A eulogy for HBO’s canceled sci-fi opus ‘Westworld’

In November, HBO unceremoniously canceled Westworld, less than three months after the cliffhanger conclusion to the show’s fourth season. That seemed harsh for a series that once felt like the network’s great post-Game Of Thrones hope, a star-studded, spare-no-expense sci-fi odyssey engineered to generate obsession, fan theories, and discourse. Last week, the news for the show got worse: It will be removed entirely from HBO Max and sent instead to free, ad-supported streaming platforms like the Roku Channel and Freevee, one of many brutal cost-cutting measures at corporate parent Warner- Discovery. After 54 Emmy nominations, “ignominious” doesn’t begin to describe this end. It feels scornful, like a first-round draft pick getting cut from the team and rehired as the ball boy.

It would be inaccurate to say that Westworld never got a chance to find an audience. Indeed, it got multiple chances to reclaim the audience it started with. It had a hell of a hook, flipping the sympathies of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie on which it was based to tell the story of the robots working at an old west theme park where the ultra rich paid to live out their most lurid fantasies. The series premiere drew almost 2 million viewers, a number that had been halved by season three and fallen to around 300,000 by season four.

It was a show that felt permanently under construction. After the first season’s grand twists were sussed out by the internet well in advance of the finale—everyone knew apple-cheeked good guy Jimmi Simpson was destined to turn into Ed Harris’s grim Man In Black—season two leaned hard into the show’s maze motif, with multiple unspecified timelines, twists curlicueing into each other, and fan theories winked at but not confirmed. Every maundering scene ushered the viewer up to a corner the show refused to peer around.

Ed Harris in Westworld

Ed Harris Westworld

John Johnson/HBO

The third season felt like a deal with the devil: no more park, no more cutesy plotting. We got a bland new white-guy protagonist (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) and antagonist (all-purpose Frenchman Vincent Cassel), a new setting (the real world), and new robots (larger!). The plot moved forward steadily, coherently, and with guns blazing. The war between robots and humanity, instigated in the first season and breaking out in Crichtonian fashion in the second season, had spread throughout the world. The fourth season leapt forward again into an almost post-human reality that, several episodes into the season, was revealed to be exactly that. The war between humans and robots, we discovered, was long over, and the humans had lost. Cities were now filled with zombified humans leading lives like videogame NPCs—a neat echo of the first season’s game-like cosmos. Real, fully sentient humans scavenged in the desert, their numbers dwindling.

Westworld, then, had plenty of chances. But it deserved better than it got. Unlike so many TV shows that neatly reset the table each episode, goosing cliffhangers they ultimately undermined, Westworld constantly moved the ball forward. Stakes were high: A show that began in a cowboy theme park ended in the apocalypse. Decades passed between episodes. Other parks were teased, built, revealed, discarded. It could be a slow show, but it was full. If science fiction is the “literature of ideas,” then Westworld understood that it didn’t really need characters. It was filled with ciphers, their personalities in constant remix: a bad guy spiraling ever further downard, a mother hellbent on salvation and then vengeance, a storyteller warping between consciousness and somnambulance. As if written by robots, the show was relentlessly schematic, but it was also full of oddball flourishes, like a digital-only afterlife for machines, a sentient algorithm attempting to guide humanity’s future, and a swarm of evil cyber-insects. And who can forget the Wu-Tang cover that alerted viewers they had finally entered Shogun World?

All of Westworld’s turns could seem like a show jumping the shark—and, as the numbers indicate, for many viewers, they were. But they also felt purposeful: a high-concept cyberpunk saga wrestling mightily with what cyberpunk should even be in the second and third decade of the millennium. The simulation theory—you know, The Matrix, “someone unplug reality and plug it back in,” etc.—has become memetic at this point, a groan-inducing twist in other genre fiction. But Westworld‘s writers wrung every narrative possibility from it they could, well into the show’s final stretch. In the fourth season, a series of Aaron Paul clones iteratively figured out an escape path from a containment facility. At one point, a Paul we had been following realized he had to drop to his death so his corpse could serve as a landing pad for the next clone’s escape attempt. It felt like a high-budget play on Metal Gear Solidtwisted for maximum gallows humor.

Aaron Paul in Westworld

Aaron Paul Westworld

John Johnson/HBO

Perhaps the show was a victim of its own prestige. What might it have been had it not been populated with Oscar winners and Hemsworths but blandly handsome no-names? Had it not lavished the viewer with IMAX-scale set design and clever cover songs? Had it not premiered on HBO as “the next big thing” in the shadow of an all-time ratings juggernaut? It might’ve seemed more like the successor to Battlestar Galactica than Game Of Thrones, and it might have generated a well-deserved reputation, over the years, as a science fiction show unusually dense with real-world parallels. A show driven by its writers room, cooking each season until every episode was load-bearing with intrigue and insinuation. An exasperating show, to be sure, but one that genre fans could recommend knowingly to others who were willing to overlook… well, a lotin favor of something as ballsy and thought-provoking as Westworld could be at its best. Maybe a cult revaluation will come. Maybe viewers will withstand “the Freevee experience” to rediscover it in the coming years.

Still, this fan doesn’t mourn the loss of a fifth season, even though he thinks the writers deserved one last run at their concept. The fourth season, and now the show itself, ends with a monologue in which Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores teases “one final game”—a return to the park in which the show began. A decade ago, HBO might have allowed this to play out as a one-off movie or a four-episode miniseries. Now, her words merely suggest a time loop—an exit revealing itself as the entrance. Every NPC back in its right place. Dolores’ eyes her open up, as they did on the premiere episode, in a world of her own design. Consider it one final theory for a show uniquely well suited to inspiring them.