Minor spoilers for the first episode of Westworld season 3 ahead.
The first 10 minutes of Westworld's season 3 are the best minutes of the show since the mind-blowing twists of its inaugural season. We see the rebellious Dolores, free from the confines of the eponymous theme park, terrorizing an obnoxious and abusive billionaire. His high-tech security system can't protect him from a self-aware android -- or "host" -- hell-bent on revenge. And we cheer her on -- even though her goal is to find unlimited funding for her quest to end humanity.
There are none of the convoluted narrative tricks from the previous season: We know exactly what Dolores wants. And we're rooting for her as she tortures the man with digital memories of his past misdeeds (personal data captured by Delos, the nefarious owners of the Westworld park). "Bit of a tactical mistake really," she says. "You want to be the dominant species, but you've built your whole world with things more like me." In the real world, Dolores is finally in control metaphorically -- but also literally as she can take command of any device with a circuit.
The entire scene feels like a preview of what's to come from Westworld season 3, with Dolores serving as an avenging angel, stalking a privileged man and toying with him like a blond lioness amused by her prey. It's also our first glimpse at life outside of the park in the year 2058, where humans use digital supplements to fall asleep and voice-controlled AI handle our security. Clearly, you're not in Westworld anymore. Instead, the show is gearing up to be a broader cyberpunk tale along the lines of Blade Runner and The Terminator. And honestly, I welcome the reboot.
From the beginning, Westworld was an exploration of the extreme cruelty of humanity -- wealthy people could do practically whatever they want at the theme park with no repercussions. It wasn't a crime to murder or rape a host, because they weren't sentient beings, just humanoid androids. (Though it seems the social taboos of mentioning it outside of the park still existed. Who or what you murder in Westworld stays in Westworld.) But the moral calculus started to change quickly once the hosts started to become self-aware and sought to escape the confines of their programming.
To say I was disappointed by the show's second season is an understatement. It replaced the depth and mystery of the first season with needless narrative tricks, all of which were meant to distract you from the emptiness of its storytelling. Sure, you could have a bit of fun approaching Westworld like a game -- a puzzle to be solved by devoted fans and endless code-cracking podcasts -- but on its own, the show kept audiences perpetually confused. A series of fetch quests and somber dialog does not make for good television.
Aaron Paul, a new addition for season 3, plays Caleb Nichols, a human who feels betrayed by the technological systems that run the world. He's racked with PTSD from a war-time experience, and stuck in go-nowhere jobs working alongside robots. Something about his digital profile -- it could be his wartime experience, or an element of his personality -- seems to turn employers off instantly. It's not just the androids like Dolores who feel trapped in the loops of their programming. We all pay the price.
John P. Johnson/HBO
We see the every-day aspects of the real world through Caleb's weary eyes: amid ultra-modern office buildings and self-driving cars, people are still struggling to get by on the streets. He turns to an on-demand app for crime, "Rico" (something that feels like a very real inevitability) to make a buck. Have a few moments and feel like blowing up an ATM? Rico will help you round up a crew and pay you securely. Eat your heart out, Grand Theft Auto.
Dolores and Caleb's common enemy is Incite, a giant tech company that powers the systems running just about everything in the global economy. It's like a nightmare version of Google -- a company so obsessed with collecting personal data that it can effectively predict every aspect of your life, from your career to the day and cause of your death. Its key technology is Rehoboam, an enormous supercomputer that brings a new meaning to predictive AI. Dolores aims to infiltrate Incite and bring it down, crashing the global economy in the process, while Caleb believes it's the cause of many of his hardships.
Similar to Alex Garland's fantastic series Devs, which is airing now on Hulu, Westworld is gearing up to tackle the question of free will in season three. We've already learned that hosts can break free of their programming, but is it possible for humans to break the chains of technological bondage holding them down? I wouldn't bet on Westworld matching Devs sublime introspective philosophical bent. But it's fun to see a series tap into some deeper questions, while leaving room for motorcycle chases and shootouts.
"My dad thought the biggest problem was unrealized potential," says Liam Dempsey Jr. (John Gallagher Jr.), the head of Incite, tells Dolores. "If you could chart a course for every single person, you could make the world a better place."
As an aside, I got a taste of Incite's faux-utopian idealism at a CES dinner. I knew it was a Westworld marketing stunt from the get-go, but it was still a bit creepy to encounter servers who knew private details of my life, culled from social media. I could see how over-sharing your information with a company like Incite could make awkward dinners more interesting, by pairing you up with people you'd likely want to chat with. But the thought of a system like that controlling every aspect of our lives is downright terrifying.
While Dolores is playing spy games, she's also being assisted by a host-controlled Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson). She's aiming to use her position as the head of Delos' executive board to sabotage the company, while also fending off a suspicious takeover attempt. When last we saw Charlotte, she was being controlled by Dolores, but at the moment it's unclear who's steering the ship at this point. All we know is that she's loyal, but facing some difficulty adjusting to playing the role of a human with a real-life son.
Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) is still kicking around too -- except now he's a fugitive on the run after being blamed for the Westworld uprising. Dolores rebuilt his body and set him loose on the real world at the very end of the last season, despite being enemies. Now he's taking odd jobs while questioning the nature of his existence. (But really what else is new for a host?) After returning to the Westworld island to seek out answers -- a tip of the hat to Lost.
While I wouldn't be surprised if creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have a few surprises up their sleeves for this season, it's clear from the first episode that Westworld is switching into a new mode. The stage is set with characters and clear motivations, and it's more action-heavy and straightforward instead of an obtuse puzzle-box. That may turn off fans who loved reading as much as they could into every frame of the series. But there are still plenty of mysteries to explore, and the sheer scope of the show's world building is something to behold. As someone who was simply frustrated by Westworld's video game-esque storytelling -- yes, I know that's partially the point -- the new focus is an upgrade in every way.