"Westworld" chooses chaos in apocalyptic third season finale

"Crisis Theory" ushers in the end of the world as a revolution, presenting the strange freedom offered by free will

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 4, 2020 8:14AM (EDT)

Evan Rachel Wood and Aaron Paul in "Westworld" (HBO)
Evan Rachel Wood and Aaron Paul in "Westworld" (HBO)

This review contains spoilers for the third season finale of HBO's "Westworld."

In the very first episode of "Westworld" the theme park's star android host Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) explains her core drive, her statement of purpose. "Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray," she says. "I choose to see the beauty." In that moment she's completely under the control of the Westworld theme park's engineers.

The third season finale brings us back to that line and the memory of the farmer's daughter in the long blue dress.  But now Dolores' voice has less of a song to it. "Some people only see the ugliness in this world, the disarray," she says. "I was taught to see the beauty in it. But I was taught a lie."

"Westworld" loves its callbacks and references, quoting itself, re-spooling and replaying like a piano player roll, and you either love this aspect of the show or simply accept it as part of the coding. Those who chose to squint our eyes and look beyond the intellectual frippery can admire the archetypes represented by Dolores and Sweetwater madam Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) — and more frequently, the witty, feline elegance with which Newton wears her character's genius and power.

They introduce the pair as opposing forces in multiple aspects — Dolores, the virginal farm girl and victim-in-waiting, Maeve the sexually voracious, hardened businesswoman who's in love with the man programmed to rob her saloon. Crashing them together was inevitable, and teaming them up just as likely.

People wanted a robot uprising. Instead, series creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan gave us an Armageddon mostly of humanity's making. This third season opens and closes with the familiar beats of an action film — hailstorms of bullets, scores of faceless dead security guards and mercenaries, many opportunities for Wood to show off that black belt in Tae Kwon Do that's she's earned.

Each of its eight episodes contains overt homages and lifts from some of the genre's greats — a musical lift from John Carpenter's "The Fog" in one moment, revelations peeled straight out of "The Matrix" in others.

The premiere gave us Dolores in full "Terminator" mode while the finale lands two of the heroes who are still standing in the center of a frame that looks a hell of a lot like the last seconds of "Fight Club."

But instead of watching the world burn down to The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" the music supervisor for "Westworld" calls upon a more broadly recognizable song, "Brain Damage" from Pink Floyd's legendary concept album "The Dark Side of the Moon," to recap the season's themes:

The lunatic is in my head
The lunatic is in my head
You raise the blade, you make the change
You re-arrange me 'til I'm sane
You lock the door
And throw away the key
There's someone in my head but it's not me…

"Crisis Theory," written by Nolan and Denise Thé, ends in the way of a fairly standard action film franchise, which is to say it could stand on its own as a series finale (it isn't, HBO picked up the drama for a fourth season) or a cliffhanger.

The plot forgoes any tangles and mishmash masquerading as depth to present a clear, simple and fairly predictable outcome. It explains why Dolores partners with Caleb (Aaron Paul) and what makes him special to her among humans. The answer cycles back to the same concept that has driven this series, and Dolores and Maeve since each emerged into self-awareness: choice as a feature of evolved consciousness.

In the first season Ford, the hosts' co-creator, explains to Dolores that consciousness is only attainable by way of suffering and the recollection of suffering. We haven't seen him in some time, but we have seen what his child Dolores does in reaction to remembering her pain: she turns against her tormentors and leads the hosts on a rampage through the park in Season 2, appearing to continue that warpath through Season 3.

Dolores, we were told, was set on ending the world of humanity and creating a place for her kind to thrive. She makes copies of herself and places them inside other host bodies, including Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) from Shogun World, her former lover's right-hand man Connells (Tommy Flanagan) and Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), using them to enact her plans.

But in the end three of her "selves" were captured, including the original. Two were destroyed before our eyes. Her Charlotte Hale host was in a car explosion with the original Hale's son and estranged partner, a development which in addition to living inside Hale's life, transforms her psyche irrevocably.

On the other side of the battlefield awaits Maeve, recruited by Dolores' enemy Serac (Vincent Cassel), the gazillionaire who runs the world with a spherical artificial intelligence named Rehoboam. The writers build toward these two clashing in this season's climax. However, they've also spent the entire series demonstrating how aligned the two of them are in spirit, or whatever the equivalent of spirit may be in ones and zeroes.

Dolores keeps telling Maeve and other hosts she encounters that she doesn't want to fight them; Serac, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), William (Ed Harris) and everyone else who knows Delores keeps assuring us that she wants to end the world. And it certainly looks that way for most of the season.

Turns out everyone was wrong. Sure, Dolores may have murdered a boatload of humans this season and encouraged Caleb to do the same in the name of revolution. And yes, the two activate a plan that upends society and transforms the world from a safer place arranged by algorithmic determinism into a chaos machine. Yet it turns out that all this time she was misunderstood.

Caleb was part of a rehabilitation program in which "outliers" are captured and their memories reconditioned and partially suppressed to suit the global artificial intelligence's purposes. Those for whom the treatment fails are placed in a coma of sorts, kept in freezers in a facility deep in the Sonoran desert. The others are used for the system's purposes.

And Dolores picks him because they met during his military training, where his unit rescues her and other female hosts from hostiles they eliminate. She remembers other men in their unit contemplating assaulting the hosts; he stops them by reminding them of their honor.

Perhaps Caleb enables her consciousness to evolve at the same time she's waking him up to his "loop," one imposed by Serac's machine but even more directly by Serac himself. This aligns with Ford's theory and explains Dolores' attraction to Caleb first as a curiosity, then an ally. When we meet Caleb at the start of season, he is a lost and damaged soul who cannot catch a break. A few episodes later, once his eyes have been opened to how the system has programmed his life so he'll never win, Caleb is as enraged as Dolores. And for a time, right up to the part where he's about to strike at the heart of the matrix, it looks like he's bought into Dolores' plan to extinguish humanity.

Prior to this moment he asks her if she chose him to be a villain and for his propensity for violence. She says no, explaining that the people who created the systems meant to control hosts like her and human beings like him share on assumption: Human beings don't have free will.

To this, she offers a rebuttal: "Free will does exist, Caleb. It's just f**king hard."

At any rate, Dolores exits the play as humanity's liberator and figure who desired androids and humans to live together peacefully. Maeve only comes to understand this in what appears to be the last moments of Dolores' life, when they meet in her mind's landscape before: a shot of the open prairie inside the Westworld theme park.

"So many of my memories were ugly, but the things I held onto until the end weren't the ugly ones," Dolores says to Maeve before Rehoboam erases her final memories and she flickers out. "I remember the moments where I saw what they were really capable of. Moments of kindness, here and there. They created us. And they knew enough of beauty to teach it to us. Maybe they can find it themselves. But only if you pick a side, Maeve. There is ugliness in this world. Disarray. I choose to see the beauty."

As is true of every "Westworld" season finale, you can take this rather facile explanation for what it is and look forward to Season 4, which should be here about the same time as we get a vaccine for this novel coronavirus. Or, you can roll your eyes at its oversimplified denouement, which is also a correct and completely understandable response.

Regardless of the side you pick, there may be common ground in appreciating the oddity of watching a version of the world ending with explosions, violence and madness from the midst of a pandemic that is quiet, and slow and rife with unknown factors.

People losing their minds in the streets, heady and careless misbehavior as the markers of societal breakdown — these are scenes movies have depicted a million times, and "Westworld" recreates for the bulk of Sunday's finale. Maybe this is weird, but I appreciated its controlled, fictionalized simulation of the world in collapse. In a way it transmutes our very real and ongoing anxiety and sense of helplessness into something we can put eyes on, a vicarious and safely distant fantasy of disorder and detonation. It's a release valve.

Credit the performances for making even the workmanlike part of it watchable, particularly Paul. Caleb works because of the grit and sweat the actor pours into everything, allowing us to cling to the character's image as a noble, flawed person living to the extent of human capability, as Dolores might define it, in an inhumane world. I hope we'll see him again in the new season…but there's the matter of the post-credits sequence and other loose ends.

After Maeve unmasks Serac as nothing more than a slave to his own creation and chooses Dolores' side over humankind's wealthy overseers, Dolores, being several steps ahead of the game somehow, ensures that Rehoboam's devouring of her consciousness would also ensure its destruction. She merges her coding into its own and gives Caleb control. He commands it to erase itself, leaving humanity to its own fate — one it can actually choose.

So it would seem that original Dolores is out of circulation. But her Charlotte Hale incarnation still lives and is enraged at having been abandoned to die. William, meanwhile, escapes the mental health facility where he was imprisoned with the help of Bernard and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth), blasts a hole in the latter and hightails it off to a Delos property to stop Dolores, convinced that it's up to him to "save the world."

When he finds a lab at an outpost, Dolores-Hale is already there and has already created his copy, alongside untold numbers of hosts underneath the building, a new revolution he's in no position to halt. The android Man in Black slits William's throat, and that pretty much does it for him.

Not mentioned is the fate of Dolores' fifth copy, placed inside of Lawrence (Clifton Collins, Jr.), who appears briefly to hand Bernard a briefcase with a device meant to activate the key everyone thought was inside Dolores, but she actually placed inside Bernard.

It gives him entry to "the Sublime," the android afterlife seen in the second season. He and Stubbs hole up in a hotel room, and after he turns on the device, his consciousness appears to leave him. A post-credits sequence shows him coming back to his body, which is covered in dust. From an explosion? From being abandoned to the lengthy passage of time? Both? Again, we probably won't know for at least two years.

That could be enough time and space for people to forgive "Westworld" for its sin of taking stabs at profundity but only managing to glance off the surface of themes that might have inspired other shows to drill deeper. But who knows what the world will look like then?

We'll probably have other worries in front of us and maybe – hopefully not – our actual world will resemble the one seen here closely enough to make Season 3 look like a historic reenactment, minus the robots. But that also means we'll still have some room to hope and reason to contemplate the possibility of evolution and improvement.

"This is the new world," Maeve says to Caleb as skyscrapers catch fire and the streets overflow with pandemonium. "And in this world, you can be whoever the f**k you want." This is also part of the first dialogue sequence Maeve used to spout as she welcomed customers to her bordello in the first season, only here, the passion in her delivery is an effect of her own free will, not programming. Maybe in the next sequel she'll be hero.

All three seasons of "Westworld" are available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now .


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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