Aaron Paul gives good anguish. If he didn’t, audiences may not have made it through “Breaking Bad,” where the then-30ish actor was put through the wringer, again and again, as Walter White’s protégé-turned-pawn, Jesse Pinkman. Watching Paul embody Pinkman’s struggles with addiction, clashes with enemies, and continued torture (both psychological and, far too often, physical) could’ve grown redundant; grueling in its familiarity; as hard to sit through as it was for Jesse to live through. But Paul grows Jesse’s grief so that when another tragedy strikes, the embers of what’s already happened reignite, burning into a fresh, unholy fire.
His bright blue eyes help. They’re clear, and in that clarity is an ocean. They can turn cold with fury or shimmer with rage. They can widen in shock or squeeze shut to whatever new horror is facing them. Paul’s compelling peepers are an incredible asset for an actor audiences can expect to see week in and week out, year after year, facing the hardships heaped on his TV characters in “The Path,” “Truth Be Told,” and now, “Westworld.”
When Paul joined the cast in 2020, playing the ex-mercenary, construction worker, and part-time robber Caleb Nichols, it marked a sneaky great casting choice for HBO’s robot drama. Built as a puzzle box (and relishing its many twists), “Westworld” seeks to wow with its sleek and cool stylings more often than it works to elicit genuine human emotions. So heady, so obtuse, and so serious about a robo-pocalypse that started in a theme park, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s glossy shell of a prestige TV show needs a consistent, core, truly unkillable life force. Even as the series shifts from Emmy fodder to summer escapism (as denoted by Season 4’s June release date, the first not in the awards-friendly seasons of Fall or Spring), “Westworld” has to resonate strongly enough to retain the blockbuster status that pays for all those fancy special effects.
Season 4 puts much of that burden on Paul, and it’s not because other cast members would be unable to shoulder a few more feelings. The “Westworld” ensemble has always been top-notch, and any one of them — be it Evan Rachael Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Thandiwe Newton, Ed Harris, Tessa Thompson, the newly added Oscar winner Ariana DeBose or the newly revived James Marsden — could instill their characters with a bevy of heartfelt dimension. (Yes, even the cold-as-ice Man in Black.) They’re just not asked to. Instead, each serves a specific role within a specific story told in a specific fashion. That these talents could do more is a nagging deficiency, just as it is when applied to “Westworld” as a whole, which often feels hollow and over-calculated in its beat-by-beat plotting, where everything and everyone serves a winding journey to somewhere mysterious.
Take Bernard, played with beloved bluntness by the always-excellent Wright. (Side note: HBO subscribers should make sure to watch “The French Dispatch” while it’s still streaming, where you can see the mellifluous actor flex his range by stretching verbosity to enthralling extremes.) Bernard is a host, like many other manufactured characters, and thus seeing him become too human, too emotional, too passion-forward rather than logic-driven, could be confusing. (I’ll admit: I’m still somewhat confused when Bernard’s O.S. gets hung up on “memories” of his son he knows aren’t real.) Instead, he’s given a single task. Without getting into spoilers, the task requires him to work with Stubbs (Liam Hemsworth) and go on a quest.
Last seen sitting in a dusty hotel room, waking up after an undisclosed amount of time spent in a virtual world called The Sublime, Bernard doesn’t appear in Season 4 until the third episode. But that’s OK, so long as those nagging thoughts about missed opportunities can be kept at bay. His absence in earlier episodes, paired with his singular directive, helps keep things orderly as we catch up with other characters, like Maeve (Newton) and Caleb. It’s been seven years since the duo helped free the human race by bringing down Rehoboam, the A.I. super-computer run by Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel) that dictated everyone’s future. Turns out Maeve and Caleb kept fighting together during the ensuing end times, taking down Rehoboam outposts as people fought to reclaim their autonomy from the robots.
Maeve is also assigned a specific task, one she’s grown quite comfortable with over three-plus seasons: be a badass. Thankfully, there’s a bit more to it that I can’t get into because of, you guessed it, spoilers, but it’s still safe to describe Maeve as “the cool one” in the “Westworld” group. As directives become identities, that makes William (Harris) “the bad one,” as he pursues a plan devised by “the big bad,” Charlotte/Dolores (Thompson). Although that’s about as specific as I can get, trust that they don’t deviate from their central purpose (through four of the eight episodes, at least).
Courtesy of HBO
That brings us to Evan Rachel Wood’s “new” character, Christina. Waking up the same way Dolores used to and, obviously, looking exactly like Dolores, Christina is someone else — a writer living in a futuristic New York City and living with Maya, DeBose’s encouraging roommate. Christina goes to work each day. She goes on dates, typically set up by Maya, each night. She’s not satisfied with either, but disappointment isn’t exactly a novel concept. What is unique is her lingering feeling that someone’s watching her. Missed calls from blocked numbers clog her see-through phone. The busy streets carry a certain stillness when she least wants to be alone. There’s no solace at home or at work, with Maya or her dates. Christina is being drawn out, but to what — and by whom — remain a mystery.
In other words, Christina is “the confused one,” aka the most consistent audience stand-in on “Westworld.” Like previous entries, Season 4 is mainly a waiting game: waiting for the next puzzle piece to be revealed, waiting for the next action scene (if that’s your bag) or hint of romance (if you’re still ‘shipping anyone in particular), waiting for the characters to get where they’re going already, since the emphasis remains on the destination (the twist!) rather than the fun to be had along the way.
There are moments to be savored independent of answers, like Harris’ charismatic confidence, Thompson’s delicious deviousness, and Newton’s “kill first, ask no questions later” brand of cool. But there’s still so much more room for “Westworld” to break its icy tension with clever levity, or just enjoy the bizarre nature of its wild reality. (This is still the show with replica robots and cloning, yet it never duplicates the fun of a “Mission: Impossible”-style mask reveal.) Instead, it’s resolved to do what its done before to the best of its abilities, like a piece of A.I. tasked with replicating the human experience, but tapping out after it learns “excitement” and “deception.”
But hey, at least they’ve got anguish covered. Rest assured, my repeated appreciation of Aaron Paul’s excellent encapsulation of agony is not a hint that Caleb faces a particularly unfortunate fate in Season 4. His role in “Westworld” is simply “the tortured one,” given he’s either torn up over his personal purpose or getting torn to shreds by “the bad one’s” attackers. Caleb is here to suffer and, perhaps, prevail in spite of all that pain. Such is life, and Aaron Paul is very, very good at making us feel a life hard-lived. Even when written in big block letters, easily read by everyone, widely applied to the broadest possible viewership, Paul can make such a life feel personal; he can turn a sole directive into what feels like more. “Westworld” allows and needs him to do that, even if all that emoting is mainly a substitute for anything real.
“Westworld” Season 4 premieres Sunday, June 26 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes will be released weekly.