HBO’s “Westworld” was an Emmy darling when it premiered all the way back in 2016. Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s sci-fi epic impressed audiences with its talented cast and unpredictable twists. This was reflected when award season came around, with the first and second seasons scoring twenty-two and twenty-one Emmy nominations. This included a coveted best drama series nomination, cementing the show as HBO’s next big hit after “Game of Thrones.” Yet nearly four years later, despite concluding its third season at the beginning of May (and being renewed for season four), the show’s buzz has all but evaporated and its critical and award status significantly diminished. (See the lack of Emmy noms here.)The confusing plot lines and underwhelming payoffs to twists have left viewers and critics disappointed in the show’s direction.
While “Westworld” still scored a total of eleven Emmy nominations this year, it pales in comparison to its previous nomination haul. It’s noteworthy that nine of these nominations fall under the creative and production side (such as special effects, production design etc). The show was surprisingly snubbed in the big drama series categories (drama series, directing, writing), but at least scored two acting nominations (best-supporting actor and actress). Let’s explore the strengths and weaknesses of the third season.
“Westworld” boasts one of the best ensembles on television, and this remained the same this season, even with a stripped-down cast. This season belonged to Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton, who acted the hell out of everything, even if it didn’t always make sense. Evan Rachel Wood is seemingly capable of everything, and though the actress missed out on an Emmy nomination this year, she deserves a lot more credit for her performance. Thankfully, Emmy winner Thandie Newton received a best-supporting actress nomination this year. Newton brings Maeve to life with such charisma, making her the most enjoyable character to watch.
Aaron Paul was a welcome addition to the cast, Caleb’s character being an able partner for Dolores while also bringing a different perspective to the table. Tessa Thompson had her best season yet, and other fan favourites were briefly brought back, including Hector (Rodrigo Santoro), Lee (Simon Quarterman), Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) and Hanaryo (Tao Okamoto).
I really liked season two, yet it felt scattered, even if it did contain some of the show’s best outings. This season felt more focused, with the plot just focusing on the Dolores vs. Maeve conflict alongside the dominance of Serac (Vincent Cassel). The changing of the setting to futuristic LA helped revitalise the show in the first half of the season, helping viewers get more invested in the plot. Episodes were also a lot more fun, with great action sequences and events that made the show more enjoyable. The idea of humans having no free will was an interesting one; the idea of technology that would predict people’s lives felt like something the world could easily have to deal with in the future.
Twists dialled back slightly, with certain reveals (such as who inhabited the five copies of Dolores) being revealed earlier than expected. This plot point worked well, giving Charlotte Hale’s character an unseen depth and vulnerability, allowing for some touching moments.
Yet, while the season felt more focused, season three did not have the standout episodes that season two did, such as “The Riddle of the Sphinx” and “Kiksuya.” There were some stunning set-pieces, but not a whole episode I would instantly be drawn to rewatch.
Production Design and Score
I wouldn’t normally comment on a show’s production design, yet with “Westworld” it feels impossible not to. The show would not work as well if everything didn’t look so good, with the show using Shanghai to set 2058’s Los Angeles. The action sequences and the locations add up to make the show a unique watching experience. The showrunners clearly know how to spend their HBO budget well, making “Westworld” the most visually stunning show on TV.
This leads me to the score, which is truly the best on television. Ramin Djawadi is brilliant on “Westworld,” and his score is more creative than it was on “Game of Thrones”. I can’t think of another show where the music does so much heavy lifting. The score here really elevates every scene. Particular standouts for me were the “Wicked Games” and “Space Oddity” covers.
While I can praise the actors’ performances this season, not all the characters were served well. I was surprised that Jeffrey Wright managed to score an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor this year, not because Wright isn’t a talented and capable actor, but due to Bernard’s arc being the biggest disappointment this season. Poor Jeffrey Wright had absolutely nothing to do but wander around and question why he continued to exist. Bernard’s character really led last season, so the writers giving Wright nothing to do this year was disappointing.
The season finale at least gave Wright a well-executed scene, with Bernard’s meeting with Lauren reminding the audience that hey, Wright really can act well when given the material to work with. (This is unsurprisingly the episode that Wright submitted for his Emmy nomination). Yet Bernard’s quick turnaround that he “misjudged” Dolores was a piece of lazy writing that only felt like it was happening because the plot required it.
The Man in Black was also underserved this season, to the point I actually forgot he had been in the finale until he popped up again after the credits. Ed Harris was vocal about his dislike of the character’s trajectory this season, unsurprising considering how little he had to do. Harris is a fantastic actor, but the writers need better ways to justify his inclusion in the show.
Unnecessary Plot Twists
It was interesting Dolores and Maeve were battling each other since they’d only shared a few scenes together before. Yet despite the finale showing Maeve turning on Serac and supporting Dolores, this change didn’t feel earned. The central conflict was resolved in one conversation, which was frustrating, however well-written and acted that scene was. Dolores not revealing her true intentions was an unnecessary plot twist and made the season-long conflict between the pair pointless.
It was great seeing former cast members come back, but there seemed little point to their return. Hector and Lee’s return in Maeve’s simulation added to the Maeve’s plotline, but the others were wholly unnecessary. If you’re going to have these characters come back, make it count. Having Clementine and Hanaryo return for one action sequence was a complete waste. (How do you not show us Maeve reuniting with Clementine?). Maeve deserved more character development this season with justification for her choices. Unfortunately, “Westworld” skirted too close to “Game of Thrones” season eight territory in heavily prioritizing plot over character.
While it may never live up to the heights of season one, “Westworld” is still an enjoyable and inventive show. When it gets things right, it is unlike anything else on television. Season three is just weakened by frustrating plot reveals and unearned character choices. Let’s hope that season four brings the show back to being a drama series frontrunner.