TV: Westworld (Seasons 1-3)

As a property, Westworld had enough things going against it for me—a reboot of an iffy 1970s science fiction film with an Old West backdrop?—that I wasn’t exactly lured. But it seems to have become enough of a flagship hit for HBO that I decided to catch up and see what the fuss is about. Upshot: in many ways it’s worth watching, but also erratic, deploying problematic and cynical tactics to essay thought-provoking themes.

My memories of the original Westworld film are vague: Michael Crichton wrote it, and Yul Brynner stars as a robot sheriff at a western theme park whose programmed play-acting turns deadly. It’s hardly an obvious choice for a twenty-first century update, but showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan give it an impressive new coat of paint. Early episodes gradually introduce viewers to the mysterious theme park Westworld, an elaborate real-world MMORG that recreates the American Old West. Obscenely wealthy tourists play make-believe in this elaborately built fantasy-land, which is serviced by a vast underground facility staffed by technicians, scientists, bureaucrats, and security guards. The main attractions of Westworld are the “hosts,” the incredibly lifelike humanoid robots who populate it. They’re essentially “non-player characters” who present the guests with quests, conflicts, and—more often than not—conquests. They’re cleverly programmed beings mixing hardware and biotech, designed to play roles, compliant to the commands of staff and the whims of guests. But they’re also not entirely aware that they aren’t real, which soon proves problematic, when that starts to change.

Much of the narrative centers on two of these hosts: Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), a rancher’s daughter and damsel-in-distress archetype, and Maeve Millay (Thandiwe Newton), the madam of a brothel. Dolores and Maeve serve as viewpoint characters for a slow-build transformation, as hosts who gradually become self-aware and—later—resist the systemic, repeated abuse to which they’re subjected. Because naturally, the human tourists visiting the park are insanely rich, one stepped removed from sociopathy, and most of them come to Westworld to live out base fantasies of the murderous and/or rapey variety. Not that the park’s employees are much more sympathetic. With the exception of thoughtful behavioral scientist Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), Westworld’s working-class support staff are a jaded and callous bunch, largely tasked with rebuilding damaged robots and hosing down the bodily fluids. Hosts killed or maimed by the guests are stripped, dehumanized, rebuilt, and reprogrammed on a regular basis, then sent back into the field on their story “loops” the next day. They’re not real, so no harm done, right? But when they start to remember their past experiences—the pain and loss they’ve suffered, and how disposably they’re treated as a servile subclass—they start to change.

Season one of Westworld is kind of a glorious mess, sandwiching thought-provoking science fictional concepts between its ridiculous logistics and pervy surfaces. It has that requisite HBO gloss: high production values, impeccable visual effects, rampant gratuitous nudity, and a first-rate cast that manages to elevate even the sillier moments. Wood and Newton are the obvious standouts, walking the line effectively as conflicted residents of Westworld’s bleak Uncanny Valley, while Wright is a compelling, subtle presence as a peculiar staffer with a conscience. But there’s also Jimmi Simpson as William (a tourist whose better nature is transformed by the narrative possibilities of the park), Anthony Hopkins (as the cerebral, unreliable park founder with a nebulous hidden agenda), and Ed Harris (perfectly cast as “the Man in Black,” a villainous guest obsessed with Westworld). Harris’s track, indeed, gives the first season a compelling secondary sense of momentum; his character is playing “the game within the game,” convinced the park holds some key to enlightenment or reward at the center of its “maze.” Between his quest and the subtle evolution of Dolores and Maeve from victims of circumstance to agents of a revolution, there is plenty of gripping storytelling on display. It’s all seeded with idea-heavy dialogue that gives the show depth: a Philip K. Dick-like emphasis on the question of what is real, an ethical examination of game mechanics, a metafictional dive into the psychological importance of story to human existence, and flashy depictions of futuristic advances. There’s also a fiendishly clever structural flourish to the first season’s multiple storylines that comes together nicely in the final episodes.

Even in its best season, though, Westworld has problems. Some of them are simple, like the varied and talented supporting cast (James Marsden, Tessa Thompson, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Shannon Woodward) that isn’t always given enough to do. But others involve ethical messaging, such as the way the show decries exploitation on one level while deploying it on another. Don’t get me started on the impossible logistics and economics of the Westworld theme park; to put it mildly, it’s handwavey nonsense. And the security services, at every level, are abysmal; they make Imperial Stormtroopers look like crack shots.

[Spoilers for later seasons ahead…]

All these blemishes are easy to brush aside, but their prevalence grows more wearisome and difficult to ignore going into season two, as the carefully constructed first season arc gives way to a more hastily conceived sophomore slump. Here, Westworld starts to become reminiscent of other shows that did interesting things in their day only to degrade under the pressure of content churn. In the aftermath of the robot uprising, Westworld is transformed from a theme park into a battleground, with hosts struggling to chart a path to their future while the staff—and the corporate bigwigs and security contractors backing the enterprise—work to quash the rebellion. Here, the show starts to feel like early “New Golden Age” TV that relies on twists and shocks to keep the viewer engaged, even as creative wheels spin in the mud. I’m reminded of Lost, for example, which over-relied on flashbacks and cliffhanger tactics to distract from the rampant, arbitrary factioning of its roster. There are also echoes of Battlestar Galactica, which fomented mystery by teasing the existence of impostor cylons among the presumably human crew members. In Westworld, the ability to port consciousness into new hosts, combined with frequently nonlinear timelines, means we’re never sure who’s alive, who’s dead, who might come back, and who’s even real. At times, this leads to effective plot turns and more intriguing irreality; indeed, the worlds-within-worlds trend continues as virtual reality joins the discussion, adding new layers of uncertainty. But it’s hard not to notice the media precursors, which makes season two—which also features some real stinker episodes that disastrously over-reach—feel derivative.

Then there’s season three, which migrates the conflict out of the theme park and into the real world. It’s a gutsy move, shaking up the show considerably. Initially, the shift in milieu is much-needed and refreshing. A new viewpoint character arrives in the form of Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul), a former special forces soldier now subsisting as a gig-economy mercenary in a cold, starkly class-stratified future. There are definite advantages to exploring life outside the park, presented as something of a shiny dystopia, where an opulent-looking, automated world conceals the enormous economic injustices of capitalism’s dark trajectory. Unfortunately, the ominous tone and grindy pace of the season grows rather sleepy, even as interesting Big Data critique is introduced. (One aspect of the season, centering on a shadowy tech billionaire played by Vincent Cassel, echoes Nolan’s earlier series Person of Interest in both its furniture and themes.) Overall, it’s an ambitious reach to bring the microcosmic themes forged in the original scenario to a more macrocosmic look at the dark machinations of the real world; it doesn’t entirely come off, but it earns points for the effort.

In the end, I don’t regret jumping onto the rickety, runaway train that is Westworld. Even when it isn’t working, it’s often interesting, and does plenty to hold the interest, enough so that I’ll probably see it through to the endgame. Alas, its bingeability declines as it goes, increasingly straining credulity, while its self-serious tone grows more ponderous. And boy, is its worldview ever pessimistic about humanity—a position it’s difficult to quarrel with, but that can be a bit much. I can imagine a full spectrum of reactions to Westworld, from devoted fandom to utter repulsion. I definitely landed somewhere in the middle.

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