We gave it an A-
The saga of a storytelling machine gone buggy, HBO’s Westworld finally arrives after an epic delay due to being a buggy storytelling machine. This is the least of many ironies. Rebooted from the 1973 cult classic movie, this crypto-philosophical sci-fi serial imagines a far-out place where adults can pay for a premium service fantasy and binge on extreme behaviors while exploring (or escaping) their identity. It’s not the future. It’s HBO! Created by Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest; The Dark Knight) and Lisa Joy, Westworld is about so many meta and metaphysical things at once, you can get lost in its shiny-walled labyrinth. What I know for certain is that I’m hooked, although it took a couple eps to sink into it and a lot of conversation to appreciate it. If you think Mr. Robot is a circuit-blowing mind-trip and UnREAL is cutting edge satire about reality blur media, wait until you meet the heavy metal misfits and haughty artists of Westworld.
“Westworld” is a themed resort, an ersatz Frontierland produced with meticulous verisimilitude, populated with near-human Tomorrowland automatons. It’s The Big Valley, cast with a bonanza of uncanny valley actors. Each synthetic thespian or “host” is scripted with a unique story that contributes to a sprawling, splintering soap opera, all controlled by remote, unseen showrunners. The oldest android in service is one of the youngest in appearance, and she currently performs the part of an optimistic rancherette named Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). Every day, she wakes up with a smile, greets her beloved father, rides into the town of Sweetwater for supplies, and gallops home to find rapacious bandits murdering her parents. That should leave a mark — except it doesn’t. Like all hosts, Dolores is memory-wiped each night and made to repeat this awful storyline the next day, as if for the first time. Disturbing? Hell yes. But the queasy concept encourages a critical posture toward what Westworld puts on screen. We see in her story a familiar tale of innocence lost, a comment on the clichés of grittiness and realism, and a high concept metaphor for the life of a working actress, among other things. Someone get her a better agent!
The only way Dolores and her kind can go off script is if the resort’s cosplaying customers or “guests” (daily rate: $40,000) join their dramas and change it, or co-opt the robots in their own improvised make-believe. Westworld provides countless choose-your-own-adventure options. Something you may not notice on first viewing is how the guests are presented with calls to heroic adventure — and ethical decision making — from the second they enter the muddy main street of Sweetwater. A hulking gunslinger rudely bumps into you. Do you brush him off or challenge him to a duel? A one-eyed geezer falls in the mud. Do you offer him a hand or ignore him?
In this way, Westworld effectively captures the experience of open world action-adventure games like Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, and Minecraft. But Westworld stands for all kinds of Dream Factory products and periods, past and present. We remember that the heyday of the western was Production Code-era Hollywood, when every movie was vetted for immoral content, making them intrinsically moralistic. There are intimations in Westworld that once upon a time, the showrunners were interested in provoking similar uplift and improvement. In its best possible form, this miraculous sandbox is Fantasy Island stuck in oater mode. Regardless, modern day Westworld is a Deadwood of moral ambiguity. It keeps the turnstiles churning by catering to guests looking for rank escapism, who prefer to romp and rage and Bada Bing! with no code at all. They can do anything they want to their warm and fleshy and oh, so comely hosts. Anything. With no social or mortal consequence at all, save the cost to their conscience. Many of them, mostly men, choose wanton nihilism. What happens in Westworld, stays in Westworld.
And so Westworld asks us to recognize ourselves in its story. The gamers. The bingers. The antihero aficionados. It also asks us to rethink other, weightier things, like our national mythology and how the west was really won. One nameless dude (Ed Harris) has been coming to Westworld for 30 years — for so long, “it feels like I was born here.” He dresses all in black, he wields customized weaponry, and he seems to have conformed completely to a villainous image of his own creation. He’s the Easter egg-hunting theorist who thinks Westworld holds a secret just for him — a maze, a hidden level, high stakes story that offers the ultimate catharsis. He’s a nasty amalgam: entitled entertainment consumer, hideous fanboy, male privilege run amok, black hat deconstruction of Manifest Destiny. He rapes, he slaughters, he takes a veritable slave. He’s lost something of his soul, his sense of realness, in Westworld, and you wonder if he knows it. (Your first clue: No name = obliterated identity.) The show is slow in suggesting dimensions to this monster; the storytelling wants to mine him for all his metaphors before treating him as a character. By the end of episode 2, you’ll loathe him and wish him dead. By the end of episode 4 (the last made available for review), you might feel differently. Who will he be — and what will we think of him — by episode 10?
Westworld is stories within stories, shows within shows, genres within genres. As a strange western plays out upstairs on a wild west stage, a mystery plays out downstairs in fish bowl labs and sterile workshops among the game-playing, throne-chasing producers. The showrunner-in-chief, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), is a maybe-cracked artist-industrialist — a geek Gepetto with Frankenstein’s hubris and Walt Disney’s toys and credit line — working on a secret project that could revolutionize the form and content of Westworld. Natch, the board of directors, obsessed with boundless growth and shareholder dividends, is nervous. (They might also be pursuing their own secret agenda, perhaps a new, transhuman application for Westworld’s ever-evolving ‘bots.) An agent of quality control (Sidse Babett Knudsen) prowls these behind-the-scenes levels. She’s the visiting studio exec policing the on-location talent, making sure the budget is responsibly spent. (It appears there’s a rotation of suits who visit Westworld, like a tour of duty. This nurtures another intrigue: Guys, where are we? Westworld never makes this clear. Is this the American West? Canada? Overseas? Could we be on another planet?)
Hopkins doesn’t have a lot of scenes in Westworld, but they have high impact. It’s hard to tell if Ford is striving to save the soul of his storytelling machine (literally: his Project X might involve something religious, judging from certain symbols) or if he’s playing another game entirely. His stand-out intro finds him in a wistful mood, sharing a drink with a now-retired, early model robot. The creaky cowboy clicks, whirs, and moves with the staggered motions of a Disneyland audio animatronic or Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation. (I love the beat when he seals himself back in his bodybag.) It’s a moment that contributes to the premiere’s wondering-aloud about the cost of constantly pushing for greater innovation and customer satisfaction. It’s more than just “Are We Meant to Play God?” pondering. It pokes at critical debates about the aesthetics and morality of realism and f/x-driven spectacle and the merits of fan service pop.
With a few exceptions, Westworld’s puppet masters have grown jaded about the magic they can make and hostile toward their walking, talking tricks. Maybe it’s because they have the tech down to a literal science. Maybe they feel threatened by their creations. Or maybe Westworld’s horrible consumers have simply left them profoundly disenchanted with the whole damn enterprise and disgusted by what they do. Nolan and Joy signal this dead-inside coarseness by portraying the storytellers and stagehands as callous, foul-mouthed cynics, so much so that it’s distracting and absurd. The frequency of F-bombs is so knowing, so ridiculous, you wonder if this, too, is meant as a parody of cable TV indulgence.
The drama on the showrunner level doesn’t come as easily or organically as the paranoid android angst in Sweetwater, yet it’s fascinating to think about all the same. How far does the meta go on this show? If Ford is questing to subversively re-engineer Westworld’s creative culture, then Westworld reflects the conversation about HBO itself, and by extension, all of TV. The network that launched the new century TV revolution with Oz, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City finds itself at a crossroads as it struggles to find successors to Game of Thrones and Veep that will carry the brand into the future. What should those shows look like? More of the lucrative same or something bold and risky? How should HBO (and every other network) respond to new debates about racial representation, gender norms, and sexual violence? How to continue making sophisticated adult entertainment without getting formulaic or exploitative with the TV-MA?
Turns out Westworld itself is at a similar turning point. In episode 2, Ford vetoes a major new storyline entitled “Odyssey on Red River” — the title evokes Rockstar’s open world masterpiece video game Red Dead Redemption — concocted by the sensationalistic, egotistical, and aptly named head of narrative, Mr. Sizemore. The guests aren’t “looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are,” says Ford. “They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.” He finishes by saying Sizemore’s story is more about him than those who’ll experience it. Ford’s murky words can be interpreted many ways. To me, they suggested a rebuke of au courant nihilism and auteur excess and a return to old school classicism where virtue, change, and redemption are possible. But can we go back? Aren’t the old ways naive and flawed? (I’m not trying to suggest HBO is publicly working out its own issues in this show. Still, watching the show with those issues in mind could be interesting… to maybe, like, 26 people. But I’m one of them.)
The puzzle that frames Westworld’s early installments has to do with a new feature Ford has introduced into the current generation of hosts, a quality that reflects his own melancholy: the capacity for reverie. It’s appears that this upgrade might be making robots glitch with memories they shouldn’t possess and reality-questioning self-awareness. What happens if it spreads? Will the actors revolt? That’s one way to redeem a world of retrograde story. Nolan and Joy and their writers ingeniously use this conflict to produce metaphors for any number of things — PTSD, existential nausea, social conditioning, class rebellion, maybe even original sin. Westworld’s head of programming, Bernard Lowe (a very good Jeffrey Wright), whose work is an escape from grief, is tasked with fixing this problem. Yet he’s fascinated and moved by this outbreak of identity crisis, and it might be triggering his own. Does he want to solve this systemic breakdown or let it run its course? Lowe’s curiosity and care for the hosts helps imbue the show with some humanity. He quietly masters almost every room and every interaction with his analytical mind, unflappable air, and deliberate eye movements. If Lowe doesn’t have his own hidden motives and cloaked dimensions, Wright does a fantastic job suggesting otherwise.
Westworld is a beautifully shot blockbuster production, and wants you to know it. There’s panoramic landscape photography and tracking shots of main street busyness. There’s some neo-Kubrickian flair in the visuals reminiscent of Jonathan Nolan’s brother, Christopher Nolan — controlled, dreamy, cold. It’s a triumph of detail and clever touches, like the player piano in the saloon, programmed with songs that seem to be cruelly trolling the robots (or maybe activating them?) like The Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black” and Radiohead’s “No Surprises.”
The storytelling is so layered, so dense, so self-reflexive, it can be opaque and overwhelming. I confess that the glib bloodshed of the first two episodes left me cold. There are shoot-outs, rogue killing sprees, scalpings, stabbings, and sexual assaults. One criticism of Westworld is that it wants to have it all ways. It asks questions about entertaining with violence, but make no mistake, it is violent entertainment. For me, the ambition and quality of the meta earned the excess and made the familiarity interesting. Dolores’ story is a tale of violence against women, a cliché of TV violence against women, a comment on the cliché of TV violence against women, and a question: How do we move beyond this? In another multifaceted allegory, Westworld’s overlords become concerned that Maeve (Thandie Newton), an older saloon madam, is losing her appeal. They start meddling with her character, triggering traumatic, degrading effects, and by episode 4, the beginning of rebellion.
Westworld is bunches of sci-fi things we’ve already seen, from Blade Runner to Dollhouse. This didn’t bother me, and the derivativeness and redundancies work for it. It’s also far from the first show that has functioned as critical or snarky comment on entertainment. Current examples include UnREAL, Mr. Robot, BoJack Horseman, and countless satirical comedies and genre parodies. Our present metapalooza speaks to our TV super-saturation, but it also calls into question the value of metafiction, too. I tend to be fascinated by it and tickled by it. Maybe I shouldn’t. The late media theorist Neil Postman, no fan of television, once argued that TV has a responsibility to make us aware of how the medium works on us and affects us. He suggested one way it could do that is by giving us shows that parody TV. But he also predicted that such illuminating anarchy would become absorbed by TV, that it would become a new norm, one more thing to amuse us.
And so Westworld could reveal itself to be an empty exercise in self-reflection. But today, my report is that the four episodes are absorbing if challenging and I’m excited to see more. Maeve’s story in the second ep got me thinking about the show for hours and talking about it with colleagues for days. I realized then that Westworld owned my mind and that I cared about everything it was about: characters, world, mysteries, and themes. Look, using violence against female characters, or any character, is a cheap way to hook an audience. (It’s a big reason why it took me so long to come around on Game of Thrones. I resented this manipulation for years.) Still, at the risk of affirming the strategy, I’m invested in Dolores and Maeve. And Wood and Newton are killer apps. They have deep imagination for playing mechanical playthings, but sell the project of making them metaphors for broken people. The depth of Westworld lies not in asking questions about memory, free will, and what makes us human, but in whether we can become more human than what we let ourselves to be, whether our stories can be richer and more meaningful than what the culture allows. What moves me more than anything is watching credible, compelling stories about interesting characters gaining eyes to see their demeaning programming and trying to rewrite the codes of themselves. Change is difficult, maybe impossible. But I’ve seen that gritty, despairing truth dramatized countless times over the past 20 years, producing grand, important successes, but it’s become the new cliché, and we’re just repeating over and over, like the endless cycles of Dolores. What’s next? Can we cut deeper? Can we do better? Maybe Westworld has answers to these questions. Maybe not. Let’s find out. I want to see where Dolores and Maeve’s redemptive and rebellious glitching will take them, how Ford intends to evolve Westworld, and if Westworld’s meta-critique has something constructive to say about the future of entertainment. State-of-the-art TV about state of the art escapism, Westworld is an amazing mirror maze that must be traversed. A-