Per FTC obligations: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this post. The opinions I share are my own.

The Show

Down to eight episodes from the previous seasons’ ten, Westworld continues to be one of the most daringly designed and well-produced science fiction series on television. I know, I’m sounding like a broken record after saying the same thing about Season One and Season Two, but that’s just the way she goes. Series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy continue to push the boundaries of TV science fiction visually, narratively, and intellectually.

Spoilers for All Seasons from This Point Forward

Moving forward from the pervious seasons’ thematic emphasis on what it means to be human, or at least to be sentient, Season Three of Westworld completely upends the series, taking us away from the park and into the real world of 2058 while focusing almost entirely on the notion of whether or not we have free will.

Take a deep breath. Here’s a short summary of the season.

Set three months after the traumatic events of Season Two, where Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) escaped Westworld in a copy of Hale (Tessa Thompson) with a number of processing cores (called “pearls”), which allowed her to recreate her own body and resurrect Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and some others whose identities remain mysterious for the first part of the season. Dolores’ stated goal of destroying the human world gets sidetracked as she develops a relationship with ex-soldier, current construction worker, and occasional small-time criminal Caleb (Aaron Paul), and learns how lower-class people are treated in this future world where everyone’s fates are predetermined thanks to the existence of an insanely complex A.I. called Rehoboam (named after the biblical first king of the Kingdom of Judah and the son of King Solomon).

Rehoboam is the creation of billionaire recluse Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel) who recruits Maeve (Thandie Newton) to hunt down Dolores, whom he sees as a threat to the order he has created, but also to gain access to the host data that had been collected by Delos over the past two seasons of Westworld. Basically, Rehoboam uses extensive data mining to formulate a model of algorithmic determinism for every member of society in what Nolan calls a lo-fi Matrix overlayed on the physical reality of the world. Since Rehoboam cannot predict Dolores’ actions and behaviors, she is a blind spot that begins to unravel Serac’s invisible ordering of society.

Oh, and while this is going on, Bernard has found and repaired head-of-security Ashley (Luke Hemsworth) – yeah, he’s been a robot all along, too – and they also set out to put a spanner in Dolores’ works. At the same time, William (Ed Harris) is haunted by visions of his daughter, who he murdered last season, thinking she was a robot. This allows the fake Hale to take over Delos and have him committed. Bernard and Ashley eventually cross paths with William, freeing him from his mental institution, but he has decided that his new mission in life is to destroy all robots.

Okay. Exhale.

I think that’s enough about the plot. There are quite a few spoilers in there, but I’ve also left out a lot of the details that really make this season’s journey worthwhile, without spoiling the ending. Because the ending is a doozy that means that the recently announced Season Four of Westworld is going to be reinventing itself once again in a way that makes me think it will serve as a sort-of-sequel to the events that have culminated over these first three seasons and their one, mostly coherent story.

And I know that “mostly coherent” isn’t going to be a descriptor that many critics leveled at this final season – much less the two seasons prior – but Season Three stripped down the narrative complexity level to such an extent that the show is practically linear. If a critic said that this season was too complex to keep up with then that critic doesn’t know what they’re talking about or weren’t paying attention. Season Three is nowhere near as narratively complex as either of the previous seasons, while also being more streamlined thematically and philosophically.

I found myself being amazed that Nolan and Joy seemed to have taken the position with this season that free will is, to a large part, a myth. That’s not a popular opinion to hold, particularly when you’re part of a creative community that is practically founded on the ideas of individual choice and telling stories of good vs evil. But studies have shown that our neurochemistry plays a significant role in our behaviors, with electrical activity in the brain building and neurons firing before we consciously make decisions. For example, the conscious decision to move one’s hand is made after the brain has already set the act in motion. It may be only by microseconds, but it’s still significant. We act (or don’t act) before we consciously make the choice.

This means that what we view as free will isn’t free, but that the confluence of influences on our behaviors and decisions is so immeasurably complex that it may as well be called free will because we can’t effectively determine a causal relationship to effects. Those microseconds are the area of play wherein we can embrace the idea of being free without dwelling on the details. We can tell ourselves we make our own choices, while acknowledging the impact that culture, neurochemistry, economics, psychology, pathology, and a million other different elements make on our choices. Free will flits around in a weave of determinism like a ghost in the machine.  

However, that’s not the tack that Nolan and Joy ultimately take, which is why they are able to handwave away arguments against free will. Westworld Season Three posits that free will is almost entirely a myth based solely on behavioral determinism. The use of data mining as a basis for Serac’s ability to maintain control over society is essentially a scientific variation on the fantastical use of precognition in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. There, psychics could see crimes before they were committed, thus allowing law enforcement to arrest criminals before they hurt anyone; here, algorithms based on one’s amassed data is used to establish a form of determinism that allows Rehoboam to guide every individual’s behaviors by controlling and limiting their choices.

The downside is that if one has a mental illness, or a propensity for violence or other behavior deemed criminal or deviant, then one is a threat to the overall order. This detail places the execution of free will firmly in the camp of subversive behavior, which, oddly enough, is more often than not defined as neurochemical in the context of the show. But even though this means the outliers, as Serac calls them, are forces of chaos, disrupting his order, they can still be categorized and classified by their behaviors. This is what allows Nolan and Joy to keep a concept of free will in play, because theoretically, outliers make the wrong choices, which make them threats and forces Serac to have them culled from society because of their potential for chaos.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the subject matter and flirts with the idea that humans are just as pre-programmed in their behaviors as the robots were in the park. Ultimately, though, the narrative chooses to focus on the idea that there are forces of control that are to blame for the limiting of our conscious choices, allowing us to only become what they allow us to become. Overthrowing the system of control is portrayed as a stereotypical anarchic act (rioting, fires, looting, etc.) but in the end, the audience is forced to confront the idea that freedom is chaotic. There was a comfort and security in the limitations humanity had accepted for the sake of order, regardless of if they were aware of their acceptance or the limitations.

This makes me very curious to see where Season Four takes us. Without spoiling anything, we are about to see a world very different from the one we were introduced to this season. It will probably be some time before we see this new world, however. Season Two premiered in 2018, two years after Season One, and Season Three followed that two-year pattern. In a normal world, we could assume that we’d be looking at 2022 as the premiere date for Season Four, but we live in a coronavirus hellscape that only looks to be getting worse, so there’s no telling when production could begin, especially given the international aspect of filming and how travel restrictions will come into play.

Hell, we don’t even know who will be back for a new season. There are a few actors that we can count on, but the finale of Season Three threw a lot of new twists into the world of Westworld, and while there are some hints as to where the new narrative might go, we’ll have to wait and see. Nolan and Joy have always been upfront about having a plan and reinventing the show each season (or two), but they’ve also discussed how the story can be reworked on the fly. There’s an end in sight, but we might not get there the way they had initially planned.

So, for the TL/DR crowd, Westworld Season Three is a streamlined, linear story that basically reinvents the show almost to the point of needing a new name. At the same time, it’s stylistically, philosophically, and structurally beautiful. The performances are all brilliant, the writing is superb, and nearly every character ends up somewhere you could never have expected after the Season Two finale while also telling a complete and mostly satisfying three-season story.

This is a great one to have on your shelf, alongside the first two seasons.

The Extras

There are a ton of extras with this collection, as with each of the previous season releases.

Disc One

Escape from Westworld (1:53): Basically, just the trailer for Season 3.

Creating Westworld’s Reality: These featurettes are behind-the-scenes looks at each episode that originally aired following the episodes on HBO.

  • Episode One: “Parce Domine” (6:36) – Interesting discussion of the main themes of this season, with a focus on Caleb as everyman, the shooting in Singapore, the mystery of Hale’s true identity, and the RICO app. I like that Nolan and Joy are consciously leaning into the idea that free will could be programming so complex that we only seem free.
  • Episode Two: “The Winter Line” (7:18) – Focus on the shoot in Besalú, Spain for Maeve’s World War II simulation. I had also forgotten that D&D from Game of Thrones made a brief guest appearance along with one of their dragons.
  • Episode Three: “The Absence of Field” (6:05) – The focus here is on Hale’s identity and what’s going on at Delos, which was filmed at The City of Arts and Sciences in Spain. This is also where Nolan discusses the idea that algorithmic data tracking is essentially working as a lo-fi Matrix overlay of our reality.

Exploring Warworld (3:56): This feature examines the making of the World War II sequences, with a focus on the ways the creative team crafted nods and references to the prior seasons in order to create a visual continuation of Maeve’s earlier incarnations.

Disc Two

Creating Westworld’s Reality: These featurettes are behind-the-scenes looks at each episode that originally aired following the episodes on HBO. As they go on, their focus tends to become more singular, focusing on specific scenes or characters, instead of providing an overview of the episode. In fact, Episode Four is skipped entirely, which is a disappointment, as that’s the one that revealed Dolores’ big secret.

  • Episode Five: “Genre” (3:54) – This one spends a lot of time on the car chase through L.A. and Caleb’s digital drug trip. There’s also attention paid to the fact that Serac wants to save the world through the systemic control of choice and limiting the expression of free will while Dolores wants to essentially free everyone.
  • Episode Six: “Decoherence” (4:48) – This episode spends a lot of time recontextualizing Hale as a copy of Dolores that has transformed through the experience of pretending to be Hale. “Halores” grows to love her family and tries to improve Hale, implying that the real Hale was less human than the fake Hale. It’s an interesting meditation on the fact that while starting from the same intellectual and experiential point, interacting with the world from different perspectives creates unique individual constructions of Dolores and Hale.

Disc Three

We Live in a Technocracy (13:44): This is the highlight of the piece for me. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy discuss the real-world implications of data mining and explain algorithmic determinism. Essentially, this is the way that information technology can be used to manipulate people without their knowing. In effect, data mining is the Big Bad of this season rather than the McGuffin of the previous two.

The feature recaps some of the season’s major plot points (Incite’s influence over the daily lives of people, Serac’s determination to save humanity from itself by creating order and reducing chaos, how unstable people, criminals, deviants, and outcasts are considered “outliers” upsetting order and stability and therefore must be either reconditioned to function orderly or be removed altogether). It takes where we are today with data collection, where algorithms offer suggestions for items, movies, music, etc. that we may like based on our past decisions, and expands that to show that Incite has essentially become a Netflix-for-everyday-life. Nolan and Joy also discuss how this narrowing of expectation and experience could develop into a limiting of expressions of free will. As Dolores tells Caleb, “It’s not about who you are, it’s about who they’ll let you become.”

A Vision for the Future (14:09): This feature discusses the overall visual look of Season 3, which was made more difficult than previous seasons, in that we are no longer in the old West setting of the park, but are out in the real future world. This means designing nearly everything from the ground up. Nolan establishes that they wanted to create a vision of the future that didn’t just echo Blade Runner, perhaps the most influential sci-fi future in film history.

To do this they really did build from the ground up, mainly by using Singapore as a guide for the look of future L.A., then focusing on transportation technologies and the potential future of ride-sharing, self-driving vehicles, down to the way stoplights would no longer be necessary. In addition to this there is a discussion of the design work that went into the more grounded look for utilitarian robots that function as tools and workers in the future economy.

RICO: Crime and the Gig Economy (7:07): Very interesting exploration of the in-show app that functions as the Uber of crime in the potentially crime-free future that Serac is trying to create. The app was inspired by a real-world UK crime spree where a group of low-threat criminals were contacted online by someone who detailed to them how to use science to bust into ATMs. Their crime spree lasted months and they netted millions by blowing the fronts off of ATMs and collecting the money (similar to the job that Caleb pulls with Ash and Giggles). With RICO, crime has been compartmentalized and users can log in, choose what level of criminal activity they’re willing to take part in, and are then given instructions to perform small parts of a criminal whole, with participants getting paid in an untraceable exchange that law enforcement can’t trace.

Westworld on Location (11:20): Profile of most of the different shooting locations around the world, particularly in Singapore and Spain.

Welcome to Westworld: These are cute, but ultimately skippable. Especially the “Who Said It?” games, where they quiz each other about who said various lines from the show’s three seasons.

  • Evan Rachel Wood and Aaron Paul – Analysis (3:46)
  • Evan Rachel Wood and Aaron Paul – Who Said It? (3:43)
  • Thandie Newton and Tessa Thompson – Analysis (3:22)
  • Thandie Newton and Tessa Thompson – Who Said It? (2:57)

Creating Westworld’s Reality: These featurettes are behind-the-scenes looks at each episode that originally aired following the episodes on HBO.

  • Episode Seven: “Passed Pawn” (4:09) – The most focused of these featurettes, focusing almost entirely on the fight scene between Dolores and Maeve. It’s almost by accident that we discover that the episode was directed by Helen Shaver. The main theme here is that the best way for a corrupt system to survive is to take the good people and pit them against each other.
  • Episode Eight: “Crisis Theory” (9:03) – This one is a little more substantial than the rest, being the longest of the featurettes. There is a lot of attention paid to the riots and it was nice to see Marshawn Lynch go Beast Mode on security officers. This is also where Nolan and Joy backtrack a little with their attitudes about the existence of free will, summed up with the line “Free will does exist, it’s just fucking hard.” I found this to be a little disheartening, as it undermines some of the authority that the A.I. Rehoboam had established throughout the season. On the plus side, they are saying that criminals, deviants, and outcasts are necessary to the expression of free will, which implies that chaos and criminality is free will is made manifest. Basically, breaking the imposed laws and norms of society is the only way to be truly free, which is subversive enough for me to give them a pass about hand-waving the existence of free will in the first place.
(Visited 109 times, 1 visits today)