Numerous Westworld spoilers for season one, so tread carefully.
I come not to praise or bury Westworld, but to parse out why the show just doesn’t come together. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy had an interesting idea at hand – take the fun B-movie Crichton material and make it an ongoing science fiction series – and yet Westworld never reaches the levels of greatness or even “event television” appeal that other HBO shows have had. Game of Thrones has problems that have become wayyyy more apparent as the show has gone on (looking at you, repetitive villains) but even the seventh season had the utterly awe-inspiring mega carnage of the dragons just wrecking Westerosi knights. Westworld doesn’t have that sense of the large scale, and it doesn’t have the human appeal. What we have instead is something strange, and ambitious, and sometimes fascinating, but also utterly flat and lacking grace, and I’ve tried to piece together why.
Westworld is not iconic enough. Lost is.
And that wouldn’t be a problem if Westworld didn’t insist on centering the first season around the mysteries of “The Maze” (the glitch built into the park by Arnold to eventually give the Hosts autonomy), the villain Wyatt, and the identity of the Man in Black. The Man In Black is the one really memorable mystery here, partly because goddamn is Ed Harris intimidating in that cold black suit, but also because he’s the only Guest, past and present, who’s trying to work out the park and not just enjoy its surfaces. He’s a Critic, trying to go deeper into what makes everything here tick. (And one of the elements of the show I like is the continual theme of Westworld itself functioning like a television show.) But the Maze and Wyatt never keep me hooked.
The main problem with the Maze and Wyatt, which as it turns are connected, are that everything about them is actually simple to understand but intentionally made convoluted as hell by the writing. They’re solved pretty easily in the last two episodes but prior to that Wyatt is a pretty non-descript villain character, almost never seen except in flashback, only talked about in tones associated with the Bounty Hunter in Raising Arizona (psst, this is one of those “show don’t tell” things), while the Maze is solved in a way that’s both clever and dramatically inert. The Maze’s solution, elegant as it is, doesn’t feel right as presented in a TV series, because it’s solved so quietly and simply, without giving the audience the sense of a full arc, an ending to a thread.
Forgive me but I just have to compare the show to Lost, also a JJ Abrams show, because whatever frustrations fans had with the mysteries, they were mythic. The story elements and mysteries of Lost were tantalizing and strange and the names roll around in my head like totemic pinballs almost 15 years later: The Others, The Numbers, The Hatch, The Island. There was a sense that Lindelof and co were creating a mythology, chaotic and instantly memorable. Westworld wants to have that, to create a instantly memorable story, but Nolan and Joy are simply too literal, too focused on writing as a series of ideas: they do not have the faith in storytelling as a conduit of the imagination the way that Lindelof does. (Lindelof is a mystic, Nolan is a doctor.) Simply put, the mysteries of Westworld do not hold your heart.
10 hours of television.
Westworld should’ve been 13 episodes and not 10. A pretty simple criticism and almost certainly not the fault of the writers – they likely had no control over how many episodes they got to make and made due with what they had. But it’s just not enough time to get to know and sympathize with the characters. (The Deuce had a similar brevity issue but that’s run by David Simon and George Pelecanos.) Bernard is the only character on the Westworld complex enough to get a full, complete sense of character besides Dolores, and the result is so heartbreaking and worthy of Wright as a subtle and rich actor. We spend time with him, listen to him, and grow to care for him, so that the reveal of his origins as a robot to himself and the audience is genuinely devastating. We are given time to empathize, not just told to care. And on that note –
I don’t wanna watch loops of behavior, I want behavior.
In the second episode Ford, the creator of the park, tells the Host Teddy that the troubled past the character supposedly has doesn’t actually exist; they gave him a vague backstory to give him a structure of sorts, a reason he wouldn’t reunite with Dolores. At the time I thought this was pretty hilarious, and it is a dry commentary on how dramatic characters often function, but after finishing the first season it’s become more clear that this was Nolan and Joy just explaining how they’ll write half the characters. Westworld is, like a lot of science fiction, deeply concerned with philosophy and theme, but Nolan and Joy never figured out how to write people spouting those aforementioned philosophies and themes.
And even with this cast, almost all of whom are insanely talented (Simon Quarterman is strikingly off but so is his annoying character), this is a problem, especially because a large chunk of the cast are playing uninteresting characters as a facet of the series. The whole point of the Hosts are that by definition they don’t have a lot of depth save Bernard – they’re trapped in patterns of behavior that they only have started to break free from, so they do and say the same things over and over, a la Dolores’ father or Maeve in the parlor, spouting a script they don’t truly comprehend. And that’s a genuinely compelling notion…but for too long it keeps the show stuck in the mud, in part because the show is more about the birth of free will than anything. So what that means by definition is that we’re watching a whole lot of characters for at least six or seven episodes just running in circles, unable to direct the story or change the plot by default. They’re only functions. (This isn’t a problem if Westworld is a novel, not a drama, and you could make a good argument that the sort of cold objectivity Nolan and Joy were going for is better placed into a literary setting, not a serial medium.)
In a different show, that’s a solvable issue if the humans are dramatically compelling but they’re just not. They have some little moments – Elsie stealing a kiss from the Host or Ford having built robotic versions of his long dead family – but those don’t happen too often, and the humans are more often defined by their roles, by what they do, rather than any real humanity beyond wisecracks or blunt cynicism. They tend to speak in what my friend called “prestige whispering”, with almost no verve or joy. The humans just do their jobs, have work conflicts over the nature of the park or Delos, joke about their fucked up way of living. Do they have lives? Children? Favorite movies or albums? Light up a j? Maybe the point is that they’re more robotic now than the Hosts they repair and care for, but it feels neither realistic or entertaining. The writer can make a point but for the love of god that point must be fun. (Tessa Thompson enters the show late as board liason Charlotte Hale and can’t help but invest her dialogue with actual life and a zesty feeling – her character is all “corporate sexpot” but at least she’s having a good time unlike the wet blankets around her.)
So why isn’t this any fun? Because say what you will about Jonathan’s brother, his movies can be quite funny and are often a ball, while Jonathan can’t quite dream bigger.
Plot and Tone
Philosophical conversations with orgies work best in Bunuel.
The Westworld series is just a strange embrace of tone in and of itself – instead of using the pulp horror material, Nolan and Joy deliberately reject it in favor of a cold, cerebral darkness, which does make a certain kind of sense. But then, maybe because of the marketing demands HBO had in mind, its fused with a big budget R-rated adventure series, so the result is pretty jarring. There are sequences like the “Paint It Black” robbery or the giant orgy, sure, but then there are a lot of chilly, quiet conversations about intellect, consciousness, and the folly of humanity, usually with Ford and another actor. Where Game of Thrones has sexposition, this has, well, “Westistentialism”.
So what happens is that the narrative is never as propulsive or quick as it should be, absurd as that is for only ten episodes. Plot happens to be sure (Bernard’s reveal as a Host is genuinely ingenious and bone chilling), but they get side-tracked or it’s just stalling until the season one finale. I wonder now if season two will be an improvement because the Big Event, the opening volley, finally happened: the robots killing Ford, being able to harm humans, and slowly but surely taking over the park. The whole issue of course is the previous nine episodes are just prelude then, and that was the big damn problem. An SNL sketch shortly after it aired had a joke about how “the finale should’ve been the first episode”, and I laughed, but I also couldn’t get it out of my head because it was so frustratingly dead on. The show wouldn’t have been the same, sure, maybe a lot closer to the film, but it would’ve been so much stronger.
The new season is coming soon and I’m certainly going to watch out of curiosity. Yet I’m pretty skeptical as to whether the new season will be that much better because I don’t know if Nolan and Joy care about action as much as discussion. They’re interested in choice, but only as a means to an end, not really to build up a story, and that might be a problem in a drama about, oh, a freaking robot rebellion.
“Poetry demands a man with a special gift for it, or else one with a touch of madness in him.” – Aristotle, Poetics
In some ways I feel as if I’ve done the best aspects of the show a disservice by going after the weakest points, but then its so clearly the foundation that’s much of the problem here. There’s a lot to admire in Westworld – the score, the production design, the acting (The way Evan Rachel Wood instantly stops crying when instructed to cease emotions frightens me every single time. No, this is not human.) I just wish the series had more of those strengths, less of the flat, docile gravitas that Nolan seems so privy to. Otherwise Westworld is uncannily like the Hosts it depicts in various states of undress, manipulation, sexual violence and torture: on the surface well conceived and made, but devoid of greater meaning.