This article contains spoilers for Westworld season 4.
There’s “writing yourself into a corner” and then there’s “writing yourself into a scenario where all your characters enter into a mystical robot heaven corner.” Should it have received a fifth and final season, that was the situation that HBO’s Westworld would have had to stare down. Of course, now we know it won’t have the chance.
HBO announced today that it had canceled its sci-fi blockbuster after four seasons, releasing a statement that read: “Over the past four seasons, Lisa (Joy) and Jonah (Nolan) have taken viewers on a mind-bending odyssey, raising the bar at every step. We are tremendously grateful to them, along with their immensely talented cast, producers and crew, and all of our partners at Kilter Films, Bad Robot and Warner Bros. Television. It’s been a thrill to join them on this journey.”
The cancellation comes at a strange time for HBO, with its parent company Warner Bros. having just merged with Discovery Inc. to create Warner Bros. Discovery. When reporting the new company’s Q3 earnings, CEO David Zaslav made it clear that it would be seeking out more content from its largest franchises like Superman, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. Apparently, Westworld, which was loosely based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name, didn’t quite fit the bill of “big franchise.”
Casual fans may not have even realized that a fifth season of Westworld was a possibility, with season 4’s ending feeling quite conclusive. But in the wake of the season 4 finale, the folks behind the show made it clear that they would like one last batch of episodes to wrap up their story.
“We always planned for a fifth and final season,” co-creator Jonah Nolan told Deadline. “We are still in conversations with the network. We very much hope to make them.”
Even more intriguingly, co-creator Lisa Joy added that “Jonah and I have always had an ending in mind that we hope to reach. We have not quite reached it yet.”
There’s much to unpack in light of Westworld‘s untimely cancelation. Is this in indication that a content bubble has burst and the days of pay cable and streaming networks shelling out huge budgets for tentpole franchises are over? Is Westworld a prime example of a series that should have just been a miniseries in the first place? Is it possible that Westworld will come back in the future with a wrap up film a la its HBO peer Deadwood?
Those are are valid questions to consider. The one that we can’t help but focus on right now, however, is: what would Westworld season 5 even have looked liked? Joy’s assertion that they had an ending in mind feels so beguiling considering how the show’s now de facto series finale played out.
Here’s a reminder for those don’t remember or are just morbidly curious as to what Westworld‘s series finale entailed. In the last episode of season 4, “Que Será, Será,” the host version of William (Ed Harris) hacks the futuristic city Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) created as a haven for their robotic kind. It is now the world that the “real” William would want it to be: an amoral game of pure survival. Naturally, everything goes to shit, basically the whole world dies (or will die eventually because: entropy) and Hale and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) open up “The Sublime” server to let all of A.I. kind into it for a second chance at something resembling life.
Westworld die-hards will recall that The Sublime is the machine that I can’t stop referring to as “robot heaven.” Westworld creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) created the server space as a sort of afterlife for host data to enter when they gain sentience and choose as to whether they want to live in the physical world or not. Many hosts abandon their robot forms and enter The Sublime (also known as The Valley Beyond) at the end of the show’s second season.
Now, some thirty years after that first upload to the Valley Beyond, how shocked must the Valley Beyonders be that the rest of host-kind has elected to join them in the Sublime. Could have saved the world a whole lot of trouble if everyone just uploaded in 2052, but I digress. Now that all of the remaining characters of Westworld are in the Sublime, it only stands to reason that Westworld season 5 would have taken place entirely within the Sublime. How, exactly, did the show plan to pull that off? Westworld was often criticized as being too confusing to begin with, and adding a full layer of “virtual reality that is not technically virtual reality but now more reality reality” on top of it would be even more challenging to explain.
Thankfully, the Sublime appears so real that it might not have even registered as virtual for viewers. We’ve gotten to see the Sublime a few times throughout Westworld‘s run. When Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), the rest of Ghost Nation, and several stragglers head into The Sublime in season 2, it just looks like the rest of Westworld pretty much. Then, in seasons 3 and 4, Bernard spends some time in a version of the Sublime that looks like any other office room or laboratory behind the scenes at Westworld. Essentially, the Sublime can appear how ever one wants it to appear, which is kind of the whole point.
Why then even bother with a whole season set in robot heaven if you’re not going to make it as trippy and psychedelic as that concept sounds? Well perhaps Joy and Nolan were preparing to dig even deeper into the concept of the loss of the tangible world than any of us realized. In a post season 4 finale interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Joy had a fascinating response to interviewer Abbey White’s observation that the episode felt like a series finale. Joy said, in part:
“This is very personal. I think it’s because of COVID that I’m going to answer this more honestly than I maybe should, and more personally. I’ve always had this fantasy of humans not having to be humans, of being able to just be an orb of light. If we could all be orbs of lights and you could shine different colors and resonate, or sounds like beautiful notes, and you can make a sound together. So much about our physical forms, about the weight of society and its gaze upon us — we inherit a lot of things from the outside world that are impossible to shake off and that sometimes make connection difficult. That sometimes I think is even knowing oneself. You have to strip down beneath all of that and really hold on.”
While Joy says she is answering this “more honestly than (she) should,” I don’t take it to mean that she’s literally revealing the plot of Westworld season 5 and that there would be no actual actors, just balls of light floating around serenely in an empty space. I do, however, intuit that they were ready to go to some pretty extreme places in season 5.
Time and time again, both humanity and its robot children on Westworld were bogged down by their own human-ness. You can reach for a utopian sci-fi future all you want, but at the end of the day you still have the same ugly form as your primitive ancestors. The concept of humanity itself being intrinsically limiting for our larger aspirations was always a theme on Westworld. So is the notion that we should embrace those limitations rather than attempt to overcome them unnaturally.
Joy discusses that concept more in that same interview, saying “Look, we are all human. We have mortality to deal with. The thing that is beautiful is, within those limitations and within the foibles of human nature, there’s beauty to be found.”
There was beauty to be found for humans and hosts out in the “real” world but there was death as well. By the end of season 4, humanity’s time had run out and the only hope for its offspring lay in an artificial world. Reading between the lines of Joy’s responses, it seems as though she believes that artificial world gave Westworld the opportunity to do something for the first time in its entire run: find some answers
For now we’ll just have to wait for a movie to see how things go in robot heaven.