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American TV has a very weird and specific problem right now: every child exists on TV simply to reflect an adults’ trauma back at them, and nothing else. They droop around the house with a teddy bear asking weird, direct questions at bedtime about how, “Mommy … you seem sad.” Response: “I am, sweetie. [Crying, catching the cry, lowering to a whisper] I am.” I’ll admit I don’t interact with children very often (I am personally childless), but is this how they talk now? These scenes are unbearable, and there is a plague of them. This is just one of my many, many issues with the new series of Westworld (Monday, 9pm, Sky Atlantic).
I know, I’d forgotten about Westworld too. I recently rewatched that first glorious pilot episode on a plane, and I was reminded just what a spectacular piece of TV it really was: Anthony Hopkins quietly chilling while drinking whiskey with a robot, James Marsden’s heartbreaker eyes, Ed Harris’s musky villainy, that small-but-huge moment when Evan Rachel Wood figures it all out.
Back then, Westworld was a perfect sci-fi idea – “What if this weird world existed? What stories would occur if it went wrong? How good a cast can one TV show really have?” – and the first series was an astonishingly well-worked run of that simulation. Then series two happened, which was just Thandiwe Newton telling a load of samurai how much she missed her daughter (“Mommy? Why do these men have swords?”). Series three also occurred. And now we’re on the fourth version of this, somehow, and … wow. All I can say is: whoever is still watching this show, I’m sorry. They’ve really let all seven of you down.
There’s only so much I can tell you about where we are at the start of season four, but, as is typical for Westworld, they are truly making it up as they go along. Aaron Paul is back, and if you didn’t get enough of him crying and being anguished in a way where you can see all the spit stick to his teeth in Breaking Bad, well, he’s doing it again. Other actors return – the aforementioned Newton is back, being fed some of the worst lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard; Evan Rachel Wood seems to only be there because they signed the actor to a too-long contract and now need to give her 10 more episodes or pay a bankrupting kill fee. But Paul is the de facto lead of this season – and he just spends a lot of it talking in weird code to his daughter, then going on yet another endless MacGuffin hunt.
There are exactly three kinds of scene in Westworld, I’ve figured out: “Two people are making threats past each other, not to each other”; “Two people have arrived in a place that leads them to the next place and they are both talking like aliens about it”; and “Evan Rachel Wood is knotting her eyebrows and softly discovering a truth” (until later in the series, after hours and hours of softly knotting and being passive, when she will suddenly become steel-strong). There is a fourth variation, where an actor arrives out of nowhere and says “Remember me?” – which I explicitly do not – but it normally descends into one of the other three scenes. Nobody in Westworld seems to be capable of answering a direct question without reciting a riddle. It is maddening.
Back at the stage of that good pilot, maddening was sort of the point: there was a space in the TV landscape for a show-as-a-puzzlebox, something with a lot of aesthetic foreshadowing and mysteries for subredditors and episode recappers to try and unlock. Season one had the maze, the satisfying timeline tilt, a grim shadow overlooking the entire park: people’s heads got cut open and obtuse clues were inside.
The problem with a puzzlebox show, though, is to keep people interested, you have to really trust that the producers know what they are doing and where they are going with this, and with Westworld, I have never seen a worse example of that. Normally when I hate something, I hate it with no remorse. But with Westworld, I genuinely feel sorry for the few remaining viewers who are invested in this story. You are not going to get a satisfying conclusion to all of this. What an amazing first episode that once was. What an absolute mess it is now.