It’s interesting that high expectations might be Westworld’s biggest problem. The feverishly anticipated HBO series reveals a world in which boundless expectation and possibility gets stifled when the bleakness and limits of reality sets in.
The reality is that Westworld isn’t the “next Game of Thrones” that a network whisper campaign that the press has somehow run with hoped, or perhaps mandated, it would be. The grandiosity and scope—of story, emotion, and production value—that makes the battle for Westeros so rousing isn’t so much mimicked in Westworld as it is confused for fruitless ambition and needless intricacy.
The irony shouldn’t be lost: a key issue with a show centered around androids who gradually become, or at least crave, to be human is that its hollowness lacks the vibrancy and, yes, humanity it needs to succeed HBO’s biggest hit.
So Westworld isn’t the next Game of Thrones. That’s not the indictment that it somehow reads, given that hype and expectation. It is, however, a sprawling world that raises pointed existentialist questions about the base-level carnality that continues to drive us as humans, as well as the potential and limits to which we can evolve. (Also, hey, it’s about screwing hooker robots and dueling outlaw androids.)
The blended universe of the Wild Wild West theme park and the futuristic sci-fi coldness of the labs that create it is painstakingly crafted, as in occasionally painful in the level of intricacy, but also often beautiful and even whimsical. And the performances from the cast, led by Evan Rachel Wood, ground a narrative web that sometimes tangles itself.
In other words, Westworld is pretty, often provocative, but sometimes so confusing that, unlike its notoriously complicated dragon-laden counterpart, it can even be boring.
The mass popularity of Game of Thrones is often attributed to the idea that even people who don’t typically enjoy sci-fi or fantasy are entertained by it. While that’s a notion that I don’t entirely subscribe to—it’s typically used to either dismiss challenging material or excuse shoddily crafted genre fare—that might not be the case for Westworld.
As its premise suggests, the series is both a lot of fun and also, at times, a little horrifying.
Westworld is a theme park where rich customers pay to interact with androids programmed to behave as if the Wild West is real. The guests are allowed to indulge any desire they like, no matter how depraved, with little consequence. Obviously sex with the saloon hookers and shootouts with bandits are popular experiences. The androids are all programmed to live out carefully planned roles and storylines, but with room for slight improvisation in order to make their encounters with guests seem all the more real.
There’s humor right away, like when bounty hunter Teddy (James Marsden) and rancher’s daughter Dolores (Wood), banter in purposefully cheesy Hollywood western dialogue. And when we begin to learn more about the technical wizards with godlike complexes, deeper questions about human instinct are revealed. How lifelike should these androids seem? Would you want to know your husband is having sex with a real woman? Killing a real guy? The park works because of the knowledge that the androids are not real.
And as masterminds played by Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright continue to update and manipulate the androids so that the line between human and robot becomes all the more blurred, the question of what’s real becomes a dangerous one. Not to mention the underlying query: what is their endgame? Surely it goes beyond designing a theme park for rich pricks to get their jollies.
Suspicious of that very thin is the mysterious Man in the Black Hat, played by Ed Harris, a decades-long visitor of Westworld who is there this time to crack that greater mission, using whatever relentlessly violent means necessary in order to find out.
It’s all intriguing, if a lot to keep track of, and we haven’t even mentioned they hysteria suffered by androids who begin to remember things (including Thandie Newton’s Maeve), a confusing bandit storyline featuring an android played by Rodrigo Santoro, the morally conscientious crusade of a customer played by Jimmi Simpson, and a behind-the-scenes House of Cards of sorts as corporate executives spar with Hopkins and Wright’s android purists in the battle between profitability, experience, and the noble work creating sophisticated robots.
In the four episodes given to critics to preview, these various plots meander to varying degrees of interest, at each turn raising more questions and, often frustratingly, answering little of them. Few characters’ motivations are clear, making it difficult to muster any investment in them, let alone their roles in the increasingly intricate plot.
Plus, the hollowness of its androids pervades the series, which at many turns is too anesthetized to justify its ambition. There’s a bloody, beating heart beneath Game of Thrones’s lengthy and sometimes lethargic exposition. When the characters are literally artificial, the feeling tends to be, too.
While it, again, is hard to compete with the stunning visuals that come from Game of Thrones’s expensive on-location shoots spanning the globe, the Midwest landscape is exquisitely shot here. There’s a sweeping shot in Sunday’s premiere of Marsden and Wood riding horses across a prairie that is simply breathtaking. And the sterile coldness of the laboratory where these androids are created plays in disturbing, clever contrast.
The imagery is stunning, even when it’s bluntness is hard to look at. The premiere’s recurring sequence of Wood’s Dolores naked and bloodied as she is interrogated by creator Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) is gorgeous and disturbing, with Wood tasked with vacillating between the robotic blankness of a robot, glints of human awareness and confusion, and the heightened emotionality of the character arc Dolores is supposed to be playing. It’s transfixing.
It’s certainly problematic that sexual violence and the demeaning of the female characters often become essential plot devices in early episodes, even if the nature of this theme park—that the androids who inhabit are there to be used—may narratively justify it. There’s a frankness to the nudity, both male and female, because the androids feel no shame (they’re even referred to as “livestock”), but the it’s interesting that when the nudity is sexualized, it’s, as usual, all tits and no dicks.
So what’s there to make of this show? Given how meticulously plotted, even if it is to a fault, the first few episodes are, there should be faith that there’s some sort of mind-blowing payoff in store. The subject matter certainly lends itself to that. In the meantime, even if occasionally baffling and a little disjointed, the very idea of the show and the production value is worthy of investment, even if there’s a lack of feeling to provoke intense passion for it.
A Game of Thrones vs. Westworld duel is an unfair match. Yet while Westworld isn’t exactly quick to draw, it has that cowboy confidence to keeps you trusting in it, even if in the back of your mind you suspect you shouldn’t.