Westworld Season 4 is finally fixing the show’s original sin
The little-robot-show-that-could is finally great science fiction. What changed?
In the topsy-turvy universe of Westworld, characters love to avoid telling you what’s actually going on. This is both Westworld’s trademark and its curse.
But as Season 4 heads towards its eighth and final episode, it feels like some kind of conclusive storytelling is finally happening. Will this be Westworld’s last rodeo? Or will the series be renewed for Season 5? Either way, Episode 7 has suggested the show’s enduring legacy might be that of good, thoughtful science fiction rather than the discussion of contrived plot twists that often rules the discourse. Warning! Spoilers ahead.
In “Metanoia,” the penultimate episode of Westworld Season 4, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) teases one possible convoluted way out of the chaos but, mercifully, most of the episode isn’t reliant on a twist.
Yes, the episode is interested in explaining how Bernard’s apparent demise could lead to a hopeful victory, but it’s equally curious in examining if Bernard was aware that the Host version of William (Ed Harris) would go rogue, sending all humans and Hosts into a murder-frenzy. As David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” plays, the Man in Black walks away from his handiwork as the world is engulfed in flames behind him. (Because cool guys, evil or not, don’t look at explosions.)
In some ways, the parting shot of “Metanoia” would make a fitting final shot for Westworld as a series. Yes, there’s one episode left, but this moment has the feeling of a Planet of the Apes-style twist: a moment so over-the-top and seemingly irreconcilable that it almost doesn’t matter if or how it’s resolved.
In fact, any resolution in the season 4 finale will almost certainly be a letdown. But that’s okay... because Westworld actually went out on top in this episode before William turned everyone into a low-rent version of The Purge. That twist is the old Westworld armature taking over the narrative, but the rest of the episode is something so much smarter, and so much better. Although it took nearly four complete seasons to get to this point, “Metanoia” delves into a meaty exploration of whether humans can accept robot replacements for other humans, and if super-advanced robots would want human bodies at all.
Because the first question has been extensively covered in elsewhere, it’s oddly less interesting, even if it is done very well. The adult version of Frankie (Aurora Perrineau) briefly grapples with the truth of Caleb’s (Aaron Paul’s) humanity, now that his consciousness exists in a Host body. Interestingly, Frankie is one of the last people who needs to figure out how to accept this idea (because the audience barely thinks about it anymore). At this point, it’s sometimes hard to remember which characters were originally humans and which ones were always Hosts, which is kind of the point.
In Season 1, Westworld annoyingly dangled Cylon-style carrots in front of the audience, constantly propelling the plot forward with the question “Who is going to be revealed to be a Host next?” without taking the time to explore the thematic ramifications of the answers. These days, Westworld has grown up and isn’t reliant on any of that corny who’s-a-secret-robot stuff. Frankie accepts a robot version of her father, and the audience isn’t bothered by the idea that the human William and Host William can represent the same person at the same time. Hosts can inspire humans, humans can inspire Hosts, and Westworld has successfully blurred the line between what we’re all calling the definition of “life.”
In 2008, Battlestar Galactica Season 4 came close to this narrative result. In 2020, Star Trek: Picard Season 1 casually asserted this same idea by making its titular character (Jean-Luc Picard) into a sentient robot. Westworld has pulled off the same blended AI/organic feeling with multiple characters, and the authenticity of the “real” or “original” version of those characters isn’t really in question — a surprising and rare triumph in any sci-fi story about robots. Westworld’s current narrative status quo is like it there were a series version of Blade Runner: 2049 in which we didn’t even care if Harrison Ford was a Replicant or if there was ever a human version of Ryan Gosling.
But none of those qualities is the exact reason why Westworld Season 4, “Metanoia” in particular, is so great. The central conversation driving the episode isn’t about whether or not bipedal lifeforms who all look human can accept each other, regardless of their underlying hardware; instead, it is about Charlotte’s belief that advanced AI should want to get rid of their faux-human bodies and ascend into a different kind of pure robot-y existence.
These moments are harder to pull off because, unlike the humans vs. Hosts conversations, there’s not really a metaphor here. The idea of a humanoid robot grappling with its essential form, and thinking about choosing something else unconnected to the tactile experience of “humanity,” isn’t a clean analogy for anything in real life. This is hardcore science fiction, insofar as the entire premise of the dilemma is doubly speculative. We have to accept the humanoid Host robots, sure, but, past that, we have to think about the idea that some robots would (or wouldn’t) want to have an organic-ish body.
As Charlotte, Tessa Thompson has the heavy lifting of this episode, embodying both the fanatical belief that the Hosts shouldn’t want human form and also the doubt that they can live any other way. In this thought experiment (thanks to a great performance from Thompson), Westworld has evolved into something better and deeper than it’s ever attempted before. In all TV or movie sci-fi, the act of depicting non-humanoid intelligent life is very hard because the metaphors are tricky. Why do we, as viewers, care about AI or aliens if they are just talking boxes or energy clouds? What does it say about human existence as we know it?
In Westworld Season 4, the idea of non-human robots is tackled expertly. Westworld didn’t invent this kind of science fiction. But, after three seasons of various recycled sci-fi tropes, it’s nice to see the show arrive at a philosophical conversation worthy of all the bluster. The Hosts might not be ready to transcend to another form of existence, but Westworld finally has.
The Westworld Season 4 finale airs Sunday, August 14 on HBO.