Westworld is and isn’t the new Game of Thrones.
From an industrial perspective, it totally is. HBO sees the impending end of Game of Thrones with great dread. If they can’t desperately flail their way into a spin-off, then they need a replacement, another high-concept genre show that demands and earns as much engagement and merchandising as that one has. Prestige television that can earn the dedication of cult television. That’s one of those once in a lifetime things, so another high-concept and expensive genre show seems only natural to try out.
However, from an artistic perspective, it’s not. Westworld has totally different things on its mind, which is why I worry (and why I already feel bad) about slotting Westworld into the same slot as Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones is a plot-heavy show, mysteries and speculations abound, a show that invites challenge about its future. Westworld is those things too, but in a way that asks you to reflect on what you saw. A show that raises questions that it doesn’t necessarily require an answer to, a complex show that I worry will succumb to the same discourse of fan theory and solving the narrative that befell many of its prestige-genre brethren.
But I get ahead of myself. It’s what I do, I’m a worrier. Instead, let’s not speak ill of the possible future, but sing the praises of the most promising episode of television I’ve seen in some time.
An adaption of the 1973 cult classic written and directed by Michael Crichton, Westworld flips it on its head just a little. The original is a pulpy thrill ride made for a cult classic, the story of a theme park featuring realistic androids that allow patrons to live out their every whim in various historical locales (Hint hint: this ends up going badly). The TV show inhabits that same place, a hyperrealistic theme park world where the patrons can gunfight, drink, and fuck the robots to heart’s desire.
But rather than a show from the perspective of the patrons dealing with the androids, it’s a show about the androids and those who design them. And instead of a culty, pulpy story, it’s a show that takes its premise deadly serious, and uses it to explore all the implications and contradictions of what the sci-fi parameters can imply.
We’re introduced to our “Hosts” (the show’s term for the androids that staff this park) through Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a wondrous young girl undergoing an evaluation, and then through the town as Teddy (James Marsden) rolls in, square-jawed and ruthlessly decent-looking and heroic. We see the events unfold at the park, a day ending with a mysterious Gunslinger (Ed Harris) killing Teddy.
Until he shows up again the next day. Every day is a reset, the park is a world where anyone can do anything and there isn’t a single consequence. However, there are malfunctions emerging. Robots beginning to have something like a stroke, and the Gunslinger searching for something and throwing off the storylines. This is where the park’s team comes in, led by Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), the creator of the Hosts, and Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the director of the Park. Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) are clashing over these recent developments, as it’s starting to turn their perfect little world into chaos.
I want to, as always, avoid too much summary, as I want you to discover the ins and outs for yourself. “The Original” is a wonderful little self-contained story, a mystery and a world to unfold before you, that opens up a much larger world to come. Pilots are a rough business, setting the table can often damage an episode’s sense of self and sense of world-building, and drag things down in a muddle of exposition. Showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy handle that deftly, letting it unfold without too much time taken to explain, letting the questions get asked naturally, rather than guiding the hand of the viewer to grasp them.
It’s a damn fine script too, because it gives the pilot such a deeply strong sense of the thematics and the questions the show’s interested in asking. On the obvious level, this is a show about the nature of humanity, what it means to be conscious and alive. It’s the odd image of having death and resurrection treated with such casualness by something so human, and it’s a show where the ability to harm a fly is an ominous moment. What does it mean to create life, and can we actually do so? These are questions the show concerns itself with, but isn’t ready to work towards an answer.
On another level, Westworld too is about the media space it occupies. The generation coming up now into the creator space is the first that had video games as a part of its media diet. A world where gaming rules have now seeped into traditional narratology, and more specifically, the implications of those rules therein. Westworld is a video game show (for lack of a more elegant phrasing), and seems like it may seek to explore the distance we experience as players and the way we engage with those works. There’s a scene towards the end where one of the patrons gets a chance to kill a man, disrupting a storyline, and his reaction is everything. After all, what would you do, what would you indulge, in a world where the people weren’t real and the consequences didn’t matter?
Of course, big heady questions and philosophical implications don’t sell this show, because I make it sound so dour, which on some level it is. It’s deadly serious and very thoughtful. But Nolan and Joy keep the show infused with a sense of wonder, especially through the eyes of Dolores. Every day is an adventure, a new chance to experience the world. There’s something awe-inspiring in the freedom granted by this world too, much of that thanks to the fantastic production design. After all, Westworld is a show that was budgeted at 100 million for its first season, and that kind of money shows. It helps too that Nolan’s direction on this pilot is tight. Nothing to write home about, but certainly enough to keep the momentum propulsive and imbue the world with a sense of depth and scale.
Plus, the show is capable of thrills. While nothing quite like Game of Thrones’ penchant for action, there’s a shootout scored to an orchestral version of “Paint It Black” that’s worth watching this episode for, cut in with reactions from the patrons. Unlike some works that take place in fictional theme parks based on Michael Crichton novels from recent years (like say, 2015), Westworld knows how to make its park understandably and undeniably appealing. The kind of place you’d definitely be dying to escape to.
There’s definitely much to still discover. If anyone’s still got room to grow, it’s the actors. The mystery nature of the show means there’s a lot to be held back for now, meaning that not everyone has a whole lot to do. But Wood is phenomenal as Dolores, Hopkins knows how to tell a story with just a few facial expressions, and Wright is a perfect sort of nerd, a compelling character already set up to steal the show as things start to go wrong. That’s enough for now, and as we learn more, the rest of the cast is sure to catch up, given the quality of the rest of the work here.
Westworld is a show where much has gone right, and much could go wrong. Not just in the show itself, perhaps losing sight of the strength of its questioning and its ambiguity for instead a lack of thought and a refusal to find any answers, but in our engagement. Westworld is a show that wants us to ask “What if…” not “What will…” This is bold, brilliant television, the kind of show that could go down in the annals if all goes well. We have time, but I’m already chomping at the bit for my next step, and I hope you all will be too.
The first episode is available here http://www.hbo.com/watch-free-episodes/ for free.