The following contains full spoilers for episodes 2-5 of Westworld season 4. For our recap/review of the first episode, click here.
In the last recap I did of Westworld, I enthusiastically proclaimed that I was ready to “venture once more into the center of the maze and embark on a messy, cerebral sci-fi journey together”. How naive I was. Following the season 4 premiere, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s HBO flagship took a bizarre direction. After an opener that established a rather straightforward narrative, similar to the superb third season, it devolved into bizarre twist after bizarre twist. The plot was well and truly lost, in more ways than one. I even debated quitting the show entirely, not to mention these recaps. However, I pulled myself together to do what’s right: break down just what the hell has been going on on Westworld for those not in the know. Strap in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
For the sake of this write-up, episodes 2-5 will be combined into a single write-up. We’ll go through each individual character’s storylines one by one to parse some semblance of coherence. Let’s start with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). For all intents and purposes, he’s the simplest break down, despite his storyline taking place at some undisclosed time in the future. Bernard spends a great chunk of his time in the Sublime, a sort of haven for hosts who have chosen to ascend. Through this virtual afterlife, he speaks with Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), who discloses that there’s only one possible timeline in which humanity can survive. This timeline apparently involves Bernard and host wingman Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) finding a weapon to disrupt the plans of the host Charlotte Hale/Dolores (Tessa Thompson). Their journey takes them to a group of rebels fronted by a headstrong leader (Celeste Clark). Remember her.
Although slight, there’s not much to complain about with Bernard’s story here. It’s a decently fun romp that serves as some soft post-apocalyptic goodness. The story of “Charlotte” is similarly quite a bit of good fun. She’s been replacing important people- be it politicians or other figures of power- with hosts to build her new world order. Combined with her enforcer, a host copy of William/The Man in Black (Ed Harris) who is convening with the real William, she is the kind of (metaphorical) mustache-twirling villain that gives the show a sense of self-aware joy. Truly, seeing William come in and dispatch his black hat justice and Charlotte monologuing on humanity’s failures makes for good TV. It’s a shame that the story of Caleb (Aaron Paul) and Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) can’t match that level of entertainment.
To be fair, the storyline starts out just fine. Caleb and Maeve make their way into one of Delos’ new parks, Temperance, which is modeled after the roaring 20s. The typical Westworld shenanigans you’re used to by this point occur. The place is practically a reskin of the original “Westworld”, and there’s even a host rebellion storyline that occurs. And don’t forget about the obligatory cover of a pop song. This time the honor goes to Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy”. Eventually, Caleb and Maeve stumble their way into Charlotte’s underground lab, finding more of the flies seen at the end of the premiere. Accompanying the flies is a sound that causes humans surrounding it to kill themselves. The duo confront Charlotte, taken her prisoner. She reveals that her plan is to use the flies to infect humankind so she can have them under her control.
On its own, I don’t mind the conceit of Charlotte’s plan. It does follow the “one big sci-fi technology to control everything” pattern of Rehoboam from season 3, but it also acts as a conduit for the juicy Charlotte/William story. Season 4, unfortunately, makes a grave error after this reveal. William shows up and murders Maeve suddenly. With her final breath, Maeve covers her, host William, and Caleb in rubble. Caleb seems to have survived, being held by Charlotte, until Charlotte reveals that Caleb is in fact now a host… and 23 years have passed. The leader of the rebellion that Bernard found is actually Caleb’s daughter, Frankie. Oh yeah, and Charlotte has complete control of New York City now. Sounds like a lot? That’s because it is.
On a pure shock level, the twists get the job done. At the same time, what was the need in telling the story this way? If anything, it feels like a serious regression into the “how much can we confuse the audience” kind of storytelling that earned Westworld season 2 criticism. Its most bizarre twist hasn’t even been mentioned yet. The character of Christina (Evan Rachel Wood) is revealed to be controlling the narratives for all the humans in NYC. Moreover, she was apparently put up to this by “herself”. Does this mean she’s the successor to Dolores, or is the copy of Teddy we saw at the end of the first episode of this season referring to Charlotte?
Either way, Westworld has made a mess of itself. Its still highly entertaining sci-fi television, but not in the way it used to be. Westworld season 4 is doing some season 9 or 10 levels of contrivances. Characters have been resurrected, killed, resurrected in another character’s body so many times. The permanence of life has lost all its meaning. Maybe that is the purpose. It’s hard to know, it’s very possible the season could pull everything together in the end. For now, it’s gone from one of my favorite science-fiction pieces of media of recent history to being an unintentionally campy program eating itself in real (yet impossible to look away from) time. In the center of the maze there’s more, hilariously complicated mazes. Might as well learn to live with it. –James Preston Poole
Westworld seasons 1-4 are currently available on HBO Max and Digital HD.