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Review: In Its 3rd Season, 'Westworld' Is Less Confusing, More Entertaining


One of HBO's most unpredictable shows, the sci-fi drama "Westworld," returns tonight for its third season. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show's going to be a lot less confusing and a bit more entertaining than ever before.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Westworld's" new season begins with a scene longtime viewers have wanted to see since the first episode, an artificial person named Dolores torturing a sanctimonious, amoral, rich jerk before taking his money.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Jerry) What do you want from me?

EVAN RACHEL WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Same thing everybody wants from you, Jerry - money. I'm the last of my kind - for now. I need a competitive advantage. As for the money, think of it as an investment in a startup - the origin of a new species.

DEGGANS: "Westworld" fans saw this new species, artificial people who've gained independent consciousness, emerge during the show's first two seasons. They were created as programmable, lifelike mannequins, called hosts, to fill a futuristic amusement park where humans could live out their wildest fantasies, which often involved abusing the artificial people.

But in the third season, several of the conscious hosts have escaped and blended in with humanity. One of them, Evan Rachel Wood's Dolores, is intent on ending human civilization. To achieve that, she gets close to a trust fund kid whose father happens to have invented the computer that controls modern society. Here's trust fund guy's explanation of that system called Rehoboam.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) My dad thought the biggest problem in the world was unrealized potential. He thought that if you could chart a course for every single person, you could make the world a better place. And when I was a kid, I used to worry that my father cared more about this thing than me. When I grew up, I realized - wasn't even close.

DEGGANS: By the way, Rehoboam is a biblical king, yet another example of "Westworld's" pension for high-minded obscure references. This new plotline might sound complicated, but it's actually a more focused narrative than "Westworld" has delivered in the past. Earlier seasons seemed so intent on misdirecting fans, using surprise flashbacks and unexpected changes of perspective, that the result was a confusing mess of a series. This season is simpler and more satisfying. We learn that average people may be just as oppressed by Rehoboam as the hosts were back in "Westworld." That's illustrated by a new character, a human named Caleb, an ex-soldier with PTSD portrayed by "Breaking Bad" alum Aaron Paul.


AARON PAUL: (As Caleb Nichols) They say it's a meritocracy - the system picks the right people for the right job - which is great, I guess. But I don't know where that leaves the rest of us - the people who don't make the cut. Honestly, I don't mind the bottom of the barrel. At least you have some interesting company.

DEGGANS: If you're thinking it won't be long before Caleb and Dolores join forces, you get a gold star. They meet in a futuristic Los Angeles that's sleek and filled with driverless cars, glitzy personal aircraft and an Uber-like app connecting criminals to profitable crimes. Fans who loved the nutty complexity of "Westworld's" earlier seasons may feel disappointed. Still, this season sets up a conflict that resonates with today's political landscape - pitting everyguy Caleb and super rebel Dolores up against the entitled 1 percenters who own and run everything.

Given "Westworld's" history, I'm sure the full story won't be quite so direct. But for me, it was a pleasure to see such able storytellers deliver a season that's less about gauzy misdirection and more about getting to the point.


DEGGANS: I'm Eric Deggans.


Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.