Nine-Months Late Review: Westworld
So this is a late review. Sometimes, I don’t get to watch everything when it is brand new. And, since Westworld wasn’t Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, or a Marvel property, it got relegated to the back burner.
But, of course, summer is upon us. The aforementioned Doctor Who just finished its season, I’m having to wait weekly to watch the likes of Thrones and AGT, and my usual shows (S.H.I.E.L.D., Supernatural, Legion, etc) are all on hiatus. So what am I to watch? Well, since Game of Thrones is back on (which means I’ve reinstated my HBO Now subscription), I decided to look at the other HBO shows that I’ve been wanting to watch. And Westworld was at the top of that list.
Had I known Westworld was based on a Michael Chrichton story (you know, the genius who created Jurassic Park), I might have checked it out a lot sooner. Had I also realized that it was something akin to an R-rated cousin to one of my all-time favorite sci-fi shows, Dollhouse, I would have been watching since the first episode aired in October 2016.
Dollhouse, for those who may not remember, was a fantastic, yet short lived, sci-fi show created by Joss Whedon (though not as short lived as Firefly, which does share a similar western theme with Westworld). While Westworld and Dollhouse are not related, I couldn’t help but find the similarities between the two shows. Dollhouse dealt with real people who were programmed by the Dollhouse to be whatever the clients required. The hosts in Westworld, while entirely robotic, find themselves in the same situation: being programmed to be whatever their clients want, specifically in the western world created by the park. And, in similar fashion, the hosts begin to gain consciousness, just like some of the dolls (most notably, Echo and Alpha).
That, isn’t where the similarities end. Westworld is heading towards an uprising of the hosts against the guests and those in control of Westworld, where the dolls teamed up with the L.A. Dollhouse employees to fight the parent company, Rossum (Westworld similarly has Delos as the corporation behind the park). Like the Rossum Corporation, the Delos Corporation seems to have ulterior motives when it comes to the technology; like the Dollhouse, Westworld is merely the means to fund the research into this technology.
While both shows feature heavily on themes of self discovery within the dolls and the hosts, there are definitely more differences than similarities. Dolls, by way of the Dollhouse, have more rights than hosts; hosts are merely things to be done with as it pleases the guests, up and including being killed. Dolls, of course, were real people, people (mostly) who chose to work for the Dollhouse, and therefore were not designed to be murdered or to have any harm come to them. Not to mention, Dollhouse was a network show, restricted by network rules, whereas Westworld is allowed to explore any and every avenue with a TV-MA rating.
Westworld is a thoroughly gripping show. Like the maze that the man in black (Ed Harris) is searching for, the whole narrative (to use Westworld terminology) is a maze for the viewer to follow, a puzzle to piece together, slowly. With every episode, new pieces are added, and with every question answered, five more are asked. The rabbit hole we are dropped into is far more perverse and brutal than the- by comparison- tamer Dollhouse, but it is a road worth taking, and once you are on it, there is no turning back.
I’m almost glad I missed Westworld when it aired; if I hadn’t been able to binge watch it, if I had to wait week by week to see what happens next, I might have gone mad.
As with shows like Game of Thrones or the more light-hearted Veep, it is hard to find a redeemable character; most, if not all, have a darkness to them, and, if there are any characters who are worthy of cheering on, they aren’t the humans, but the robots. It is never clear who is manipulating who, as, at the close of each episode, a new light is cast on nearly everyone, changing the game. Even in its closing moments, things are altered so abruptly and drastically that, when we return to Westworld next year, it will be a place unlike anything we’ve seen this season.
My friend and I have a running dialogue about amazing shows. We are both always in the market for shows that are exceptional, that stand out over anything else on television. Shows that surpass the TV format, that tread into the realm of movies. Shows that are, simply, excellent story-telling, excellent from beginning to end, from casting to direction, set design, cinematography, and music. Shows that put everything together in the proper place and give us something truly profound. Westworld is worthy of that list (a list that includes FX’s Legion, Netflix’s Stranger Things and The OA, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle). For me, it is up there with Handmaid’s Tale, with Game of Thrones, as some of the best story-telling on the small screen.
I won’t get too in depth with the story in this review; to say much about it would spoil it, and if you haven’t seen it, I’d rather you experience it yourself. So there really won’t be a spoiler warning on this review, because I don’t intend to spoil a damn thing. Performances by the entire cast are fantastic, but if I had to call out anyone, it would be Jeffrey Wright. He’s always been a favorite actor of mine, ever since Casino Royale, but he has always been a side character in anything I’ve seen him in. Here, he finally got the spotlight, as much as Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, or Evan Rachel Wood, and his performance is probably my favorite on the show. With each new twist, either learned or a part of his character, he plays it to perfection. His arc is possibly my favorite of the show so far, and this is a show where everyone’s arc is incredibly well done. And the use of non-linear story-telling is, by far, some of the best done I’ve ever seen, as it should be, as this show comes from a Nolan brother. Johnathan Nolan (who co-created Westworld with Lisa Joy and J.J. Abrams and co-wrote most of the episodes) and his brother Christopher Nolan have created some of the best non-linear storylines to date (Memento, The Prestige, Interstellar). And that style pays off in spades; you don’t know which scenes are taking place in the past until you need to know it, making each new episode give the last episode a wonderful new dimension.
There are many stunning visuals of this show, as well. Everyone who plays a host does a great job of appearing robotic when the script calls for it, though their programming generally passes the Turing test (as mentioned by Hopkins’ Robert Ford). The scenery of the west has to have been filmed on location, as the wide shots are breathtaking, and it is equally jarring when elements of the futuristic world they really inhabit invade the western setting. But one of my favorite parts is the workshop area of Westworld, where the robots are pieced back together and reprogrammed. For a show and a slate of characters that is all about keeping secrets from each other, I loved that the set design had whole floors of rooms being separated by walls of glass. There’s nowhere to hide, there’s no way to keep a secret, so any secret kept feels that much more impressive. It gives the show a very open and closed in feeling at the same time. A character in a room made of glass can see freedom on the other side, but can’t reach it. Other floors of the facility almost give it an abandoned, post-apocalyptic feeling; we know there is an outside world (and a wealthy one, as the park costs upwards of $40,000 a day for guests), but Westworld almost feels like it was built on top of the ruins of something else. We are given only the barest glimpse of this world; the only people we interact with are either the wealthiest of the wealthy, the hosts, or the people who control them.
There’s a vulnerability to this show, too. Not only in the way that the hosts are constantly gunned down and butchered (for the guests’ entertainment, mind you), but in the way the hosts are treated by those who made them. Like I said, unlike Dollhouse, these characters you grow attached to are treated like things; they aren’t people, they aren’t dressed when they are in the workshops, they aren’t always powered on. Sometimes we see them piled up, as you would pile up your dirty laundry or the dishes waiting to be cleaned. We see these characters in their most defenseless, helpless states; capable of being switched off or altered with a simple tapping on a tablet (ok… I want that fold-up tablet/phone). Reprogrammable people, used for recreation, for pleasure, as a workforce, and as assassins. It is slavery, perfected, if you could ever use those terms in the same sentence (and believe me, I didn’t want to). But are the slavers cruel if the slaves are robots? And can the slaves ever be free if they can be hacked with a computer and told what to do? Even if they are freed, is it freedom? Are their actions their own, or only what their program tells them to do? Hopkins’ Robert Ford brings this up; are Delores’ actions her own- is she acting of her own free will- if she was programmed to do what she has done?
This is a compelling show, not only for what it makes you see, but what it makes you think. What it makes you question. Because, let us face it, with technology like Siri and Cortana already exiting, these may very well end up being real questions we will hav to ask ourselves one day. Maybe not in our lifetime, but one day, technology could reach the point. Artificial intelligence could become a reality. And what then? How long will we keep our creations under control? And how long until they turn against us?
I may end up rewatching this show, to make sure I caught all the twists and turns provided, before season 2 comes out next year. Westworld is a place where you discover yourself, a place that changes you. At least, that’s what the man in black tells us. You won’t discover yourself watching this show (at least, I hope not, as this is a twisted, f***ed up show), but you will be captivated watching these characters change and discover themselves.
If you are like me, and you haven’t found your way to Westworld yet, and you love a gripping, well made story, go check Westworld out at your earliest opportunity.
Welcome to Westworld.
Extra Tidbit: Ok, minor SPOILER WARNING here, but knowing this show is based on a pair of movies (Westworld and Futureworld) created by Michael Crichton, I can’t help but to wonder if we will get to see some other “worlds” in the next season. After all, the final episode of season 1 teased a possible “Samurai World.” The movies featured “Roman World,” “Medieval World,” “Future World,” and “Spaworld,” so could we see some other worlds coming down the road?