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Television Review: Westworld – Season One

Westworld – Season One (HBO; 2016)

Based on a cult 1970s film written and directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, Westworld imagines a theme park of the near-future that utilizes human-like androids to replicate America’s Wild West (at least in its Hollywood Western mythos iteration) for paying vacationers. While Crichton’s film was a pulp B-movie take on this intriguing premise, this HBO series version co-created and showrun by Lisa Joy and her husband Jonathan Nolan (brother of and frequent screenwriter for acclaimed director Christopher Nolan) delves into its thematic and intellectual possibilities.

Featuring the large ensemble cast and sprawling world-creation imperatives of many other HBO dramas, Westworld focuses on many characters and storylines in and around this theme park, inculcating its guests, robotic “hosts”, corporate overseers, creative directors, and low-level technicians into its processes and meanings. At the westworld2top of Westworld’s pyramid is Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), co-founder of the park and, despite his advanced years and secretive practices, still an active if inscrutable presence in the crafting of the park’s immersive, interactive experiences and storylines, known as “narratives”.

Ford’s plans for a grand new narrative are treated with skepticism by operations manager Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and later by Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), a savvy and ruthless envoy from the board of Delos, the corporate overlords of Westworld, whose interest in the park goes beyond simple tourist business. Below Ford is Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), whose team, including the sharp-tongue Elsie (Shannon Woodward), monitors and tweaks the behavior of the hosts. Bernard is also involved sexually with Cullen and continues to the haunted by the death of his young son. There’s also an arrogant writer of narratives (Simon Quarterman), a square-jawed head of security (Luke Hemsworth), and a pair of bickering, host-repairing lab techs (Leonardo Nam and Ptolemy Slocum) onsite in the vast behind-the-scenes complex.

Inside the park is much more intriguing (and, outside of Hopkins and Wright, the location of most of the better performances). The hosts – the lifelike, Turing Test-passing robot denizens of Westworld – while away day after day in the park in endless repetitive loops, used by the guests however they see fit: killed, maimed, beaten, screwed, then reset, mended and returned to the start of their pre-set path without any memory of what was done to them. Although specific hosts may play a series of roles over the decades (or may indeed be retired to a spooky, light-flickering basement vault), those we meet at the opening of the series fill a series of Western archetypes. There’s Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the virtuous farmer’s daughter romantically yearning for a fresh horizon; Teddy (James Marsden), the gunslinging man of action tending an unrequited (and unrequitable) flame for Dolores as well as a dark, violent secret in his past; Maeve (Thandie Newton), a hard-bitten saloon/brothel madam with a history of painful loss; and in the background, the usual coterie of ruthless, colourful outlaws and killers, lawmen and laymen, Mexican peasants and Indian raiders, Confederate Army guerrilla dead-enders and Union soldiers.

There are also three guests of particular note: uninhibited park vet and corporate investor Logan (Ben Barnes) and his more timid and morally conscious future-brother-in-law William (Jimmi Simpson), a park neophyte through whose eyes the depths of the place are revealed; and the mysterious, cruel, implacable Man in Black (Ed Harris), a guest of long standing who has wearied of even Westworld’s more involved entertainments and is searching doggedly for the secret meaning at the end of the park’s metaphorical “Maze”, supposedly planted there by Ford’s now-deceased co-founder, Arnold. Logan and William’s adventures coincide with what seems to be a scattershot awakening of sentient self-awareness for Dolores, while Maeve likewise begins to remember things and question her reality and the park’s patriarch Ford is increasingly threatened with removal by Delos’ reps.

Westworld‘s storytelling is of the puzzle-box variety, and like the most notable examples of that type (Lost comes particularly to mind), frequently employs subterfuge and delay and obscuring incident to kick the can containing its core mysteries down the road. This can be frustrating, but their revelation in later episodes (especially the finale) as the pieces come together cannot be said to be unsatisfying. There are some strong performances: Wood, Wright, and the ever-underrated Newton are all quite good, though the elite-level work of longtime veteran actor Hopkins – who can turn a simple dialogue scene into a thespianic masterclass – outshines the lot. The musical selections by Ramin Djawadi include contemporary pop-rock songs in re-orchestration (Maeve’s eye-opening tour of the backroom facilities is lovelily scored by Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack”) and in arrangements on player-piano (which doubles as a recurring metaphor for the hosts’ invisible automation) which subtly comment on Westworld’s eeriely artificial nature. Indeed, the show’s entire premise presents an obvious opportunity to critique the American mythmaking project around westward expansion. But Joy and Nolan are less interesting in that artificial creation than the God-proxy intellectual implications of creating artificial intelligence and the invisible dance of freedom and control.

More than anything, Westworld is keenly aware of the milieu in which it is presented and signals that awareness in its thematic construction. As a showpiece prestige HBO drama, Westworld displays the hallmarks of that once-bulletproof, now-faded honorific: noted for its graphic violence, nudity and sex, and general adult content, but redeemed from mere cynical sensationalism by a self-serious core of anxiously questing meaning, a quasi-literary focus on the Big Questions about society, morality, and human nature. From Oz through The Sopranos and The Wire up to the network’s current juggernaut Game of Thrones, top-shelf Emmy-favoured drama series have shared this character and grappled with its baseline dichotomy.

Interestingly, Westworld enacts this fundamental framing of the HBO drama, which presupposes a critical view that inclines to the negative, within its very text. The elaborate Old West theme park is a romantic but detailed simulacrum of its historical setting, inhabited by intelligent robots painstakingly programmed to exhibit convincing – if simulated – human expression and emotion, its daily rhythms directed by constructed narratives rooted in base drives, governing passions, social conflicts, and moral choice. But despite all this focus on the skilled crafting of meaning, most of the guests at this intricate attraction are understood as only being crassly interested in fucking and killing, both of which they can (and do) engage in with the artificial hosts with impunity.

Of course, Westworld certainly is about the deeper questions. Its creators’ intent of representing not merely hedonistic excess but exploring philosophical quandaries about artificial intelligence, consciousness, memory, and the nature of sentient existence is carried out, just as the similar intent of Ford and Arnold endures through the visceral amusements favoured by the guests. Perhaps even the struggles and conflicts of the park’s creative element with their grasping corporate overlords are meant to reflect the not-dissimilar negotiation of artistic and capitalist interests that the show’s brain trust experienced at HBO, a network in dire need of the non-Westerosi drama division success that Westworld represented. For its steely meta-intelligence as well as its dogged watchability, Westworld is enough of a success to do the trick, for HBO and for discerning television audiences.

Categories: Reviews, Television
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