Westworld Season 4 Review: Potentially Proving There's a Method to the Madness

In a series known to push storytelling ambitions, Season 3 of Westworld was arguably the series' biggest gamble, as it took the exploits of the Western-themed narrative out of this setting and brought the attractions' sentient robots, or "hosts," into the dystopic real world. While this pivot surely provided the series with a number of new storytelling avenues, it also resulted in the most cumbersome and complex journey the series has seen yet. After the first four episodes of Season 4, the current arc feels like it's earning a bit of a soft reboot, trimming the storytelling fat for a more streamlined story, which comes with the benefit of being a more accessible experience. However, it also suffers from feeling like the previous season was ultimately a prologue to the twisted world of Delos and their deadly hosts, making us question where this ship is headed.

This new season of Westworld picks up seven years after the events of the Season 3 finale, delivering a society that is freed from Rehoboam, the supercomputer capable of predicting anyone's future based on the infinite number of data points collected from guests visiting various fantasy-fulfilling parks created by Delos. 

While Caleb (Aaron Paul) attempts to move on with his newfound freedom from Rehoboam, Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) aims to stay off the grid as to prevent William, a.k.a. the "Man in Black" (Ed Harris), from tracking her down. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) sacrificed herself to take down Rehoboam last season. This season, a new character named Christina (also played by Wood), finds herself in an entirely new world with no recollection of Dolores' history. And, with Dolores' system having previously been placed inside a host version of Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) by Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), this Charlotte uses Delos to develop an all-new and even deadlier way of dealing with humanity.

Since its inception, Westworld has never been interested in holding an audience's hand through its storyline, resulting in an experience for a viewer that mirrors the bewilderment of the characters within the show itself. The sci-fi genre has always allowed creatives to address real-world issues through a heightened lens, so with every passing day bringing advancements in technology that eerily resemble elements of a fictional series, the lines between fact and Westworld's fiction grow blurrier by the moment. While some viewers have criticized the series for its dense and complex mythology, unpacking each episode has also been a selling point in the series' mysteries.

While Season 3 of Westworld took things out of the parks and into the real world, Season 4 also finds ways to push forward elements that allow the series to further explore what it really means to be human, not only in the philosophical sense, but also in the tangible sense. Is your humanity defined by how you treat others? By the organic composition of your body? By the intentionality of your actions? All of these issues are tackled in typical Westworld fashion, making good on the core conceit of the program that goes back to the first season in regards to humanity vs. artificiality.  

For better or worse, the events of the first chapters in Season 4 of Westworld are much more streamlined and easier to follow. Some audiences will surely be revisiting Season 3 or potentially just digesting recaps ahead of the new season, but only having a semblance of that season's events is enough to prepare you for this new series of episodes. Everyone's objectives are clear and, while you might need a refresher on who is a host and who is a real human, these episodes are happy to offer reminders of each character's origins. The straightforwardness of the story is almost disarming, to the point that you might have to check in with other viewers to make sure things are really as obvious as they seem, which is more of a reflection of the complexities of the previous season as opposed to any faults in Season 4's storyline.

The more streamlined motivations of these characters result in a slight sacrifice of the characters themselves. With each figure's intentions being clearer than ever, this strips them of some of their nuances, making them feel more like caricatures of their former selves as opposed to the layered and complex personas we've grown to love. Charlotte delivers ominous monologues, Maeve is vowing revenge, and Caleb is bewildered by the whole situation. The audience most closely relates with Christina, as bizarre encounters around her start to hint at something unsettling happening, yet she is entirely oblivious to what that could be. Viewers have no idea why we're seeing a character that looks like Dolores yet has no idea about her former experiences and seems entirely oblivious to Delos and Westworld.

Season 4 of Westworld is comprised of eight episodes, and halfway through the latest outing, the filmmakers seem to have an idea in mind of the destination they're headed to. Over the course of three seasons, the popularity of the concept and the heady ideas it has toyed with has made it feel like a runaway locomotive that is laying down the track immediately in front of it, unaware of where it could end up. The back half of this season could still entirely go off the rails, but these first entries feel like the series is embarking on a new chapter and gives audiences a chance to catch their breath. As with every previous season of the series, fans will surely be quick to show their support for the change in storytelling approaches as others lambast these latest episodes, though it already feels like a necessary attempt to streamline the overall experience, not just for the sake of the fans but also for the potential this brings for the series to continue to push narrative conventions as effectively as possible. 

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Season 4 of Westworld premieres on HBO and HBO Max on Sunday, June 26th.