HBO’s Westworld is built on the simple trick of taking what the audience expects to happen and subverting it. The first and most obvious example is Ed Harris’ character, known only as The Man In Black in season one. With his black hat and brutal treatment of the robots in the Westworld theme park (known as “Hosts”), he was an explicit nod to Yul Brynner’s villain from the original 1973 Westworld movie—with the subversion being that Brynner’s Gunslinger was a robot, while The Man In Black is not only a human, but an older version of the nice guy human played by Jimmi Simpson (with his storyline actually taking place decades before everything else on the show).
The first season elicits sympathy toward Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores, a Host who suffers tremendously at the hands of The Man In Black. But the second season undermines that sympathy by making Dolores a bloodthirsty villain who betrays even her closest ally, James Marsden’s Teddy, in her quest to kill every last human in Westworld. That season ends on a cliffhanger, with Dolores—having loaded her mind into the body of a Host clone of Tessa Thompson’s Charlotte Hale (a big shot at Westworld’s parent company)—escaping into the real world, presumably to continue killing all humans.
It seemed as if the show that had cleverly subverted the movie, with humans being pointlessly cruel and the robots being the sympathetic characters, had then unsubverted things by turning Dolores into a Terminator, but no. In the show’s most clever twist to date, Dolores’ plan in the real world wasn’t to kill humans, it was to kill the oppressor that had been manipulating humans the way humans had manipulated her. And that oppressor turned out to be a machine. Dolores had become a real freedom fighter, not just for her people but for all people.
But season three’s end foreshadowed a worrying misstep: The Host posing as Charlotte Hale, warped by her mistreatment at the hands of humans and her access to the real Charlotte’s memories, does go full Terminator after her family (rather, the real Charlotte’s family) gets killed. Now committed to destroying humanity, embracing the very thing the show had subverted earlier that season, Charlotte unveiled that her secret weapon was an evil Host version of The Man In Black. In other words, they looped back around to the thing that the show was subverting from day one, and it was frustratingly obvious for a show that had once prided itself on its ability to play Redditors.
The message seemed to be that Westworld, after three seasons of twisting what you expect will happen in some (hopefully) interesting ways, was now going the obvious route with robots fighting humans. It felt like it was going to be the moment Westworld ran out of ideas. And let’s face it, a Westworld that has run out of ideas—big ones about identity and reality or small ones about what would make for a fun theme park—isn’t worth anybody’s time.
And in the first three episodes of the new season, the show seemingly fell headfirst into that trap by leaning completely into Charlotte’s surprisingly complicated takeover of the planet. In place of Dolores’ heroic transformation last season, Westworld offered up both Charlotte and the Host Man In Black as mustache-twirling villains who can murder people in broad daylight, but still need to enact a ludicrous plan with an army of mind-controlling flies. Even a bizarre Wicker Man-style sequence where Aaron Paul’s Caleb gets swarmed by evil bugs wasn’t as much fun as it should’ve been.
Finally, though, with the season’s fourth episode (as teased by the end of the third installment), things are actually happening. With Caleb waking up in the future and realizing that his attempt to stop Charlotte with Thandiwe Newton’s Maeve was a failure, Westworld has landed in the place where season four should’ve started. We don’t see humans and robots going to war (a narrative we’ve seen countless times anyway), we just cut straight to the dark future where Charlotte’s machines have won, except this dark future seems relatively nice, save for the ominous tower off the coast of Future-Manhattan and the fact that Charlotte has complete control over everyone.
Now we have this Future-Caleb under Charlotte’s thumb, Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard in the desert with Caleb’s now-adult daughter uncovering Maeve’s remains, and Dolores—sorry, “Christina”—noticing the cracks in the phony reality that Charlotte has built for herself. Those are cool hooks setting up a story that can go places, unlike the initial three episodes, which were primarily concerned with hoping that flies don’t land on people and trying to ignore the robot movie tropes and bizarre dialogue (did we really need the Host Man In Black saying he’s “neurodivergent” or the reference to Charlotte’s Chicago gangster-themed Westworld park being a “superspreader” event?).
The big mystery that still needs some movement is Dolores/Christina, whose job is writing dialogue and backstories for non-player characters in video games (a brilliant conceit, given where her character has come from, even if it’s a lot like Neo’s new fake life in Matrix Resurrections). As teased by her weird stalker, though, she might actually be writing dialogue and backstories for real “NPCs” who exist in whatever Charlotte’s new future reality is—in other words, people who live out their generally meaningless lives in the background while “main characters” like Charlotte do what they want, an inversion of the Westworld setup. That’s an idea! That’s clever!
Reasonably sharp-eyed viewers will have caught that the company she works for is the same one that was testing Future-Caleb for “fidelity” (and though we’ve already seen the payoff, even-sharper-eyed viewers may have caught the tease that Dolores’ story was happening further in the future than Caleb and Maeve’s by her high-tech clear cell phone, compared to the more traditional black rectangle that Caleb had). She’ll definitely get to do something, if only because Westworld wouldn’t have brought Evan Rachel Wood back at all after Dolores sacrificed her life in season three if there wasn’t a good reason for it.
Of course, there’s a chance Westworld could bungle all of this as it did the end of season three. But as it stands now, the show is in a position to recapture its early glory by disrupting expectations and setting up intriguing questions for the remainder of season four. What happens when characters like Caleb’s daughter, who seems convinced they’re living in a post-apocalypse Terminator future, have to face off against a society that seems kind of idyllic to the people living in it? And what happens when Dolores/Christina realizes that all of her work as a freedom fighter just gave power to worse people than ever? Will the human version of The Man In Black come back into play?
Westworld fans once again have an opportunity to actually come up with theories, debate character motivations, and—finally—look forward to finding out what will happen next. It only took two years and about half of the fourth season to get us here.