Westworld Season 4 Review: A Case Of Diminishing Returns

"Westworld" season 4 is ... a lot — at least based on the first four episodes provided for review. Audiences are treated to more hijinks in the future dystopia, following the formula of previous entries: more violence, more intrigue, and more visually stunning sci-fi effects. In terms of production alone, "Westworld" is absolutely captivating — it's hard to look away, even when you're puzzling over what the hell is going on.  

Taking place several years after Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul) shut down Rehoboam and sparked a human-robot revolution, the premiere establishes a new status quo. And it is, admittedly, confusing (even by "Westworld" standards). Rather than continue the story from the immediate chaotic aftermath of Serac's defeat, the story jumps seven years in the future. Caleb is now happily married with a young daughter. Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) is living alone in a cabin practicing her techno-magic skills. The Man In Black (Ed Harris) is wheeling and dealing using his Delos money. Despite how much time has passed since "the war" ended (or did it?), things seem strangely unchanged from when we first met Caleb — the main difference being that his construction partner is now human, not a robot. And as Caleb's new partner notes, humans getting their "freedom" really hasn't changed much.

Oh, and Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) is alive — but she is now a mild-mannered author named Christina.     

A host of new problems for Westworld

While "Westworld" season 4 is rendered in vivid, high-definition urban reality, the stories don't match the realism of their lush, detailed backdrops. Visually speaking, this is a fully-realized world: The special effects beautifully meld the familiar with the futuristic, fully immersing the audience in this speculative tomorrow. In terms of design, "Westworld" season 4 is spectacular. One could easily just lean back and enjoy the ride. In terms of the writing ... let's just say the season is less successful in that regard.

"Westworld" season 4 is a big gamble, especially in terms of the story. The season 3 finale set up a crisis period that is essentially getting skipped over. As a result, it is very difficult to follow what is happening, especially if you haven't recently (re)watched the show. New characters are getting thrown at the viewer constantly, woven into the life of established figures as though they've always been there; Caleb's new family is easy enough to suss out through their scenes together, but the implied history between him and Maeve feels forced and insincere. The Christina plot — which has its own set of figures, backstory, and setting — is so far removed from everything else it might as well be a spin-off. And unfortunately, it's the most interesting story in "Westworld" season 4 so far. Unlike so much of what's going on, the slowly unraveling mystery central to Christina's story feels fresh and exciting. Everything else — MIB being menacing, Maeve being tough as nails and resourceful, Caleb questioning his sanity — is essentially repeating past character arcs, but in new, sloppy, convoluted ways.  

There's a burst of fun dumb spy-thriller energy from the get-go of season 4, but the attempts to build intrigue and suspense by being vague fall flat, especially in the premiere. The host version of MIB and Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) are the obvious antagonists for the season; the main hook narratively is MIB's eerie ability to control human behavior, completely removing an individual's free will. It's the same examination of "freedom" and "identity" that has been the core of the series since the very beginning, but by the fourth time out, it starts to feel a bit stale — mostly because the series doesn't have anything smart to add to the conversation. 

'A dark odyssey' indeed

In "Westworld" season 4, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are really leaning into the show's logline, "A dark odyssey about the fate of sentient life on earth." And dark it is. The HBO show verges on humorless, while the writing isn't sharp enough to be convincingly cerebral. The show has always been on the slow side with occasionally cringe-worthy, clunky dialogue — but season 4 reaches new lows in this regard. And we can no longer suspend our disbelief by explaining away the wooden, unnatural speech as a symptom of being artificially intelligent beings (or isolated, socially awkward nerds). These are real human beings — or in some cases, sentient hosts — clumsily stuffing as much exposition as possible into casual conversation — and everyone is so damn serious while doing it.

Originally, this was a show set in a theme park where rich adults could pretend to be cowboys; not exactly high-concept stuff. But, this actually worked in the show's favor: because the setup is so inherently campy, "Westworld" playing the drama straight was subversive, challenging expectations and forging new ground narratively. And the premise offered many opportunities for organic levity: Maeve being a smart-ass, or Teddy Flood (James Marsden) being lovably daft. The show wasn't ever trying to be funny, but these brief moments of humor were respites that broke up the tension from the heavy philosophical drama. Season 3 changed the setting to outside of the park, which offered exciting new opportunities to explore the larger world — including some very cool action set pieces. By season 4, however, that novelty has worn off, and without the inherent fun afforded by the theme park setting, the show just feels so dour.

Even with all these faults, I do plan to keep watching. The thing about "Westworld" is that, despite how self-serious and clunky it gets, there are also really exhilarating moments that break up the tedium. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) shows up (not a spoiler — he's in the trailer) after having visited basically robo-heaven, and he and Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) set off to save the world. There's a scene of the two set in a diner that's easily the highlight of those first four episodes. It's a moment of tongue-in-cheek action that's both fun and self-aware — exactly what the show so desperately needs. The Christina plot is interesting enough to keep me tuning in every week — even if it feels a bit repetitive — and there's a major mind-bending twist in episode 4 that is definitely going to set Twitter ablaze. Unless there's a remarkable shift in consistency in the latter episodes though, season 4 will likely end up being the worst outing of "Westworld" so far — but that's only because the series started so strong.

"Westworld" season 4 debuts on June 26, 2022, on HBO.