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SYFY WIRE Westworld

Why HBO is still paying millions for ‘Westworld’ Season 5, even though they canceled it

Even for abandoned androids, it’s all about the fine print.

By Benjamin Bullard
Westworld Season 3 Finale

Westworld was among TV’s most lore-dense shows; the kind of deep-diving sci-fi series that often punished casual viewing even as it rewarded those who paid closer, diligent attention. Now HBO has nixed the dystopian, Michael Crichton-created saga of indistinguishable androids and humans, leaving a planned fifth (and possibly concluding) season as a dangling figment in the fertile imaginations of series creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan.

Through four seasons, Westworld’s themes of self-determination and social control may never have changed, but the visually arresting (and expensive) story-scapes did. While it’s tough to put a price tag on the lore, it’s far simpler to assess the cost of the show’s lavish set creation and killer, multiple Emmy-nominated cast and creative team. Even when the series (executive produced by J.J. Abrams) first premiered in 2016, it was already commanding a Game of Thrones-worthy production budget: Season 1 rang in at an estimated $100 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and the tab has increased since then.

There’s another post-cancelation money matter that might confound fans: Westworld’s main cast (flagged by HBO at Season 4’s end as Evan Rachel Wood, Thandiwe Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Aaron Paul, and Ed Harris) apparently will still be paid for the unmade fifth season — even though the series’ cancelation, of course, means there’s no actual Season 5 in the works. Altogether, the core quintet (who played Dolores, Maeve, Bernard, Caleb, and The Man in Black, respectively) “are believed to” be owed between $10 and $15 million altogether for the season that won’t be made, via Deadline. THR’s report also adds that both Joy and Nolan struck previous deals with HBO that, for each, “included an upfront payment for showrunning services…for what sources said covered up to a sixth season.”

It’s difficult to know whether Westworld’s multi-season story ever had been mapped out that far in advance, though recent indications pointed to the series reaching the finish line in Season 5. “We always planned for a fifth and final season,” Nolan said at this year’s New York Comic Con, via Deadline, while Joy teased back in August that the duo still had “one more story to tell.”

This year’s time-warped fourth season, set in an entirely new environment for much of its characters’ journey, outpaced even House of the Dragon’s budget, costing $160 million for its 8-episode run as opposed to the Game of Thrones spinoff’s 10-episode tally of $125 million, via THR. And while House of the Dragon surged to become HBO’s most-watched series in its debut showing, Season 4 of Westworld quietly slid from its Season 1 high of 12 million reported viewers to an audience of only 4 million — or roughly one-third of the show’s initial viewership.

The hosts’ tortured saga may be over, but Westworld will of course live on as an anytime binge at HBO Max in its finished four-season entirety. Amazon Prime subscribers also can catch the full series for a premium rent-or-buy fee. While they’re there, viewers might even stick around to catch The Peripheral, Joy and Nolan’s new Amazon sci-fi series starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Jack Reynor and based on the futuristic 2014 techno-thriller novel by William Gibson.

Looking for more ambitious, smart science fiction in the meantime? SYFY's Battlestar Galactica, NBC's Heroes and SYFY's Resident Alien are all streaming on Peacock right now.