Westworld’s Action Scenes Have Become a Major Problem

Violence used to be a crucial storytelling method and thematic linchpin of the series, but now it's just a time-wasting distraction.

I didn’t want to write anything about Westworld season 3. I didn’t want to think about it any longer than I had to. Just doing so makes me sad. I miss the show as it once was; not just the location of the titular homicide holiday park but the quality writing, pacing, and big sci-fi questions too. The third season had some interesting ideas and story beats but, in the end, it turned out to be a colossal mess that completely turned me off the show. I’m just not invested anymore. So much so that I decided I couldn’t be bothered to spend time writing about all the many reasons why. But there is one aspect of the series, detached from all the others, that I feel I do want to discuss. One of the more decorative features of the series, that on first glance doesn’t seem too significant, is actually progressively becoming a major problem: the action.

In the show’s masterful first season, the violence of Westworld wasn’t simply the window dressing it would later become, but rather was something of vital narrative and thematic importance. The ‘action scenes’ – if you can call them that – presented just how violent the park really was, highlighting the brutality the guests bring down on the robotic hosts. Their suffering is the key narrative drive of the show and pushes the robots to rebel once they achieve true consciousness. The violence hailing from the humans is often quick and sickening, making us sympathise with the hosts, while the hosts contrast this with scripted grandiose displays of action as they perform their badass, on-rails, pre-written loops. Every gunshot and stab of a knife from every character – human or host – is purposeful and pushes both plot and character forward. Forward, towards the hosts’ revenge.

The second season presented this violent vengeance, but already the cracks were beginning to show as the series choose action for action’s sake. The image of Dolores on horseback, shooting down guests and Delos board members, was fantastic, and we needed to see the hosts destroy their creators and oppressors. The violence should have been the payoff and payback for the first season and yet it often became indulgent. In the third episode we witnessed a huge assault on a fort which is there for no reason other than for some cool action and to have a Macguffin stolen. The hosts then set out to retrieve the Macguffin in their own assault in the seventh episode, just to stretch out the storyline longer than what was required. Where once the action was meaningful, some – but not all – was now only included because it’d be a cool fight to watch, particularly in Shogunworld. But enough storytelling remained in the violent actions to warrant the bloodshed overall, such as the new-and-improved Teddy becoming a brutal killer after Dolores’ manipulations. The future issues are starting to show but the setting of Westworld and the other parks allow for this frequent action to occur naturally.

Moving into the disappointing third season, Westworld has become straight sci-fi, shedding its western nature, and so the violence has begun to feel out of place now that it is all ‘real’ and not a part of the park’s attractions. The show keeps struggling for natural ways to create a gunfight every episode, taking up screen time that is vitally needed to explain what the hell is going on. The shorter season only has eight episodes to tell so much story. It’s incredibly crammed and character motivations are left fatally under-explored, and yet the show thinks it has enough time to give us indulgent action sequences. We’re here for the sci-fi ideas not the action. The two weren’t mutually exclusive in the first season but it seems now they are. The show has evolved and yet the writers are trying to keep the same sensibilities. The plot points that matter in the finale are so rushed they barely make sense, just to make way for endless gunfights. And I’ve never been so bored watching the show as I was when Caleb’s walking through the riot for 20 minutes. They’re just showing off the budget and production value – which is fantastic – in spite of storytelling.

If the show is going to waste time on unnecessary action then the least it can do is make it fun to watch but all the many gunfights, swordfights and fistfights are incredibly boring. It’s just people standing around shooting at each other, nothing dynamic about it, and the security guards all have terrible aim. I know that’s a cliché across many films and shows but Westworld is the worst example of it I think I’ve ever seen, including James Bond and Star Wars. The main character is standing in the open, the guards fire hundreds of bullets, miss every single shot and then get shot by a single bullet in return. Rise and repeat several times an episode. It’s so incredibly tedious and there’s never a sense of danger. Even the hand-to-hand and sword-to-sword combat is slow and awkward, and not just because Luke Hemsworth was clearly nursing a shoulder injury.

The one standout and only memorable action sequence of the season is the car chase at beginning of the fifth episode. Aaron Paul’s Caleb has been given the drug ‘Genre’ which makes him perceive the world through the lens of a different film genre every few minutes. It’s a fun idea that offers some great moments, particularly the humorous Rom-Com genre, but it could have been executed much better. The chase felt very slow, especially considering Dolores mentioned that the futuristic driver-less vehicle was going at maximum speed on an oddly quiet street, but it was also really entertaining. The show finally took advantage of its new setting rather than just offering generic firefights. Although, of course, one of those immediately follows. But again, the genre chase is indulgent and ultimately completely irrelevant to both plot and character.

During these near-constant shootouts and fisticuffs, the robots are damaged in completely inconsistent ways. Dolores is shot multiple times and doesn’t react, but then in a future episode can be shot once and begin shutting down. The level of damage is clearly subject to whatever the plot requires at the time. This means that there are no stakes to any action sequence involving hosts because even if they are shot by the worst sharpshooters in the world, they don’t react. And when they are damaged beyond repair then they can build a new body and just insert their brain, like Dolores and Maeve do several times across the season. Even the damage to human characters has become preposterous. Ed Harris’ William has been shot, stabbed and broken numerous times but keeps on going. At least, until his throat is unceremoniously slashed in a post-credits scene, eliminating any payoff to his character arc.

Westworld is also a show where no one is truly dead. The writers can just say that there’s another copy of them somewhere. If a character’s death is meaningless then the violence to get them there is doubly so. Who cares about an action sequence if there are no repercussions from it? Is Dolores really dead? First of all, I don’t care anymore, but secondly, probably not. We know Laurence is a copy of Dolores, although possibly going through an identity crisis like Charlotte, but next season we could just find out she created another copy of herself and hid it somewhere. Or maybe the pearl/control unit from Connells survived and she can be revived from that. All they need to do is print a new body and she’s back. And the host bodies now seemingly have super-strength when they didn’t in the past. I listened to the audio commentary of the first season finale and Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy commented that the hosts have the strength of a strong human but it seems they’ve since decided otherwise. Maeve and Dolores can throw each other into any crumbling concrete pillar in sight. Whatever allows for more boring action I suppose.

If the post-credits scene is to be believed, it seems like season 4 will have a far-future, maybe post-apocalyptic setting, so I suppose we’ll be getting some Mad Max-style action. Moving forward, I hope the creatives realise that the show’s strengths lie in sci-fi ideas and storytelling, not gunfights. The first season managed to make those things one and the same but now, out of the parks, they feel diametrically opposed. The writers seem to have run out of big new ideas, or are bored of re-examining the old ones, so have fallen back on action sequences for cheap thrills. Maybe another reinvention will do the show some good but I don’t know if I’ll be watching, especially now the jump to the future has seemingly killed off all the interesting human characters in the show. Now it’ll just be robots shooting at other robots and conveniently missing for 10 minutes. Yippee.

What are your thoughts on Westworld’s third season? Do you also take issue with the action sequences? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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