Forcing the audience to see the exploitation

So you're prepping to start another season of Westworld? You'll need a slick new wardrobe, a former military man to befriend and some bodies you can stick copies of your mind into. But if time doesn't allow for all of that, this recap of the third season should suffice.

The first episode of Westworld season 4 premieres Sunday, so it's time to take a look back at where things on HBO's complex and fascinating sci-fi series left off. Season 3 took place largely outside of the eponymous theme park, revealed more of human society in 2050 and ended on a cliffhanger. There will be eight episodes total, like last season, with more arriving on Sundays. If you're ready, go ahead and bring yourself back online.

The third season introduced us to Caleb Nichols (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul), a war veteran who's haunted by a memory of losing his friend, Francis, in combat. In episode 1, we learned he's a construction worker and low-level criminal who takes jobs through an app. When he met Dolores, he joined her on her mission.

Westworld Season 4 Episode 1

Watch Westworld Season 4 Episode 1

Westworld Season 4 Episode 1 Online

Eventually, we found out that Caleb is considered to be an "outlier" by a machine called Solomon and its successor, Rehoboam. Because of this status, he underwent reconditioning therapy, a "treatment" that altered his memories. It was "effective," according to Solomon, and Caleb was allowed to re-enter society. Not everyone was so lucky (more on that in the "pods" section).

It's revealed that Caleb and Francis (played by rapper Kid Cudi) both survived the war, and that Caleb was the one who killed Francis. Solomon offered each of them money to take out the other, and Francis turned on Caleb, forcing Caleb to shoot him. Another twist is that the crime app, Rico, was created so that outliers like Caleb would round up other outliers.

Maeve reluctantly teamed up with a new character named Engerraund Serac in season 3 after Serac told her that the key to the Sublime -- where Maeve's daughter exists -- is in Dolores' mind. Serac is a trillionaire who created Rehoboam with his brother, Jean Mi, and came to serve as a mouthpiece for Rehoboam. Serac and Rehoboam wanted the trove of guest data collected by Delos Incorporated, and they believed the key to it was also in Dolores' mind.

In the season 3 finale, Maeve switched sides at a crucial moment and helped Dolores and Caleb. She said she realized why Dolores "chose" Caleb to help her -- not because of his capacity for violence, but because of his capacity to choose. Dolores left it up to Caleb to decide the future. He told Rehoboam to "execute the final command" -- putting a new strategy Solomon gave him into play -- and brought about the apocalypse. More details on that big move below.

In the season 3 finale, Rehoboam destroyed Delores' memories in an attempt to find the key to the aforementioned Delos data. It wasn't there. It sure seems like Dolores as we know her may be gone for good, but with this show, I'm not ruling any possibility out.

'Charlotte Hale' is building hosts
It's not the end for this Dolores duplicate. Season 3 confirmed that Dolores made copies of herself (the "self" that exists in her peal, or control unit) and stuck them into the bodies of Charlotte, Musashi, Martin and Lawrence. Pseudo-Charlotte helped Dolores by impersonating Hale, but she was eventually found out, and it cost her. The last time we saw new Charlotte, it was in the finale's post-credit scene, when she was joined by a host version of William and looked to be building more hosts.

"Westworld" returns, featuring several familiar faces in unfamiliar roles, while extending aspects of a third season that creatively sailed off the rails. While there is surely intelligent life out there eager to see where this goes, at this point it's not so much a question of not being able to follow the series through its convoluted maze as simply not feeling as if it's worth the energy to try.

Looking more conspicuously futuristic in its design (a byproduct of having escaped the original amusement-park-for-adults setting), the HBO drama still boasts an assortment of really good actors, augmented by James Marsden returning and Oscar winner Ariana DeBose and Daniel Wu among the new additions.

Once again, though, they're largely operating on parallel tracks, yielding random acts of violence without many clear indications as to where this train is heading. And while the long lapses between seasons surely haven't helped, it's not readily apparent that a more accelerated schedule would fix the bugs in the system.

The most promising thread involves the renegade A.I. Maeve (Thandiwe Newton), who reunites with Caleb (Aaron Paul), taking off on a mission together. Their path intersects with the villainous and ruthless William (Ed Harris) as he pursues his own shadowy scheme, a character originally elevated by first-season mystery who is perhaps most symbolic of the show's decline, having become progressively less interesting ever since.

Stalwarts like Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright are also back on board, but through four episodes it's hard to make much of their storylines, which only feeds the sense that "Westworld" is constructed as roughly three programs in one. As for how the producers will bring it all crashing together, whatever goodwill and trust they generated in the past has mostly evaporated, creating less faith that they're playing six-dimensional chess and more suspicion that they're spending a whole lot of HBO's money on an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. (HBO, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)

Given "Westworld's" initial acclaim in turning Michael Crichton's original concept on its head and forcing the audience to see the exploitation of these synthetic beings through their eyes, the series is too high-profile a property to be completely ignored.

Still, having dutifully sat through half of this eight-episode season, the sense that the pieces can be satisfactorily put together, at least for those who were skeptical going on, feels asked and answered.
At one point, Maeve makes a darkly wry reference to the fight that looms by saying "disposing and dismembering. Just like the good old days."

Alas, the "good old days" are just that, and except for those most invested in making "Westworld" make sense, no matter how much you play with the wiring it doesn't look like they're coming back.

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