HBO dramas collide with thought-provokingly meta results.

Westworld (TV series)

Two HBO dramas staged an unusual crossover on Sunday night. It was short, silly, and fantastic.

Midway through the second episode of Westworld’s third season, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) walk down a corridor in the great Delos underland. They’re on a mission, because Westworld has become one of those task-addicted serialized sagas where every episode is another item slowly marked off a checklist.

This week, Bernard — the most wanted global fugitive in a near future dominated by omnipresent surveillance — has returned via canoe to a high-clearance lockdown murder island owned by a monster megacorporation. He’s back so he can fingertap a very special tablet. He also sorta wants to find Thandie Newton’s Maeve, a hazy goal that floats away after the latest space-time rug-pull.

Bernard meets up with fellow surprise-robot Stubbs, and they head to the hallways of Park Four, a medieval fantasy world. All around them, Delos employees fix up hosts in knight cosplay. "I thought the parks were shut down," Bernard says, surrogating all confused viewers who assumed a mass-murdering AI singularity would do for the bot-slaying sex-tourism industry what the coronavirus is currently doing to every industry.

Game of Thrones, Westworld
Credit: HBO; John P. Johnson/HBO

The parks were shut down, Stubbs swears. "These techs are just waiting to see if they get laid off."

They pass a couple of body-shoppers in a windowed room. "Got a buyer," says one tech named Dan.

"What?" asks his co-worker Dave.

Dave looks like a dozer, to tell the truth, with his feet up during business hours. Whereas Dan’s up and about, diligent if not manic. "Some startup in Costa Rica," he explains.

"How the f— you going to get that to Costa Rica?" Dave asks, referring to something we can’t see.

"In pieces, man," says Dan, tone of voice like a trench buddy joking through fusillade, or a trusted partner begging you to forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.

Dan revs up the chainsaw, and moves toward what that is: A giant robotic dragon, purring smoky in the corner.

"Dave" is David Benioff, and "Dan" is D. (for Daniel) B. Weiss. They became famous last decade as the showrunners of Game of Thrones, a success story so gigantic that it rendered all HBO’s previous hits mere arthouse modesties. Benioff and Weiss were unusually public figures, often seen on awards stages. They became much-discussed internet topics during the show’s latter-day controversies. And the dragon looks very much like the creatures commanded by Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys. The assumption, I think, is that even a TV fan with casual behind-the-scenes awareness will recognize the people and the punchline.

Their whole appearance lasts 13 seconds. Dan and Dave say about 23 words. It’s a throwaway gag that only just relates to the plot. The hideaway framing and rapid editing smell like post-production, so I doubt Benioff and Weiss were ever even on set with Wright and Hemsworth.

I love this scene so much. I think I’ve watched it 30 times. It’s my favorite thing to happen on Westworld since season 1. It's my favorite Game of Thrones thing to air on HBO since King Tommen jumped out his window. The cameo is destructively meta, winking across a few universes, breaking the fourth wall’s neck. And there's a rich vein of meaning here, full of revelations about the weird state of big-budget television.

Start with the universes, plural. Scholarly shoutout to James Hibberd, EW’s man in Westworld, who brought up another reference point: The original Westworld movie was written and directed by Michael Crichton, the author who later created an even more famous sci-fi-vacation-gone-mad saga. Jurassic Park built its own adventureland miles offshore from Costa Rica. So there’s some cheeky self-laceration here: a remake of one famous Michael Crichton property noting how another Michael Crichton property was its own kind of remake, an elaborate find-and-replace of "robot" with "dinosaur."

The dissection goes deeper. Placing the producers of a medieval fantasy series in a park themed around medieval fantasy cuts back to the long-lost tease of Westworld’s first season: a sense that every recognizable entertainment format had its own corner of Delos’ worlds of wonder. Could it be that every HBO creator is working their own corner of this cultural subterranea? If you walked down another hallway, would you see Terence Winter repairing bulletholes in well-hatted Prohibitioneers, or Lena Dunham choreographing cycles of love pentagon-ship for androids modeled like millennial Brooklynites?

This could just be a showrunner high-five — or, maybe, an attempt at baton-passing. There was a time when Westworld looked like the inheritor of the Thrones crown, another massive genre addiction combining vast narrative scope with nudely-gory mature-content thrills. The cowbot adventure debuted back in 2016, right after HBO announced Thrones’ impending conclusion. Westworld had been a troubled production, but then season 1 snowball-rolled into an essential addiction full of great performances and play-along-at-home mysteries. That was an optimistic sign for a network counting down to a terrifying new era without an obvious ratings phenomenon.

Suffice it to say: Westworld will not be the new Game of Thrones. Ratings are down, which may not matter much in the fog of contemporary metrics, but surely it’s not what a premium cable network was hoping for amid the streaming onslaught. The show could run a few more years off Reddit-baiting fandom, though I suspect next season won't have Singapore Location Shoot budgets. And it’s telling, I think, that every other aspect of season 3 feels like an attempt to defibrillate cultural importance into the husk of four-year-old buzz. The whole world is the stage, the fate of the future at risk, all civilization is run by a god-computer and a plotting trillionaire, everyone’s in flying cars. LOOK HOW HUGE WE ARE is the aesthetic message.

This is part of the reason I love this Dan-and-Dave scene so much. It cuts the whole world back down to size. Start with the fact that whole subculture of Delos techs is already fascinating, this sorry gutter class of Westworld’s society. They have the absolute crummiest jobs: all the glory of IT processing, all the glamour of taxidermic autopsy, a work-life balance usually only achieved on a yearlong oil rig stint. (Season 3's version of Working Stiff-ery has refocused onto Los Angeles' subculture of TaskRabbit criminals — including a character played Lena Waithe, another TV creator. But blowing up ATMs for gig-market cash feels like a sub-mission from Watch Dogs, whereas the theme-park techs' particular drudgery suggests Philip K. Dick's banality-of-wonder futurism mixed with Cronenbergy-y body horror.)

Stubbs says that these techs are “just waiting to see if they get laid off,” dialogue that feels stapled into the scene without any hint of logic. You're telling me these everyguys are still on the job after a couple weeks of massacre? Willing to accept, though, that the show wants us to really respect just how miserable these guys are. And is there a bit of self-reflection at work here? Are Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy taking themselves down a peg? Two HBO showrunners cast two HBO showrunners as low-level corporate employees, serving at the pleasure of a company that doesn’t even value them enough to off time off for surviving a robot apocalypse. And just what are "Dan" and "Dave" doing, precisely? In the show’s reality, Westworld has failed, so the parent company is cutting the dragon into pieces. In our own reality, Westworld gets the ratings it gets, and HBO has bone-sawed Game of Thrones into disparate pieces: developing multiple Game of Thrones spin-offs, canceling one, specifically greenlighting the one with dragons.

Benioff and Weiss are controversial figures for reasons you either don’t care about or have already explained to your followers in several tweets. I was disappointed by the last Thrones season, and even so, I’ve been a bit surprised by the rush of negative fandom directed toward the series' final act. The showrunners currently hold a place in the cultural conversation adjacent to George Lucas circa 2006 and Damon Lindelof circa 2011, creators who had to successfully inspire tremendous popular awe in order to earn so much fannish distaste.

Which brings me to the charming modesty of this cameo. They’re not playing the latest iterations of Westworld’s favorite archetype, the speechifying Creator-Guru entangled in their own thematic majesty. Dan and Dave are, well, just a couple employees working in Sword Land, keeping the franchise well-oiled until the next dragonkeeper comes along.

Their moment brings out the best in the show. Westworld sure isn’t shy with its violence, and yet this is the rare time that horrific gore (sharp blade through scaly techbone) is entirely implied. So much gets packed into seconds of screen time. Benioff’s face is barely on screen, the camera lingering just long enough for him to offer a (not especially convincing) line reading of "What?" Weiss gets a comparative hero treatment, totally owning the (super-funny) closing one-liner, and I swear you can actually hear him grinning as he revs up the chainsaw. In a season that has trended ponderous, you get a feeling for the techs’ whole dynamic in just a few stray gestures: the lazy handsome, the gossipy ironist, both resigned to their bloody lot in life.

There are two big reasons I love this scene. First, it represents everything that’s gone missing from Westworld in its geographically expansive new season. All the main characters have become tangled techno-messiahs, their missions existential or revolutionary. There’s no room anymore for an intriguing regular person like Leonardo Nam’s Felix, demoted to a simulation cameo in this episode. Heck, there’s not even room for a metaphorically regular person like James Marsden’s Teddy, a model robo-hero killed into obscurity by his uncaring designers. You miss the casual dark humor of the body shop, the sense that the show could sardonically peek behind its own curtain.

And in a larger sense, this scene captures something so exquisite about this whole cultural moment: how television is changing, and what HBO might become in the new paradigm. Consider how, in season 1, the whole Delos theme park superstructure represented the apex of high-cost entertainment. You didn’t have to squint to compare it to the glory days of HBO, when every showrunner named David was hailed as a philosopher-king and every new drama broke the barriers of possible.

In season 3, Westworld is a failed piece of a larger corporate puzzle. The parent company is trying to figure out how to get more money out of it. The original park exists as a bastardized version of itself, all the old inspiration gone, the performers re-enacting old familiar patterns. (HBO Max arrives in May with Friends reruns, gang!) Meanwhile, startups are buying up Delos assets right and left. Back when HBO debuted The Sopranos, Netflix was just a startup. In 2020, the Game of Thrones cameo was technically a paid appearance by two Netflix employees. Turns out Dave and Dan shipped themselves to Costa Rica, too.

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Westworld (TV series)

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy's ambitious sci-fi thriller is based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name.

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