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Westworld season 3 review: A small but slick upgrade

HBO brings all the Aaron Paul, violence and complicated storylines you could wish for, in a new Bond-meets-Blade Runner setting.

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Aaron Paul joins the ever-brilliant cast for season 3.

HBO

Coming into season 3 of HBO's violent dystopia Westworld, you get the sense it's crunch time. Crunch time for both our favorite oppressed sentient robots to take their freedom, and for the show, whose maze of complicated narratives left many viewers lost in season 2.

But now that main robot Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) has escaped the Westworld theme park, season 3 has taken the simpler, mostly linear approach to its new setting and characters. We explore just one section of the timeline, instead of season 2's jetting back and forth via memories.

And based on the first four episodes made available for review, season 3 is a solid improvement. You stand a chance at understanding what's going on with Dolores, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), Charlotte (Tessa Thompson), William (Ed Harris) and newcomer Caleb (Aaron Paul) as their paths converge in the real world. Well, what we think is the real world.

Interview: Jeffrey Wright on Westworld, Batman and James Bond

Westworld remains quintessentially Westworld, with 50-foot-deep dives into the exploration of the consciousness, synthetic and otherwise. We're supposed to question what's real and what's not via philosophical platitudes: "Every game has its rules, you just have to know how to break them." These can be clunky, but with lines peppered with the occasional F-bomb, especially from a vicious Dolores, there are a few laughs and rougher edges to be found.

Note: This review is based on episodes 1 to 4. Minor spoilers ahead.

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Evan Rachel Wood plays the nearly unstoppable Dolores.

HBO

Time has passed since the end of season 2, and we find Dolores dealing with her new life in the outside world. In Los Angeles, everything looks like Tesla's version of Blade Runner, with Cybertruck police cars carving up a clean, Japan-inspired city.

Dolores is a wanted property, holding the key to data on every guest who ever entered Westworld, as well as the hidden location of the robot hosts who fled to the virtual heaven known as the Valley Beyond. Dolores also has several core drives, or "pearls," in her possession, and this season we find out who those mysterious consciousnesses belong to.

Meanwhile, with the help of her chosen robot friends, Dolores has new fish to fry in the form of tech company Incite. Its executives, with their bigger-than-Apple resources and hidden agendas, feel the wrath of Dolores, aka "the Deathbringer."

Somewhere along the way, traumatized ex-army vet Caleb is swept up in Dolores' plans. At first he provides a sympathetic, human entry point into Dolores' gung-ho timetable, but Aaron Paul's material never lets him find the warmth and charisma of a Jesse Pinkman sidekick. It's an opportunity missed, especially with the already sullen tone of Dolores' storyline.

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We eventually meet William, aka the Man in Black, carrying even more baggage after mistaking his daughter for a Westworld host and killing her in cold blood last season. Strangely, Ed Harris has been underused so far, except when William's never-ending existential crisis is needed to hammer home the show's themes about finding one's autonomy.

Yet another story thread sees host Bernard, who spent last season breaking free from the control of various humans, try to thwart Dolores' plans via a quick pit stop at a slaughterhouse. Initially, Bernard comes across as a superfluous obstacle for Dolores, until a development with his identity teases an internal Jekyll and Hyde tug-of-war.

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Thandie Newton, unsurprisingly, returns as Maeve.

HBO

Thanks to the official trailer, it's no secret host Maeve (Thandie Newton) returns from her fatal sacrifice at the end of season 2. Arguably the shining light in a cast of brilliantly acted but often dour characters, her interactions with a few cameos from past favorites ripple with a much-needed sense of fun, especially in one episode that delivers fantastically ridiculous Matrix-style action.

As you can see, Westworld continues to juggle a lot of characters, adding more to replace those who departed last season. With some episodes omitting main characters entirely, it may become difficult to keep track of the detailed narratives.

At least you'll never want for meticulous production values. It's especially exciting to see the show's creative technologies, drawing from real-world advancements, fleshed out in this near-future. Any Dolores secret-agent sequence struts on a whole new level, with tech building off biometric identification or hologram trickery.

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Season 3 brings new technologies.

HBO

Many of the standout scenes involve Dolores as the best example of a female James Bond, effortlessly careening around on a matte black motorcycle while enveloped in Ramin Djawadi's pulsing techno-cinematic score. Then we flip to her nonchalantly dealing with thugs to the tune of '90s Britpop Common People, a brilliant splash of panache much needed to balance out all the prestige and seriousness.

Overall, Westworld succeeds in offering thought-provoking ideas about the world, its design and whether our narratives are prewritten. But now that we've left the theme park and its blend of philosophy, violence, nudity and cowboy outfits, there's a touch of hollowness and disenchantment to the expansive, neon-lined vistas of an LA dystopia.

If you can handle lines like, "Real gods are coming, and they're very angry," this season of Westworld will satisfy. The mystery, weekly shoot 'em ups and rhetoric are all there, but the circuitry of the story may not be as compelling anymore, rewired for a new setting. Sorry, but nothing beats samurais ripping it up in last season's Shogun World.

Westworld season 3 premieres on HBO March 15.