This post is going to be a little different from my usual posts. It isn’t an episode by episode run through nor is it really a review of the show in a traditional sense. It’s really more of a written response to the series after a weekend long marathon. To those of you not familiar with Westworld, don’t worry – I won’t be spoiling any major reveals, but as a result I won’t be going into much detail. Westworld takes place in a very special kind of Wild West themed amusement park populated with near sentient robots. The robots are subject to exactly the kinds of twisted abuse that humans would inflict on things that they would consider less than human. This is usually not an issue – the robots memories are wiped clean routinely and the humans can live out their sick fantasies without fear of repercussion. Things begin to change when Dolores, begins to malfunction and recall inconvenient memories of the park and the people that frequent it.
Broadly speaking, it is the interplay of two elements that drives the success of any story; its premise and the way that premise is explored. In most television series, immediate, short term viability is born out of the former while true longevity depends on the latter. Game of Thrones, for example, for all the intricacy of its setting would never have lasted this long without great writing and amazing performances. In some ways, Westworld works in exactly the opposite way. Even if it weren’t the third attempt at adapting a Michael Crichton novel, the core of Westworld‘s premise hasn’t aged particularly well. The blurry line separating human sentience from its robotic counterparts has been explored quite thoroughly in other works and the looming threat of a robotic uprising is a trope common enough to even be considered passé. That is not to say that the premise has nothing going for it – our relationship with technology is something that has only become more relevant in the time since the novel was published and and the atmosphere within the setting, with its quests and daily ‘resets’, is evocative of many video games. Having said that though, the series leans more heavily on its cast and its script than other series would in similar stages of their lifecycles.
This premature dependence on execution has a number of sources. For one, Westworld’s story arc has an unmistakeable silhouette; even though the exact details of the plot are unclear, its general form is obvious from a mile away and to the show’s credit, almost all of its best moments come from those details rather than any kind of unexpected detours on the macro story level. In a sense, the questions the audience asks itself after some of the more surprising details are revealed are less to do with ‘Where will the story go from here?’ and more to do with ‘How will the story reach the established end point now that these details are revealed?’ Writing a story under such constraints can be tricky; there is so much room for subterfuge and hidden meanings when both the start and the end are clearly established but Westworld pulls it off better than most series would in similar circumstances.
Westworld’s reliance on strong execution is even easier to understand when you consider the wealth of talent the series had at its disposal. There was no shortage of brilliant performances throughout the season but special credit must go to Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood for their spellbinding performances as the enigmatic Robert Ford and as the distressed and malfunctioning robot Dolores. Anthony Hopkins finds himself in his natural element in Westworld; his ominous yet dignified character carries with it an intensity that tends to steal any scene he is in. On the other hand, Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as Dolores is actually a little more demanding since it requires a broader range – Dolores must play the hapless victim running from human cruelty while struggling with her burgeoning sentience. Wood’s performance does not demand the audience’s attention in the same way that Hopkins’ does but nonetheless her portrayal of Dolores is the lynchpin holding the entire enterprise together. The series’ success isn’t only attributable to the actors, of course; Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have added complexity and texture to an otherwise fairly bland story and then proceeded to tell that story with flair, creativity and ambition. Regardless of whether or not the audience saw the various twists and turns of the plot coming, the creators deserve credit for the way they put the story together and let it fall together for its head-spinning conclusion.
Yet, having said that, Westworld’s strength as a series comes more from its examination of consciousness than the storytelling sleights of hand it is able to pull off. Some of the perspectives that the series offers on the notion of time, recollection and the perception of suffering are refreshingly new and offer stark contrast to the familiarity of the rest of the setting. Of particular note is that idea of what ‘memory’ even means to a machine – Westworld stipulates that mankind is able to distinguish past from present only as a result of imperfect recollection. For example, we are able to tell that yesterday is distinct from the day before because the memories from the day before are just a little hazier. It’s might not be a bulletproof hypothesis but anyone who’s had a string of holidays where one day seems indistinguishable from the next probably can attest to there being some underlying truth to the theory. The foundations on which the series are built are exposed to the audience systematically – as the various characters come closer and closer to full cognitive independence, it becomes clear what barriers held them previously and while the audience might not be convinced about the potency of those barriers, it certainly gives plenty of food for thought.
Westworld’s first season has given it an incredible launch pad but it does not have the makings of a masterpiece. The story telling could have been tighter; far too much of the middle episodes felt like the characters were meandering around looking for answers that the audience already had. Watching the twists and reveals come on a week by week basis was undoubtedly entertaining but unsurprisingly, the effect is much more muted on a second viewing and is less likely to work again in a second season. There were a handful of characters who felt superfluous to the story – except for the one scene in which they played a critical role. It’s not bad storytelling but it is a wasted opportunity given the absolute abundance of talent at the show’s disposal. Of course, none of this comes anywhere close to preventing it from being the highlight of television in the later half of 2016.
And…that’s it really. That’s the extent of what I can talk about without going into full-out spoiler territory. I guess it was a little more like a review than I expected. Unfortunately, that means I’m going to have to do another post if I’m going to actually talk about the stuff I want to talk about.