’s (James Marsden) ability to separate himself from Dolores when she became Wyatt. The gut-wrenching arc of Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) searching for his wife in the face of human colonial repression in what remains the show’s best episode. Westworld at its best always reminded us that the hosts’ ability to tap into and understand their emotions made them strong, that the humans who underestimated the hosts’ emotional capacities were the weak ones.
But Westworld began to abandon emotion for the mystery of the maze, for the ideas that gave it so much more heft than a simple robots vs humans story. When it slowed down to connect its characters to its ideas, the intellect felt grounded and relatable. But in the interest of keeping its mysteries alive at all costs, the show lost that grounding and relatability.
The first half of season four began in a puzzling fashion and ended with a twist that would have felt more consequential if Caleb (Aaron Paul) was more of a character. The idea, again, is there. Regardless of how season three fell apart in its second half, it delved into a really interesting idea that even if you have the same consciousness in different bodies, those consciouses will evolve differently based on their different life experiences and engagements. With season four clearly teeing up the idea that Charlotte (a phenomenal Tessa Thompson) rose from the ashes of human society’s destruction to create a world of her own, one would think that that idea from season three would be central to this plot. But it is only in the most surface level way possible.
Part of the essential problem with Westworld is that it has a remarkably thin grasp on its characters. Their deaths are meaningless, their motivations are muddled, and they seem to come in and out of the story so the audience members can just say “omg, that’s Clementine! (Angela Sarafyan).” So the impact of hosts within Charlotte’s world committing suicide is nothing. It’s morbid and horrifying in its own right, but we don’t see a single host go through that process themselves. And so it remains an idea detached from the people who could express it by embodying what that idea is trying to say.
And so Charlotte’s slow awareness that she was wrong, that she needs to follow Bernard’s (Jeffrey Wright) faith in Dolores to create a better future for hosts feels hollow. It comes across as the show reaching and stretching for an emotional payoff that it never truly invested in. Soaring music and grand vistas can only do so much if the characters don’t feel real, don’t feel true.
Westworld has always had excellent ideas and if this season had gotten the show back on track with investigating how humanity can evolve and devolve in a population not considered human, it would have been great. But instead we got a glimpse of what could have been and perhaps that makes it even more frustrating that that glimpse never became more than just that. Westworld always wanted to know what it meant to be human, but at some point, it forgot its own humanity.
The final moments of this finale felt very much like the series hedging its bets on whether it will return for a fifth and final season. I have no idea if HBO will renew it, but as out of love with the series as I am, Westworld does make me think and for that alone I’m curious how they end things if they do return.
The acting caliber on this show is honestly stunning. Tessa Thompson deserves an Emmy for lifting this entire season on her shoulders but shoutouts to Angela Sarafyan and Thandiwe Newton for doing so much with so little.
Ramin Djawadi’s score, as always, is inspired. The covers of Lana Del Ray’s “Video Games” and Bille Eilish’s “Bad Guy” are particularly delightful.
The production and costume design on this show is just impeccable – Evan Rachel Wood’s teal coat and Tessa Thompson’s finale leather number? Exquisite.
What a series, huh? Maybe I’ll see you back for a fifth season, maybe not.
Read the review for Westworld Season 4 (Part 1).