[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Westworld” Season 3, Episode 7, “Passed Pawn.”]
Aaron Paul is staring directly into the camera. Tears are filling his eyes. But he isn’t talking to the viewer. Not really. He’s not really talking to anyone. The former “Breaking Bad” star is straining to convey the pain his “Westworld” character, Caleb Nichols, feels at this climactic moment. Finally, after weeks spent seeing flashes of a traumatic past, strapped to a chair, caught in a war, or holding a dying friend, Caleb is learning the truth: that the truth was erased from his mind and replaced with false memories. The traumatic thoughts he’s struggled to reconcile weren’t based on reality, but what a computer simulation said was best for a future reality. All his suffering was not only a lie, but a lie purposefully constructed by powerful people to keep him in line.
So horrified by what was done to him, what was kept from him, and why, Caleb can barely bring himself to recap what he’s discovered — that he killed his best friend; that he did it because he had to, because his best friend was willing to kill him; that they were both ordered to kill each other by an app on their phones; that such a small, inhuman thing could tear apart a flesh-and-blood friendship; that they only knew each other in the first place because a computer deemed them “outliers” who were too unpredictable to go unregulated; that a computer, operated by a rich madman, was running the world.
But he does. He recaps. He goes on and on, talking to Solomon, the giant orb housing a “schizophrenic” A.I that’s been divulging secrets from his life. There’s no acknowledgement of how silly such a discussion would seem to any outside party (aka viewers at home), and his clarity-providing spurts are a rather painful means to provide necessary exposition — both for Caleb and the audience watching — but at least there’s a reason for him to say all this out loud. When you can’t trust your own mind, giving voice to your thoughts could provide comfort; Caleb needs to speak the words, to put them into reality, in order to fully appreciate that they really happened.
Any appreciation of these weighty realizations comes from Paul, his slack jaw, and those glassy, untethered eyes. The three-time Emmy winner expresses such a raw reaction to such a dense upending of his character’s reality, he’s almost convincing enough to make you believe someone, anyone, could process all that so quickly. And yet, you know they can’t because you, dear reader, were trying to do it at the same time. “Westworld” lays exposition on top of emotion in Episode 7, trying to make Caleb’s long-awaited unmasking as affecting for the audience as it is informative, but there’s simply too much there. When you’re just trying to keep up with the bare-bones plot, with what every new bit of information means for what happens next, it’s hard to devote a moment to Caleb’s feelings, even when Paul is masterfully channeling so many of them into one mesmerizing look.
It doesn’t help that Caleb’s big reveal isn’t all that surprising. Given the prominence placed on Francis (Paul’s “Need for Speed” co-star Kid Cudi), it was obvious there was more meaning to the soldier than what was conveyed back in Episode 1. Honestly, I thought Francis and Caleb were in love, and that technically could still be true, but that Caleb killed the man he’s been mourning is a knotty emotional twist that takes some untangling to appreciate. But the way “Westworld” blends it in with key plot points — that they were both “outliers,” that Caleb went through “reconditioning therapy,” that he was one of the few to survive it — means it’s only later, upon reflection, that you can piece together Caleb’s emotional puzzle. And that’s only if you’re invested enough to make the effort.
The way “Westworld” treats its characters like puzzles doesn’t end with Caleb; after seven episodes, lots of chatter, and two big brouhahas, it’s hard to fully understand why Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) are fighting each other — and that’s after an episode where they try to explain their rationales to each other. Maeve’s daughter is being held hostage by Serac (Vincent Cassel), so Maeve has to kill Dolores to get her daughter back. Setting aside the fact that her daughter isn’t real, she’s just an idea put in Maeve’s head that was then shipped off to a virtual world, the clearest path for Maeve to her goal is to do what Serac says (kill Dolores) and then find a way to kill Serac. She has to know Dolores is right — that as long as humans like Serac are controlling the hosts on earth, then Maeve will never be free anywhere else — but instead of explaining as much to Dolores, she just doubles down on the idea that Dolores is bad.
It’s a narrow-sighted, unconvincing position to give Maeve, and Dolores’ vague insistence on “a revolution” isn’t much better. If she’s really going to wipe out the human race, she’s not the protagonist in this fight — not that there has to be a clear champion for audiences to root for. Complicated characters are great, but these two feel manipulated into a fight to a) serve a longterm goal (we’ll find out their real motivations later), and b) provide a reason for a big robot battle.
Point B could be enough, too, if the fight itself wasn’t hugely disappointing. Not only is the choreography a bit clunky, but the battle is based on a contradiction. When Dolores first approaches the compound, an extended assassination sequence shows just how precise her little drone gizmos can be — she can kill five guys with five shots right through their hearts without even being able to see them. But when Dolores and Maeve’s remote weaponry tries to shoot them, the robots’ shots always miss? What? Why? Because they’re under a shack with a flimsy little roof? At one point, Dolores even lays on the ground outside the shack, and her robot assailant fires three shots a good five feet wide of its slowly rolling target. How can you introduce a battlefield with the idea that technology makes you vulnerable, no matter where you hide, and end it by showing that the same tech can’t even hit Dolores in the chest when she’s out in the open?
All this adds up to an episode trying to do a lot at once without doing any of it well. The action isn’t as satisfying as it once was, tracing the plot continues to be more work than it’s worth, and experiencing empathy for a character shouldn’t require mental gymnastics. That Season 3’s main characters all require post-episode homework to appreciate what they’re going through points to a serious narrative misalignment. Instead of making Aaron Paul do all the work, maybe the “Westworld” team should’ve asked Solomon — or, you know, a sane A.I. — to chart a better course.
“Westworld” airs new Season 3 episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.