We’re now three hours into into Westworld, HBO’s high-concept science fiction drama loosely based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. With a reported cost of $10M per episode, the premium cable giant is counting on Westworld to fill a certain dragon-free gap in their dramatic programming that’s been gaping ever since the second series of True Detective immediately went off the rails.
For now, Westworld seems to have done its job. With a pilot viewership of 3.3M -HBO’s best since the first series of True Detective– critical/popular acclaim, and a desirable place in a pop culture landscape very much shaped by recaps and fan theorizing……Westworld is a hit. A second season is essentially assured at this point. We’re just waiting on the announcement. Westworld appears to have already become what both The Leftovers (a bit too slow) and The Night Of (initially promising, but) failed to. My gripe is that I’ve seen nothing to convince me Westworld is actually good or worthy of the theorizing. And again, we’re through three episodes of a ten-episode season. The show’s past the point where pilot-like expositional setup and intrigue can pique interest. At some point, the characters need to carry it home.
The premise of Westworld is fun enough. Westworld is futuristic theme park in an old-West setting populated by semi-conscious, disturbingly realistic artificial intelligences called “hosts” (Cowboy robots? Cowboy robots!). These hosts can’t actually hurt the guests (at least not yet), but boy, can they die in grisly romanticized ways. These hosts are even given personalities and backstories, but they’re on a loop and completely acquiescent to the whims of the guests. These hosts exist to function within each guest’s own create-your-own-adventure. Whores, bandits, lawmen. A guest can do whatever he or she wants while in Westworld. You can drink brandy, fuck robots, rinse, repeat. Or you can grab a six-shooter and go off an adventure.
There’s an interesting story somewhere in there. What drives people to spend $40K a day to visit? What drives people to make the decisions they make when they do visit? But Westworld the show doesn’t seem to care much about that. It’s narrative, which is very much about narrative in general, is more concerned with the hosts and the coding that goes into them and how they are/aren’t human. Rather than use the idea of Westworld as a way to study its human characters, Westworld (to this point) is happy functioning as just another “What does it really mean to be human?” epic. Only, it’s hard to feel anything for the hosts of Westworld because we’re told explicitly over and over that every single detail concerning them is manufactured. Nothing is natural. They don’t grow and learn, the just get a new storyline to follow from up top. Westworld doubled down on this in its most recent episode; communicating that the emerging memories of the hosts, which is what drives the plot, probably aren’t happening by accident.
The two most interesting characters through three episodes are veteran guest Logan (Ben Barnes) and his first-time friend William (Jimmi SImpson). Logan seems to be content coming to Westworld for its revels (i.e. having sex with robots). William is different. He’s repeatedly shown turning down said inorganic sexual advances, and is more interested in the adventurous elements of Westworld. These contrasts are intriguing, but the two are yet to really matter in the larger context of the show (though, at least that appears to be changing).
To a certain extent, an extent ultimately based on your willingness to sit back and just enjoy, the problems with Westworld are offset by its merits. Westworld is for the most part entertaining. It’s very cinematic in its look. The cinematography experiments, the sets are impressive, the loaded cast seems to be having a lot of fun (Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, and Ed Harris will always be watchable). Westworld attempts to combine two bankable subgenres -the violent western and the thinking man’s sci-fi film- into one tonal/visual aesthetic. It works at times. Westworld is at its best when it takes a Spielbergian approach and has its characters look in awe of everything that is unfolding. It’s more well-made and more thoughtful than 95% of what’s on TV.
It also is so deeply embedded in the idea of mystery that it can afford to tread water for the time being, with the promise of mind-bending payoff lingering in the back. Westworld refuses to show its hand too early. Assuming the show gets multiple seasons, viewers are likely looking at a 20+ hour wait before they know what’s really going on. Maybe this helps retain viewership- are you really going to stop watching this early when you don’t even know what the show is yet? But it also makes the show’s lack of character work even more noticeable. I’m watching Westworld because of what I think may happen down the road, not because I’m interested in what’s going on right now. I’m assuming the hosts are going to continue to be humanized and remember the horrible things they’ve been through and (maybe) team up in some way against those evil, vice-driven humans. Of course, I’m probably way off-base. Some insane twist, the ones folks theorize about, could emerge (one of the showrunners is a Nolan, after all).
Perhaps most alarmingly in terms of its future, Westworld is hurt by the dullness of its two apparent leads. The female lead (Evan Rachel Wood, trying her best) is a host named Dolores. She’s actually not a prostitute. She’s a farm girl who loves her dad(s) but dreams of adventures outside her little world. She’s shown to have more genuine feelings than the other hosts, though that’s due to her being a muse for the male lead (Jeffrey Wright, lifelessly playing a lead programmer) to use almost as a therapist. There are three lenses through which the viewer understands Westworld. Dolores is the host lens through which we begin to understand the psychology of these things. William is the human lens through which we see the actual park. Wright’s character, Bernard, is the human lens through which we experience the inner-happenings of Westworld. The latest episode attempted to make Bernard seem more nuanced than the hosts; tried to make him, you know, actually human. One forced expository backstory about the loss of a child later and we’re looking at a male lead more robotic than the actual robots.
Of course, none of my carping really matters. Westworld is a hit for the reasons I’m struggling with it, not despite them. It spends its time trying to be mysterious and the interwebs are rife with weary commenters trying to unravel those mysteries.
“Is so and so really dead?”, “What if X is actually Y?”, that sort of thing.
I’ve be burned before when I form an opinion of a show too early, both negative and positive (after the first two episodes of each, I’d have told you The Night Of was the best thing ever and that The Wire was kind of boring). I’ll sit with Westworld for a few more hours. But if I’m not soon given a reason to care about these characters, a reason to watch beyond the what-ifs, I’ll have a hard time justifying its place in my culture-consuming rotation.