Why You Should Be Watching Westworld
By Karen Valenzuela, @VictoriaNoir89
“Westworld” premiered its first episode on HBO two months ago. Ten weeks later, the first season is over after a finale that left a riveted audience gobsmacked again and again in a single ninety minute episode. If you haven’t watched the show yet, you’ve most likely heard of it through your friend’s exclamation point filed tweets. Or perhaps you heard of it through posts on Facebook bemoaning the complicated plot. Yadda yadda, you thought to yourself, another show people are going to try to get me to watch. You’re thinking that even now while reading this. But don’t click away from this review. Not yet.
There are shows out there that enthrall, excite, thrill, anger, upset, and ignite its audience. And then a show comes along that turns your world upside down, then right side up again, and then upside down again, and right side up again, only to make you realize your world has been upside down this whole time, and the right side up world you thought you were in was actually just a dream…or was it? That show is HBO’s “Westworld”. No other show in my almost twenty eight years of life has ever screwed with my mind the way “Westworld” did in its 10 episodes in the first season. Last month, HBO renewed the series for a second season. Apparently, “Westworld” creators have already planned all the way to the end of its fifth season. That’s four more seasons of mind screwage we have to look forward to, everybody!
What is “Westworld”? It began as a film by the same name in 1973 starring Yul Brynner and James Brolin, written and directed by author Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame). In a futuristic society, a company called Delos opens an amusement park in which the wealthiest few can buy their way into three different epochs in human history: Medieval World, Roman World, and Westworld. The park recreates a thorough and historically accurate experience for the guests, and are filled with androids who are indistinguishable from humans in every way, except that their storylines and dialogue are all programmed by Delos engineers. Human guests can indulge in any fantasy they wish, be it adventure, sex, violence, or any other pleasure they yearn for. And they can do it without the fear of being harmed by the androids. The film received a sequel called Futureworld, and a short-lived television series called “Beyond Westworld” in 1980.
In HBO’s revival, they focus on Westworld, the Old American West recreated in every detail, with saloons, bordellos, gunfights and duels, outlaws with prices on their heads, the sweet and innocent rancher’s daughter and her traveling charm-bucket boyfriend with an enigmatic past. We see the inner workings of the lab where the hosts (the androids) are created, where their emotional and physical capabilities are programmed, the hundreds of storylines and paths written and created by an array of employees, all of them with equally important roles in keeping the park running for its guests–the wealthiest echelon in this futuristic society. But we also step into the park, getting to know the hosts, watching them play out their role in their storyline for the amusement of the guests, only to get reprogrammed at the end of the day and relive the same story in an infinite loop, every day traversing the same path. Those who are killed, maimed, or injured go back to the lab, are mended, re-outfitted, and put back into the park again, without having any memory of what happened to them the day before.
At the surface level, “Westworld” makes us ponder what it is that makes humans different from machines. The old philosophers always talked of reason and sentience, how to distinguish the difference between the two, whether they were the most important part of being human–reason and sentience, the ability to think and feel. That’s what sets us apart from machines. But what if man creates a machine that is capable of that which is supposed to set us apart? The rule book goes right out the window.
“Westworld” makes its audience ask questions, and not just questions about the plot of the show, the end of each character’s path–whether they’re a programmer, a guest, or a host. The show makes its audience ask questions about things that exist outside of the show, about humanity and free will, about control and how much we have, whether we have it at all. It makes us empathetic towards machines, and it makes us question who is more human–Westworld’s creative staff, or the increasingly lifelike hosts they’ve built and programmed?
Each episode is a piece of a puzzle, and each piece has pieces within it. In the end, they all come together, even while raising new questions. We’ll have to wait until next season for answers to those.
No other show has ever been crafted this seamlessly. From the foreshadowing and cryptic dialogue and the repeated refrains in the returning memories of the hosts, to the placement of a chair, even. It makes you question not just what is happening, but when it’s happening. And even as you watch a character do something, you have no choice but to wonder if someone else entirely is doing it. You saw it. They showed it to you. But because of the nature of the show, you don’t know if you can trust enough to believe it actually happened that way.
That is one of the ways “Westworld” lifts itself above other shows. Are the good guys actually good guys? Are the bad guys actually bad guys? Who do we trust? We can’t afford to trust anyone. A host character loses their mind simultaneously with a human character losing theirs. Is this person really human, or are they a host, too? Is the host more human than the actual humans controlling it? What’s his motive? Does he even know his own motive? “Westworld” is a masterclass on the unreliable narrator device. You feel sure you know what’s happening, you have control, and then what you know gets twisted on its head, and you’re back to square one except more disoriented this time. Which of these characters can you trust? Can you trust a host if someone is standing in a dark lab somewhere writing every word they say, coding every move they make? How much of this is the host being reasoning and sentient, and how much of it is being coded by someone with motives we have yet to discover? Characters you think are unimportant don’t just grow into the plot, they explode–and in the way you least expect them to.
“Westworld” relies on an exceptionally talented cast, even in the smaller roles. From Evan Rachel Wood (Across the Universe) and Thandie Newton (The Pursuit of Happyness), to Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America) and the unquestionably magnificent Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs). Again, we see Anthony Hopkins in a role that was perfectly made for him. He plays Dr. Robert Ford, one of the park’s original founders, and the creative director. As with so many of his other roles, you can’t not question his motives. The one thing you know for sure is that nobody can truly beat him, not at his own game. You don’t know if he’s good or bad; it varies from episode to episode. “Everything is magic, except to the magician,” he says.
“Westworld” is a maze at its core. The cast and creators lead us through that maze for ten episodes. Every so often, you bump into a dead end, you’re taken back onto another path, that hits a dead end. So on and so forth. And each episode, you get closer to the center of that maze. When you finally get to the center of the maze in the season one finale, everything clicks into place. And it is probably the most phenomenal hour and a half of television…ever.
Even the music is stunning. Ramin Djawadi, who gave us the “Game of Thrones” score, has created a “Westworld” score that’s a mesmerizing blend of old saloon tack piano and unsettling science fiction synth, wrapped up in a tangled web of nerve-wracking string instruments, and he finally leaves you in a cacaphonous yet controlled mess of all three. Basically, it sounds like an amazing Western adventure, a romantic ride towards the sunset that slowly makes you feel like maybe you should turn back. And when you actually do turn back, you find the town you left isn’t there anymore, and you’re confused, helpless, disoriented. Djawadi also reworked some well-known pop culture songs (all of them a bit on the bleak side) with the saloon-sounding tack piano: “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden, “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals, “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones, and “No Surprises” by Radiohead are just a few. The result is so satisfying. It’s quite the dark adventure.
Stay away from spoilers, if you can. Because each episode is full of “Oh my God!” moments, and you’ll miss out if you don’t get the full effect. Each reveal packs quite the punch. I want you to feel that punch the way I did. I want you to repeatedly smack the arm of whomever you’re sitting next to in disbelief and excitement until they tell you to stop, the way I did to my watching partner. I want you to know the evolution in television that is “Westworld”.
Watch the show. All ten episodes are available on HBO, and through HBO’s various Internet platforms. You can thank us later.
We’ll leave you with a quote from Dr. Ford himself which sums up the “Westworld” experience to a tee:
“You can’t play God without being acquainted with the devil.”