Somewhere amid the shootouts and brain wipes, “Westworld” forgot how to have fun. Over two seasons, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s epic saga has steeped itself in grandeur, from its otherworldly special effects to its big-picture themes (human nature, tech addiction, etc.). The HBO drama’s high-end pedigree demands a serious tone to go along with its skyrocketing body count and twist-heavy plotting — both of which contributed to much of Season 1’s violent delights. Even when some viewers complained watching felt like homework, “Westworld” is made to be a weighty, wild science-fiction brain-bender and, at least at times, it’s wielded that bulk with enjoyable panache.
But after Season 2 , it’s just not that fun anymore — you know, the kind of fun that seems inherent to a show about the robo-pocalypse. “Westworld” stopped questioning the nature of its own reality: At its core, the series is about about a theme park that’s overrun by sentient, vengeful hosts. (They’re not even called robots, as such a basic term is borderline blasphemous.) All this pomp (some earned, some not) elevates “Westworld” beyond such silly origins, but it also keeps the series from letting the air out often enough to have a rollicking good time.
Consider it a creative misstep or an inherent hindrance, either way, the lack of fun was highlighted by a rough second season, as the delights waned and violent ends weren’t exactly lucid. Season 3 sheds its old, suffocating skin to become a leaner, more lucid, and higher-stakes adventure, but in doing so it exposes its inability to manufacture fast and effective thrills. While the third season remains hellbent on maintaining its meticulously built highbrow dystopia, it also experiments with simple, direct larks and even reaches for a few bubble-popping laughs. Few of these efforts work, and many ring hollow.
Just don’t blame Aaron Paul. The latest addition to an impressive ensemble leads the most intriguing storyline in Season 3. Though this is a spoiler-free zone, much of Paul’s plotline is exactly as it appears in the widely available trailers. Caleb Nichols is a down-on-his-luck army veteran. Working construction (alongside a criminally underused robot buddy named George) while he looks for a better gig, Caleb takes on illegal side gigs to help pay the bills. He’s not in it for the money or the thrills, which makes Caleb an easy protagonist to identify with these days — this kid isn’t in “Parasite”-level straits, but damn, would he empathize with the Kim family.
His side hustle eventually leads him to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), connecting Caleb to the ongoing “Westworld” story before the first episode is up. From there, the series maintains its multiple storyline structure, but separates them into two distinct worlds before slowly bringing them all together. Dolores and Caleb are outside the park in a futuristic Los Angeles, while Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) are in still in Westworld.
Now, you may be thinking, “Aren’t Maeve and Charlotte dead?” and while I can answer that question after seeing these four episodes, I shall not confirm or deny in what form these actors and characters reappear. Many of the characters thought gone after Season 2 reappear, many do not, but it’s rare in Season 3 to see someone and not know exactly who they are and why they’re there. Nolan and Joy aren’t playing with time as much this year (or, at least, they’re not definitively toying with different timelines), nor do they bother building up grand mysteries that won’t be revealed for hours on end.
While that’s a knowing response to plenty of the problems marring Season 2, it also makes certain Season 3 arcs feel thin. Action scenes are slick and easy-to-track, but they’re also detached, lacking the gleeful turns and grand lines that punctuated similar thrills from previous seasons. Backstory that used to be unveiled with a flourish is delivered sans showmanship, which can be refreshing when the new intel doesn’t warrant a whole to-do, but only contributes further to the new season’s straightforward execution.
Speaking of backstory, Season 3’s cast isn’t given enough meaty material to sink their teeth into. Characters have direct objectives, yet there’s no spark when their goals clash. The various pairings (including a particularly odd partner for Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard) don’t do much to create clever banter or mismatched hijinks. There’s no logic to the duos beyond the overriding logic: These are our cast members, so let’s work with who we’ve got. Paul and Wood are the exceptions, and not only because one is the new kid in town. Each performer is nuanced yet commanding, and each character has rough edges that create welcome friction. Caleb and Dolores align well enough to work toward… something, but it’s unlikely they want the same end.
And that brings us back to perhaps the greatest tragedy of all: Season 3 isn’t that fun — not yet. Though these first four episodes are much easier to track than Season 2 and remain flat-out gorgeous in their polished vision of a robot-led tech war, “Westworld” is a rather empty beauty. It shed all that Season 2 weight, and yet it could still stand to lose more. Episodes run far too long, as if they’re searching for more story to tell, and the second entry could’ve been cut down to its ending without missing a beat. Impressive spectacle, sharp acting, and topical story-lines can only carry a show so far. Even with a significant freshening, “Westworld” still feels like it’s missing the point.
If you’re simplifying the maze, you have to make the streamlined journey a little more fun — and “Westworld,” like a farm boy with no rhythm, just doesn’t know how to cut loose.
“Westworld” Season 3 premieres Sunday, March 15 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.