[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Westworld” Season 3, Episode 4, “The Mother of Exiles.”]
Ed Harris is always a welcome face, whether his prominent cheekbones are defined by a sharp shave or left scraggly after months of neglect, but one question kept popping into my mind during the four-time Oscar nominee’s return to “Westworld”: Why doesn’t William just get an MRI?
When trapped in the park, any debate over host vs. human couldn’t be easily settled. There are limited resources in a world built like the wild west, and even if you broke into Delos, you’d face opposition. So during the first two seasons, such regular self-doubt made sense. But now, with William out in the real world, couldn’t he just request a brain scan? Wouldn’t that settle his nerves enough to put him on the path to recovery? (He needs a good therapist no matter what.) Hosts are made out of imitation bone and tissue to look as close to human beings as possible, but their brains don’t require oxygen and are generally more powerful than a human’s — couldn’t an MRI show such alterations?
Normally, I don’t indulge in such a technical line of criticism. Science is not my strong suit, and no matter how many episodes of “The Americans” I inhale under quarantine, I’d never cut it as an actual spy, detective, or other professional sleuth. Plus, aside from my personal deficits in logistical nitpicking, television, like most entertainment, demands a certain suspension of disbelief, and picking apart minor narrative oversights only spoils the fun for those who, naturally, missed them.
But “Westworld” hasn’t earned a suspension of disbelief because it’s not effectively entertaining — there’s no need to worry about spoiling the fun when there’s not enough fun to be had. Season 1 thrived on world-building and well-constructed twists; Season 2 offered some of the same tidings, but went so far off the rails that the new, rebooted episodes have to win back viewers’ diligent attention. Instead, Season 3 has sputtered, trying to embrace change one week and revisit old ideas the next, and Episode 4, “The Mother of Exiles,” combines its two minds into one inefficient machine.
John P. Johnson/HBO
Take Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood): Her entire episode arc is to steal money from Liam Dempsey Jr. (John Gallagher Jr.). Getting Caleb (Aaron Paul) a suit for the party, taking a dude’s blood to get to his encryption key, going to the bank to watch Caleb hold back his sweat, and eventually snagging Liam once he learns he’s penniless — that’s a good amount of activity, but it’s not terribly exciting. Wood remains outstanding, even in scenes that equate to reading the phone book, and Dolores uses a few neat tricks — stabbing dual needles into a banker bro’s neck and then plunging them into Caleb’s veins is pretty sick — but her whole plan is a surprisingly boring way to drain this guy’s life’s savings. Even the brief scene in the season premiere, when she stole another rich white guy’s bankroll, was more active, more thoughtful, and more thrilling than watching yet another white guy talk to a bank clerk. The threat of a gunfight (aka Dolores’ Plan B if the blood trick doesn’t work) just doesn’t stack up to an actual gunfight, and there’s no gleeful bits or biting dialogue to make up for the lack of energy.
So it comes as a relief when Dolores actually gets to fight someone. Punching the shit out of a one-armed Luke Hemsworth feels somewhat challenging for the powerful host, and Stubbs has the beleaguered presence of a meat sack, making each thud, smack, and crash satisfying. The “‘Eyes Wide Shut’ — For Charity!” sex party has the added benefit of bringing most of our main characters into the same vicinity. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), also saddled with a simple plan, shows up on time, hits his magic button, and wonders why Dolores didn’t replace Liam… until he finds out she replaced Liam’s right-hand-man, Connells (Tommy Flanagan).
And that’s when “Westworld” unveils its biggest twist of Season 3: Dolores didn’t infuse the identities of any other robots into the hosts walking around the real world; she just made copies of herself. While not a jaw-dropping, holy shit moment, the reveal is a clever way to instigate conflict. Whenever Maeve (Thandie Newton) would ask Serac (Vincent Cassel) why she would try to stop, kill, or otherwise inhibit Dolores, his manipulative motivation never felt like enough of a reason for Maeve to do it. It seemed more likely she’d just find a way to kill Serac, but now, with the knowledge that Dolores left her robo-friends behind — either in the park or in the virtual world known as The Valley Beyond — should get Maeve adequately riled up.
John P. Johnson/HBO
And she’s not alone. Episode 4, “The Mother of Exiles,” gives just about everyone good reason to go after Dolores: Bernard has always been against her, since she’s looking to eradicate humankind and all; William didn’t need much of a push either, but now that Dolores has had him committed, he should be more vengeful than ever; you know Serac wants her out of the picture, so her only real ally left (aside from her copies) is Caleb. Considering his prominent introduction this season, it’s safe to say he’ll serve a pivotal role in the battle between hosts and humans.
That sets up a complicated, evenly split showdown worth anticipating — Dolores v. The World (including at least one not-so-good guy in Ciroc, two if you count William) — so long as “Westworld” can deliver a satisfying battle. Given its struggles early on, that last point may be a red flag. Maeve’s “death” at the end of this week’s episode is discouraging, not because Serac can bring her back to life in a new host, but because if Dolores really wanted to get rid of her, she could’ve destroyed her control unit or otherwise decimated her host unit. Instead, she left her in a pool of blood and milk — a beautiful image, but one that illustrates the show’s ongoing issue of appreciating style over substance. Nothing about Maeve’s “death” felt like an ending; there’s no emotion to it, and even if it’s meant to be nothing more than Dolores drawing first blood, the consequence of that victory should carry more weight.
As it stands, “Westworld” is still scrambling to find its groove. Bringing all the characters together — if not literally, then at least uniting them via montage for the Dolores twist — gives the impression that the season’s puzzle pieces are coming together, and tearing them apart feels purposeful, rather than forced. Stirring up our emotional attachments to each individual character and then pitting those characters against each other is a tried and true formula for strong drama. But bookending the episode with William transitioning from a prison of his own making to a prison of Dolores’ design reveals how little certain arcs have accomplished; how little select characters have changed. “Westworld” needs to inject some creativity, fun, and visceral energy into scenes that lay the groundwork for conflict to come, if its audience is meant to believe the payoff will be worth the buildup. Otherwise, you’re just left with too much free time, wondering why William didn’t pay out of pocket for a medical expense any other rich guy would get after sleeping funny.
“Westworld” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.