|Dolores is entering a brave new world in Westworld's third season (HBO)|
Written by Lindsey Cook
*Some spoilers for The Leftovers, Homeland, and The Good Place.*
When Westworld returns for its third season this weekend, it will be a brave new world for Dolores, Maeve, and the rest of the android crew. For the first time, our robotic heroes will venture outside the western-themed park and into the real world; it is quite literally new territory for the show. It is also an incredible chance to expand the world building of this sci-fi series and explore the larger climate that would compel people to spend thousands of dollars to shoot at and be shot by lifelike androids.
Both for Westworld and the larger television landscape, this is a bold narrative choice. Most television shows operate by maintaining the status quo in some shape or form; the characters never stray from their three soundstage sets, or no one moves away or faces upward mobility in their career despite these things being natural facts of life. Generally, television shows maintain some sense of normalcy and repetition from episode to episode, season to season.
Every so often, however, a show decides to shake things up and switch up the “rules” of their in-show universe. The characters might move to a new town, or learn something that alters how they interact with the world moving forward. These are risky choices that can change the tone of the show and alienate viewers, but when these upheavals work, they really work. And for a show like Westworld, which has made its bid as HBO’s post-Game of Thrones mega-show but has frustrated viewers with its often convoluted plots and confusing timelines, a change of scenery provides the series with a chance to refresh and revitalize the story coming into its third season.
To cite a personally beloved example, The Leftovers is without a doubt one of the best cases of hitting the reset button for the betterment of the series. While I actually hold the first season near to my heart, most people agree that season two took this Damon Lindeloff drama from good to great.
The first season follows the Garvey family three years after a mysterious event called The Departure, where 2% of the world’s population vanished into thin air. An allegory for unexplainable tragedy and a study in grief, the first season was unbearably bleak for most. There were moments of humor and absurdity here and there—how do you go on pretending everything is normal when the unexplainable happens?—but many viewers felt like the first season was dragging through quicksand, unable to escape the weight of its own misery.
And then...the Garveys climbed out of the quicksand; well, sort of. Season two saw them (and Nora Durst, who you could argue is the true hero of the story) up and leave their small New York town for a promised land called Miracle in Texas, where not a single soul Departed on that fateful October 14th.
Quite literally, the show uprooted the story in order to revive it. Season two leaned into the absurdity and questions about faith in a powerful way, while also establishing a mystery to solve that drove the plot forward. These characters were still desperately seeking answers to the unanswerable, but finally it didn’t feel entirely pointless for them. By the end of the show’s third and final season, the characters uprooted themselves yet again—this time to Australia—and found a beautiful way to provide at once both all and none of the answers to the questions the characters, and the audience, were asking. We may have never received that beautiful conclusion, however, if the creators didn’t take a chance and switch things up to begin with.
Homeland, another high-concept creation, similarly shook things up when the creators realized they were overstaying the original premise. When the show first premiered, the plot revolved around CIA operative Carrie Mathison investigating the return of a prisoner of war, a Marine named Nicholas Brody. The whole series was based on determining whether or not Brody was a “turned” terrorist, further complicated by the fact that Mathison’s own mental health issues made her an unreliable source, and audiences were on the edges of their seats trying to uncover the truth about Brody.
While the mystery surrounding Brody’s allegiances may draw viewers in, you can only keep them guessing for so long before it goes from an interesting plot point to a frustrating one, and with Homeland, the character of Brody proved to be a burden after a while. So the powers that be made a risky decision: they killed off Brody.
The death of Brody was shocking (he was the co-lead, after all) but inevitable. His story had played out, and dragging it out any longer would have only dragged the show down into a dark abyss. Instead, the show thrived in the following season, bringing Carrie to Pakistan and giving her a new mission to focus on. Without completely letting go of the characters we loved, Homeland hit the reset button and was able to continue into the future (and a total of eight seasons!).
It isn’t just dramatic television that has the ability to change its nature midway through. The Good Place, which just wrapped a four-season run on NBC, was a wonderfully-written comedy with perhaps the most high-concept concept of all the shows I’m discussing. The general concept is pretty simple: after you die, every action of yours on earth is measured and assigned positive or negative points, and those with extremely high point totals are welcomed into The Good Place for all eternity. Neat! The Good Place follows one such lucky heaven-bound spirit, Eleanor, only, there’s been a mistake; she was a bad person on Earth and shouldn’t have ended up in The Good Place.
Hilarious hijinks ensue, characters suffer moral quandaries, and finally, at the end of season one, the truth is uncovered: our characters have been in The Bad Place all along. What!? It’s the kind of brilliant plot twist that makes you rethink and recontextualize everything you have seen up until that point.
Throughout The Good Place’s run, the writers continuously changed things up. It kept audiences interested and guessing on where plot points were heading while always moving the larger plot of the show along. For a comedy, where most shows require a sense of continuity, The Good Place excelled because it was fearless about embracing constant change.
All this to say, I’m excited that when Westworld returns on Sunday, we will be entering new and unexplored territory alongside Dolores. More television shows should change the status quo and flip things upside down. It makes for great—and true-to-life—storytelling, as most real people are constantly evolving and moving forward as opposed to staying static. It drives me crazy when I see a character I love work toward some great achievement (say, Blair Waldorf working hard to get into Yale in the first few seasons of Gossip Girl) be thwarted simply because the rules of the show dictate it. (Blair ended up going to Columbia, because how can you have Gossip Girl outside of NYC?)
I wish more shows would understand that it is okay to let go of your original premise. Think of how powerful The Handmaid’s Tale would be if they actually let June escape Gilead and show the audience a story that progresses? How fun would it be if your once-favorite sitcom that now seems a bit stale switched things up and made the characters move to a brand new city with new challenges and new people to interact with? At first the change ups may seem jarring, but so often they breathe necessary new life into beloved series. Change is inevitable, but it can also be good.