‘Westworld’ Season 4 Gets Trickier With Its Dystopian Suspense 

HBO’s “Westworld” is now in a completely different place than where it began, both literally and figuratively. What started as a philosophical fantasy pondering the usual sci-fi themes of humans versus machines is now a full-throttle action thriller. Originally inspired by the 1973 movie directed by Michael Crichton, which was all about a theme park where visitors can indulge in select worlds with dutiful androids, the show now deals with war and global takeovers. Yet it has not lost its intelligence or quality. In many ways, this season is easier to follow than the last one, which suffered a bit from the usual symptoms of trying to expand a property beyond the source material. 

As the season begins, former Westworld park “host” Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) now goes by the name Christine and has a new identity. Most of her consciousness has been wiped clean of the liberation campaign she led at the park. Now she writes for a videogame company. On a boring date she tells her intrigued companion that “non-player-characters” are her specialty. But Dolores feels something stirring in her, like memories trying to break out. She lives with a roommate (Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose of “West Side Story”) and seems tense living in a mundane condition. Far from mundane is fellow former host Maeve (Thandiwe Newton), who has been inactive but not necessarily disconnected. She reunites with the very human Caleb (Aaron Paul) to crack some grand schemes for world takeover involving the formerly human Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) and maniacal Man in Black (Ed Harris). 

For fans of all the multiple sci-fi shows floating around the streamerverse, a lot of “Westworld” season four will feel like familiar territory. You’ve got the machines about to take over while Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) has prophetic abilities that allow him to see multiple worlds, with multiple possibilities. Any wrong decision or move, per his conclusions, could spell disaster for the world. Evan Rachel Wood is now a variant of the Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix” storyline, living in a bubble of normality, but feeling the pull of something bigger she can’t quite remember. None of this is boring or unrefined. The production values of “Westworld” remain pristine with creator Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher Nolan, still in charge of the show and story. Like his work as a screenwriter with his brother, Nolan is an expert at taking familiar genres and giving them richer layers. 

The thriller aspects of the season are loaded with violent, almost satirical symbolism. The Man in Black is targeting powerful people in order to infiltrate centers of government. His plan is to assassinate them and replace them with hosts. This is the chilling reality Maeve and Caleb discover when they visit the home of a senator and out he and his wife are victims of such a switch. Ed Harris gets to indulge in his own version of the ongoing slew of madmen visionaries on TV who sound like Elon Musks’ wet dreams. Not only does the Man in Black now wage a covert campaign to replace powerful figures, he has opened a new theme park, The Golden Age, which recreates historical moments like the Jazz Age. It’s a fun way for the show to return some of its roots. If last season felt inspired by “Blade Runner” with its futuristic, big city setting, season four brings it back to Crichton’s theme park concept. Maeve and Caleb walk through a false 1920s, dressed in period clothing, while, as in the first season, a contemporary hit like Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” gets the orchestral treatment on the soundtrack. A shoot out with host ‘20s gangsters has vivacious energy.

It’s still early to say how the plot will develop and by the fourth episode, Evan Rachel Wood’s greater role in the plot remains on hold. She’s an intriguing bystander to the bigger story but rest assured she will jump back in. The narrative moves along with enough high-octane suspense to keep us just as intrigued following Maeve and Caleb around. Stopping the diabolical scheme now threatening the world is no easy feat considering they even have to face a swarm of android flies that can get into your orifices, and you can imagine the rest. Nolan and co-creator Lisa Joy make sure we still receive the expected dose of musings on life, memory and what being human truly means. That has always been the strongest appeal of the show going back to its first season, which remains the best one. It can bring on the suspense and cliffhangers without becoming thoughtless.

Westworld” season four premieres June 26 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.