Westworld Season 1 Review
If television critics were asked to pick a specific date as the beginning of the age of prestige television, a hefty portion would undoubtedly select January 10, 1999. On that day nearly twenty years ago, HBO’s now universally-acclaimed program The Sopranos aired its first episode, beginning an era of rebirth in television drama that continues to this day. If we are truly in a new golden age of television drama, then HBO and The Sopranos are its progenitors.
But why does this matter? How does the HBO dramatic formula of twenty years ago tie into its programming today? And what does any of this have to do with Westworld?
As it turns out, HBO’s dominance in the television industry since the late 1990s has everything to do with Westworld, and perhaps lies at the heart of the show’s biggest successes and failures. Westworld, a big-budget sci-fi drama brought to the screen by the husband and wife production duo of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, is, in a sense, the culmination of HBO’s production ideology; it is the perfect embodiment of the network that has tasked itself again and again with both providing its viewers with base pleasures just as much as it provides them with cinematic splendor and philosophical grandeur. HBO’s need to allow their audiences to feel both cultured and tantalized is more evident in Westworld than in any of its previous endeavors, to both fruitful and fruitless results.
The plot of Westworld is unapologetically high-concept, and the core premise of the show is adapted straight from Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name: sometime in the unspecified near-future, a massive theme park called Westworld provides an outlet for guests wishing to escape the banality of everyday life by placing them into a realistic replica of the Wild West populated by lifelike cyborgs. While the campy film original had its human heroes fighting off malfunctioning killer robots, the HBO adaptation attempts to take a somewhat more nuanced approach to the material, examining the nature of consciousness and autonomy through the eyes of the park’s cyborg residents, referred to colloquially as “hosts”.
The searing questions of the show (and there are many) revolve around the mysterious secret past of Westworld, known only by the park’s co-founder and primary creative force Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins); also key to the themes of the show are the individual journeys of hosts slowly gaining self-awareness, despite Ford and the park’s board of directors’ efforts to keep the cyborgs in the dark.
While Westworld’s ensemble cast features dozens of characters, many played by big names like Hopkins, the show’s thematic focus undeniably lies predominantly in a few key storylines: the turbulent relationship between Hopkins’ Ford and his protégé Bernard (Jeffrey Wright); the journey of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a host programmed as a dainty farm girl who begins to gain self-awareness with the help of a park guest named William (Jimmi Simpson); and the rebellion of Maeve (Thandie Newton), a host serving as the madam for Westworld’s cyborg prostitutes, who coerces two susceptible park staff members into aiding her escape.
Each of these plotlines reveals something about the park and its past, but reveal even more about the intentions of Joy and Nolan’s storytelling. Ford and Bernard embody the stereotypical all-knowing patriarchal antagonist and the intrepid inside investigator; it is through their rapport that we learn of Ford’s conflict with his late friend and fellow founder of the park, Arnold, who, against Ford’s wishes, adamantly endorsed creating hosts with complete self-awareness and autonomy. Ford and Bernard’s constant pseudo-philosophical dialogues do more than just rehash the questions asked by films like Blade Runner and Ex Machina, however – they attempt to answer them, and in this we see the first thematic error of Westworld. Joy and Nolan err in a sense that many grandiose storytellers do: instead of posing big questions through engaging characters, they roll out well-worn archetypes in an attempt to answer these questions. The dialogues between Bernard and Ford, packed with references to figures like Oppenheimer and Michelangelo, do not encourage viewers to contemplate the humanity of the hosts, or to empathize with them – rather, they contemptuously inform the viewers that they must see the hosts as conscious beings, whether they have been led to care about them or not.
Surely, however, the intellectual mire of Bernard and Ford’s dialogues is offset by the adventures of the beings that actually live in the park. The hosts’ and guests’ plotlines are, admittedly, often more engaging than those of the programmers working behind Westworld’s scenes, if only for the value of their action scenes and beautiful cinematography, which are excellently paced and visually breathtaking, respectively.
The primary plots set in the park, those of Dolores, William, and Maeve, all center around the hosts’ journeys to discover the nature of their existence (or, in the case of the human William, to discover the nature of his character). Of these three plots, two are only temporarily engaging; William’s journey is a simple one, depicting his evolution from a quiet, virtuous park guest to a ruthless and violent dominator of the synthetic West, and Maeve’s story is, unfortunately, just as pat, showing the violent ascendancy and rebellion of a sexually assertive woman against the park’s oppressive constraints. Both of these plotlines conveniently have the added benefit for HBO of easily appeasing the young, male, Game of Thrones-loving demographic, with William’s character growth reaffirming basic masculine values and Maeve’s role as a madam providing the show with ample opportunities to parade nude robo-prostitutes onscreen.
Dolores’ story is the closest thing Westworld has to a redeeming element, the one consistently nuanced storyline in a show striving so blatantly for nuance. Dolores begins the show as a host living as a simple farm girl, but when she sets off with William on a journey to the farthest wilds of Westworld, she starts to uncover the truth behind her consciousness, the violence of her past, and her relationship with Ford and Arnold that stretches back to the founding of the park. Evan Rachel Woods’ performance as Dolores undoubtedly gives her the initial veneer of a complex character, but it is the care that Dolores’ writing and dialogue are treated with that ultimately makes her both intriguing and sympathetic. As dispensable as characters like William, Ford, and Maeve are, Dolores’ simple desire to uncover her past and to know herself feels both intimately personal and universal enough to defy any kind of immediate categorization. Audiences root for Dolores because she defies clear, well-worn clichés, because she is not obnoxiously sinister and cryptic like Ford, because she is not overtly self-emancipating like Maeve, and because she is not “evolving” predictably like William. Dolores’ desire to find herself feels as if it has been a part of her all along, and that the park’s programming simply hid it from both her and the audience in the early episodes of the show. Watching Dolores is not watching personal growth, as we see in William and Maeve; it is watching personal discovery, and in the case of Westworld, this feels eminently more emotionally familiar.
It is unfortunate, however, that the nuance we see in Dolores’ journey of self-discovery is not reflected in the overall themes and production of the show. Joy and Nolan seem too eager to do too much: they insist on portraying park guests as Hobbesian animals incapable of pursuing goals outside of violence and fornication; they write dozens of sexually-independent characters in a frenzy to espouse a crude, pseudo-feminist message that does not conflict with HBO’s penchant for oversexualized portrayals of women; and, as previously stated, they attempt to answer the show’s questions of autonomy and self-awareness, rather than allowing audiences to seek answers themselves. Judging by the confused, comically highfalutin results of these choices, Joy and Nolan care little about actual feminist messages or social commentaries. They are simply making sure that Westworld adheres to the prestige-program blueprint that HBO created years ago with The Sopranos and continues to this day with Game of Thrones, a blueprint that espouses virtue-signaling in contradictory congruence with violence, sexuality, and clever plot-twists.
Perhaps if Joy and Nolan had kept the honest, captivating tone of Dolores’ story at the center of Westworld, they would have created a show with nuance and intelligence. However, by packing the show with long-winded monologues on the nature of existence and scenes filled with archetypal babble and intensely overt sexuality, they have blurred practically everything genuine that the program might have to offer. Westworld is sometimes engaging, both in its action and its characters, but it far too often feels like a parody of what we have come to expect an HBO prestige show to be. Like Dolores and her fellow hosts, if Westworld wants to find something true, genuine, and captivating, it must become aware of both what it is and what it can become.