‘Westworld’ Leaves the Theme Park for Revenge in a Futuristic L.A.

HBO’s grandiose “Westworld” has returned, impressively revamping itself while continuing its storyline. No longer is it a neo-western set in a theme park populated by robot slaves. Creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have left the farm for the big city, imagining a futuristic Los Angeles to expand their vision of rebellion, technology and dominant systems of control. It’s keeping with the spirit of its genesis which was taking a 1973 Michael Crichton film and morphing it into epic television. In that spirit this new season takes the idea to new places yet never loses its original character. 

Months after the Westworld theme park went up in flames and carnage, freed robot Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) has been roaming the world, decked in fine clothes and the “pearls,” meaning the consciousness of other fellow “Host AIs” who were chattel at the park. She’s on a hunt for both revenge and information, killing powerful figures connected to the Delos corporation that created her. Meanwhile posing as a butcher is Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), who has changed his name and haircut considering he’s a wanted man. Bernard constantly checks his programming to make sure Dolores has tampered with him from afar, but soon he will embark on a journey to go and seek out whatever is left of Westworld. A new character is Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul), a former soldier, fully human, who can’t find permanent employment in his field so he becomes a for-hire criminal in Los Angeles. His nocturnal activities will bring him into contact with Dolores and her deadly mission.

After firmly establishing itself for two seasons as an outdoors sci-fi thriller where ours and the characters’ perception of reality was constantly in doubt, this third season of “Westworld” goes for a more linear but no less complex narrative. No doubt there will be endless comparisons to films like “Blade Runner” in the way L.A. is made to look like a coldly smooth futuristic metropolis. The visual effects are not overdone, Nolan and Joy make sure to keep the show simple enough to be believable. They still fill the screen with hovercrafts, automated motorcycles and you can negotiate an apartment lease via earpiece. To get criminal gigs Caleb uses an app as manageable as Tinder. It’s not just entertaining in aesthetic terms, but it’s also a way for the show to continue rendering homage to the kind of fiction crafted by authors like Michael Crichton. Fans of the author’s work and the original “Westworld” movie will enjoy how the vision is expanded, including if you remember there was a (non-Crichton directed) sequel in 1976, “Futureworld” where the narrative was shifted to the city. The ears of “Blade Runner” and “Tron” fans will swoon to the music by Ramin Djawadi, which has a Vangelis-like techno sheen. 

“Westworld” season three is not all glossy visuals. Nolan and Joy keep it as a show of ideas. Nolan directs the season premiere, “Parce Domine,” where the focus shifts between Dolores’s quest for vengeance and how the Delos corporation deals with the fallout of its park not only malfunctioning, but the robot workers rebelling. One theme given more attention in the show than in the movie is how the Host AIs would inevitably be used as sex slaves in Westworld. In the opening scenes of “Parce Domine” Dolores appears in the private swimming pool of a Delos executive, recounting how they met before at his bachelor party before forcing him to revisit memories of his failed marriage. In another scene she hovers over another Delos suit and coldly recalls, “we’ve met before. You were on vacation.” The subtext of “Westworld” remains the debate over autonomy and rights. The AI Hosts are robots, yes, but in a broader social context are not all oppressed workers also treated like machines? It’s not clear yet exactly what Dolores’s mission is, the hints we get are that she’s making her way up the Delos ranks until finding the ultimate brain or figure running the whole enterprise. And why is Bernard heading back to Westworld? What has he left behind? Or what does he hope to re-establish?

The first two seasons of this absorbing show were also defined by their play with time. The past and present, reality and artificiality were all mixed up. There were also cultish elements to how the Host AIs followed messiahs leading them into some kind of techno heaven they believed was real. Now “Westworld” is an easier to follow thriller. Dolores poses as a femme fatal, seducing rich Delos capitalists for information before snuffing them out while Caleb’s experience as a professional thief will no doubt come in handy. 

Still mounted with great production values and a leaner narrative, “Westworld” goes to new places just as stimulating and sharp. It could have easily stayed stuck in a loop at the theme park, but it has decided to go on a new ride. Just in time for when many viewers are on lockdown at home, here’s a grand thriller where the escape is worth it.

Westworld” season three premieres March 15 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.