When the first season of Westworld premiered back in 2016, there truly was nothing else like it on TV at the time — at least, nothing that felt tailor-made to spawn fan theories of all potential shapes and sizes, from the quickly-unearthed (William’s true identity as the Man in Black, for instance) to the wildly outlandish (that Charlotte Hale host actually being Dolores’ horse). Season 1 initially proffered itself as a seemingly linear narrative that eventually revealed its true divergences, and its follow-up season also skillfully navigated a how-did-we-get-here story structure through the perspective of Delos programming head and host-on-the-downlow Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright). Season 3, meanwhile, followed a much more straightforward path, as Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) took the hosts’ fight against humanity outside Westworld and into a near-distant Los Angeles, seeking to use an artificial intelligence named Rehoboam to further her goals. Although Dolores sacrificed herself in the pursuit of her ultimate aim — giving humans the chance to rebuild themselves a new world — perhaps we should have known that this one wouldn’t be done with her yet. However, in true Westworld fashion, Season 4 presents several mysteries at the start, ones that are poised to return us to questioning our reality all over again — and this time, it’s a far more nefarious threat that appears to be pulling the strings.

One of the biggest questions hovering over the new season, which kicks off after a seven-year timejump, involves Dolores’ whereabouts — and there is a new character played by Wood this time around, whose life bears stark parallels to the rancher’s daughter we first saw way back when. This young woman, Christina, might be waking up with the sun, her now-brown hair fanned out over the pillow as she briefly pauses for a moment of early morning contemplation, but there are distinct signs of humanity in the manner by which she examines her reflection in the mirror, or takes a pause to brew herself a much-needed cup of coffee in the morning. In her day-to-day life, she works for a company known as Olympiad Entertainment, part of a team of video game writers — only she crafts the NPCs, to be precise, the ones who exist in the background of other characters’ narratives. Wood adeptly balances the combination of wistfulness and quiet melancholy Christina seems to have about her current existence, and even as questions continue to swirl around who she is and why she looks exactly like Dolores, the differences between them couldn’t be starker.

The sense of familiarity-only-not-quite permeates through the season, with markers that stand out just enough as winking meta-references to past storylines. One scene involves Christina’s roommate Maya (played by the much-welcomed presence of Ariana DeBose) positing the important question of whether a pair of black or white heels will look best with her dress. At Olympiad, the new game story Christina’s working on, about a young woman who takes care of her father while dreaming of more beyond her present world, feels very familiarly constructed from a certain distant past. Later on in the season, in an effort to help Christina with her dwindling social life, Maya sets her up on a blind date… with a man who doesn’t have a problem with looking chivalrous (James Marsden). It only takes a few seconds for Marsden’s return to the series to be well worth the wait, but it also serves as a reminder of what last season lacked with his absence — and watching him sit across the table engaging in a flirty exchange with Christina is a testament to just how good he is, even contained to the length of a single scene.

RELATED: ‘Westworld’ Season 3’s World Is Still Worth Investing in, Even When Its Story Isn’t

On a grander scale, there’s evidence of the show’s willingness to let its in-universe stories be self-alluding, and no better place is that represented than in the brand-new park Delos Destinations is preparing to launch — under the authority of a suspiciously robust-looking William (Ed Harris). One of the many themes this season emphasizes is the fact that when it comes to the wealthy and powerful, capitalizing on past trauma isn’t as gauche as it should be when there are still rich people out there who are willing to throw money at the experience. The Prohibition Era park, which is dubbed “The Golden Age,” is filled with gangsters and flappers instead of cowboys and saloon workers, automobiles and streetlamps rather than horses and lanterns, but there are also rumors of a “secret narrative” that guests can unlock, which allows them to experience the events of what really took place at the last park — fully reenacted by hosts, of course. It might be no surprise that while the public believes robots were weeded out of their day-to-day lives, the truth exists much closer to home than anyone actually realizes, and Delos, a company that was initially founded by humans, has been infiltrated from the inside, with its extensive technology now wielded by a villainous Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), who has crafted a new and curious invention from behind-the-scenes.

Others, however, have made an effort to live out their lives over the past seven years in undisturbed peace, though always with the instinct to look over their shoulder. When we pick up with Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul) again, he’s attempting to exist quietly, keeping his head down through the type of menial construction job that was once done by robots, but eventually, the past comes looking for him in spite of his attempts to avoid it. Similarly, Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) finds her efforts at maintaining a peaceful existence off the grid thwarted early on, and the ensuing hunt brings these two back into one another’s orbit again — but the upside of that is getting to see Paul and Newton bounce off one another for an even longer duration than we got in Season 3, to the show’s benefit overall. Theirs is the type of intimate, platonic chemistry that becomes one of Westworld‘s reinvigorating surprises, a pairing that no one might have predicted would happen but ultimately results in some of the season’s most engaging moments.

There are many more plot threads that spool out over the first four episodes that critics were given to screen — almost too many to name, and more than a few that would be treading into spoiler territory — but rather than introduce an excessive web of mysteries that would prove too much of a headache to try and untangle, Westworld Season 4 does the smart thing of offering just enough reveals without showing its full hand too early, feeding viewers little morsels of story while still gearing up for what has the potential to be a fine return to form. What happens to Bernard after he wakes up in that motel room covered in dust, an untold number of years later? The initial answer comes early, but the longer discovery about his true purpose and what he’s searching for is slower to unfold, like the show itself is welcoming us back into the maze once more. Ultimately, Westworld hasn’t gone back to the place where it all started, and continues to expand its scope far beyond the borders of the park, but rather than this resulting in more disarray, what plays out are the exciting twists, turns, and surprises through time that will make anyone sit up and take notice.

Rating: A-

Season 4 of Westworld premieres Sunday, June 26 on HBO and HBO Max.

Leave a Reply