Taking on a 40-year-old movie as the inspiration for a television series comes with a lot of challenges, but Westworld should really be understood as simply “drawing from” the original, as opposed to attempting anything like remaking it.
We’re in an adult-oriented “theme park” that has guests meandering through a world populated by androids (Hosts) that are nearly indistinguishable from people, it’s a western world, and something is going wrong, but the similarities end there.
The park runs on a theory of open-world video games, populated entirely by side quests, as the Hosts run through their routines to present the possibility of pulling guests into whatever side story they may be connected to. As the show tells us, there are hundreds of stories going on at the same time, and they are all malleable enough to adjust to whatever a guest chooses to do with them. You can play through “normally,” and rescue the damsel, or capture the bandits, or (one presumes) help the little girl find her dog (which might lead to something interesting). Or, you can just wander into town and slaughter all the Hosts except the prostitutes in the saloon, and then have sex with them all day. The Hosts can’t actually hurt you, no matter how many times they shoot you, so if you want to be that guy, you’re all set.
The focal points of our story are a few of the “main” Hosts, a couple of guests, and the people working behind the scenes.
Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) is a Host who gets up every morning for a trip to town for supplies, paints landscapes in a pasture, and returns home to find that all is not well. She runs that loop daily whether any guests come into contact with her or not. Perhaps today someone will talk to her while she’s in town, or stumble upon her as she paints, but no one may notice at all. That’s the run of the land. It’s all out there, waiting for you to decide what you want to do.
We enter the show with a few minor oddities surfacing among the Hosts, which takes us behind the scenes to the team responsible for keeping this ship on course. Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) is in charge of production, making and maintaining the Hosts, and Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is the creator of the park. Their inventiveness and genius are the driving forces, but there are money concerns, a board to answer to, and a lot of safety issues. When you’re dealing with androids who are designed to act and look like people, and think that they are people, a glitch in the system isn’t a simple concern, and running this show requires a small state worth of people.
As if potential bugs, possibly caused by a recent upgrade (oh, Westworld, we feel your pain), weren’t enough, The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is running his own game on the system from within, apparently searching for secrets unknown to anyone, which is screwy, but makes sense once you watch.
One of the show’s best features (much like Game of Thrones) is that it distances itself to such a degree from anything you’ve seen before, that anything could happen. The particularly brilliant spin here is that even as we hope to learn the rules, glitches and human interference are pushing those rules aside, so it becomes a wonderfully maddening game of “the more we know the limits, the less there are limits.” It plays off of the disconnect it forces you to have by virtue of its own world creation, by shifting these limits, and throwing out your natural reaction to what you’re watching. It becomes an amazing dance, as you watch a gunfight while realizing that you don’t know what you’re supposed to do with it really, or what watching it means. You’re used to watching gunfights while knowing the good guys or going to win, but this is a whole new game.
That’s a great building block, but obviously not enough to perfect storycraft, and Westworld hopes to truly captivate you by weaving layers into virtually everything that happens, while explaining almost nothing. This isn’t a show that thinks you’re stupid, and it isn’t one that has time to hold your hand. The malfunctions are why you’re here, because you couldn’t have a show about the routine functioning of the park, though that would still retain some draws, but the reason you stick around and become enthralled is the look at what the malfunctions mean. The show manages to present its themes without bothering to present them, because they’re too weighty, too much to talk about, and it doesn’t need to go over things with you. It’s loftier goals only involve getting questions in your head, not answering them. Like, who the hell is really malfunctioning here anyway?
It’s beautiful and richly created in a way that hopes to trump anything you’ve watched before (though it can’t, because, come on, GoT), and is delivered much more like a film than what you’re probably expecting. It’s exceedingly rare that you can refer to a TV series as “transporting,” but it’s hard to call this one anything else.
It still needs to be buoyed by a cast that can deliver, and everyone pulls off great turns, even as they appear to struggle in the wonderfully unique sense of being challenged. No one is as good as Evan Rachel Wood, playing one of your new all-time favorite characters, but even Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris look like they’re having a good time working at something that’s fantastically hard to get right. Wood and Thandie Newton have the most difficult tasks, at times having to run the gauntlet of an insane person’s acting school drill – you have emotions, now you’re a robot, now you have emotions and just got shot, now you have no emotions. Even without the story behind them, these scenes are mesmerizing.
Even the fact that the show is dark, adult, graphic, and frequently a bit ugly, comes by design, as opposed to showing nudity and “really messed up” scenes because we’re on HBO and we can. You can’t ponder the machinery properly by looking at the shiny bits in a lab, you’ve got to tear it all apart and study the things that common decency says we should pretend don’t exist, mostly because we know they’re horrifying.
Perhaps that’s the clue to why Dolores keeps saying she chooses to look at the good things.