In the new season of “Westworld,” Evan Rachel Wood’s character describes the concept of the NPC — in video game parlance, the “non-player-characters,” the electronic background figures who exist to serve the person in control. Going by Dolores, Wood’s character once lived such a fate herself, as a sentient “host” at a theme park; having long since freed her mind, she’s now known as Christina, living in an American city, working at a video game company where she’s the one telling stories.
Well, stories on the margins, at least. “It’s not as high-profile as programming the lead,” she tells a near-stranger over dinner in the season’s first episode, “but it’s just as important.” Don’t most video-game players, her date asks, treat NPCs as “cannon fodder” — useless blips to be dealt with hastily? “I’m not doing it for the players,” Christina says, “I’m doing it for myself.”
Wood’s character has always embodied the primary concerns of show’s creators, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. It’s her awakening that jump-starts the action of the show in the first season; it’s her soulfulness that was the most urgent response to the show’s central question of whether there can be humanity within artificial intelligence in the superlative second. And, now, it’s her vocation that suggests where the show is. The new season of often wayward drama doesn’t just treat many of the people onscreen as NPCs. Withholding to a fault and placing a wearying emphasis on misdirection, it leaves viewers in the dark. In our relationship with the show, we’re cannon fodder, too, watching as Nolan and Joy do it — spin a story whose purpose seems increasingly remote — for themselves.
The show is in rebuilding mode, returning both to grand global concerns and to fiddling merrily with time. Respecting the timeline along which Nolan and Joy seek to parcel out revelations, it’s hard to say much except for this: As Wood’s Christina struggles to understand just what makes her tick and where the memories on which she draws for her video-game-writing career come from, a grander-scale war for the fate of life on earth is playing out, with Ed Harris’ Man in Black launching an influence campaign, with a body count, directed at some of the world’s most powerful people.
This all comes after a third season that replaced the show’s layered mystery with a plainer narrative, leaving behind many of the show’s central elements and seeming to dart away from the big questions “Westworld” had been asking. Those questions — about free will and what it means to be truly human — are back, but they are shrouded so thickly that they’re hard to make out. Put more simply: Viewers will be left struggling to understand what’s at stake or what is even happening until the halfway point of an eight-episode season, after which an audience that’s endured their share of punishment may have already tapped out.
It didn’t have to be this way! “Westworld’s” early going was exhilarating, even as it both posed conundrums that were potentially bigger than it could credibly answer and as it tempted audience confusion with scrambled timelines and delayed reveals. (Season 1 wasn’t themed around the concept of a maze for nothing.) However, the bill seems to be coming due: As the show’s end, whenever it will be, approaches with no clarity in sight regarding the question of what sentience means, the only solution is to scramble more, obscure more. Flickers of what made “Westworld” one of the most striking shows on television endure, though, brought out by the ensemble cast. Wood roils with tension that lies a millimeter below an assured surface, vibrating with a sense that she’s forgotten something important. Elsewhere, both Jeffrey Wright and Thandiwe Newton get to play the lead in their storylines, aided by (respectively) Aurora Perrineau and Aaron Paul; both are, in their own ways, attempting to save the world beyond Westworld’s gates, one that seems ambiguously under threat. And Tessa Thompson, whose creamy corporate malevolence has evolved as the show has run on, is endlessly compelling, even as her scenes, like so much of “Westworld” lately, seem to be drawing their power from a willingness to be cryptic.
Moment-to-moment, “Westworld” still engages, and still leverages a fundamental instinct for what will make a striking image. Its flirtation with the tropes of Americana — brought to a kind of life in Harris’ baddie, an inverted John Wayne figure — remains powerful, as does its recognition of despair. (Sometimes, the balance gets lost: A sequence in which a powerful political wife has been brought to the point of madness gripped me despite its somewhat random use in the story, while one in which a child is seemingly put in danger as their parent helplessly watches felt beyond what a show whose narrative goals are so adrift could bear.)
But “Westworld” cannot, really, be judged by its willingness to engage what it’s about; that will only become clear when the story is told to completion, perhaps. That’s a respectable way to do art but a challenge for a show that airs episodes weekly. Looking at larger pieces of the show so far, its second season, for instance, told an incomplete story that gestured toward even wilder ambition about documenting the rise and fall of a new kind of life. Its third season sidestepped that, and suggested an unsteadiness at the heart of the “Westworld” project, an eagerness to pivot away from what had come before for the sake of pivoting.
All of which makes yet another new direction for this drama feel less like its world rotating forward and more like spin. “Reminiscence,” the 2021 film written and directed by Lisa Joy, was at heart a frankly conventional noir dressed up in the drag of the future; what if “Westworld” is, similarly, not about anything but performing a genre exercise, and keeping itself going? That would, perhaps, fit a show on which several characters bloodlessly seek self-preservation even as they struggle to find the spark of life within themselves. But there’s no way of knowing until we get to the end; the signals the show has given so far are that narrative trickery and gotcha moments are as or more important than conveying information and ideas through art.
Taken on their own, then, the first four episodes of “Westworld’s” fourth season are often fun, with spiky and interesting moments sprinkled amid other elements that feel like filler. As a serious fan of the show’s early going, I will settle for “often fun.” But it’s hard to imagine that “Westworld’s” two creators — writers who set out, thrillingly, to investigate what it means to be human and who now are losing us within the maze they keep complicating — can.
“Westworld’s” fourth season premieres on HBO on Sunday, June 26 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.