Here’s a fun exercise: play through Red Dead Redemption, watch Westworld, and then feel bad about all the terrible things you did to those poor townspeople.
The titular theme park in HBO’s Westworld is a natural extension of our current state of gaming: video > VR > “real” life. Westworld is inhabited by android “hosts” and human “guests”, who pay $40,000 a day to step into the great American tableau of The Old West.
While lesser shows would fill the first couple of episodes with obvious exposition-dump dialogue, Westworld has slowly and methodically parsed out information over the first half of the season. It’s natural to be curious about the rules of the actual park, and Westworld has revealed (most of) them organically over the first half of the season through story-driven moments: Ed Harris’s Man in Black casually watching host bullets harmlessly evaporate when they touch him, or James Marsden’s Teddy getting patched up and sent to die again (and again and again and again…).
A compelling cast is having as much fun as the park guests diving into this strange blend of sci-fi and western.
Two of the finest living actors, Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, are outstanding. They’re obviously relishing their respective roles as the park founder and a mysterious guest looking to break the “game”. They’re both characters that are hard to get a hold on, with nebulous morals and motivations. Hopkins’ Dr. Ford takes the John Hammond-archetype of the wistful founder watching his creation go awry and turns it on its head (Michael Crichton wrote and directed the original 1973 film Westworld is based on). While wistful, at times even remorseful, he’s not going quietly into the night, and has his own grand schemes in the works. Any time he steps into the park itself is especially strong, as he strolls through it with the easy confidence of the practical God he is in that place. Strong turns from Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood and Sidse Babett Woodward (and many others) round and flesh out both the sterile future-labs and the dusty, bloody wild west.
Westworld shares producers JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk with the 2004 sensation Lost. In many ways, Westworld is taking the same approach to its storytelling. Every week it presents what seems like a balance between “mysteries” and “answers”. In reality, Westworld is, like Lost did before it, stacking minor mystery upon minor mystery. Westworld gives us just enough to make it impossible to not tune in the next week in hope for a small taste of understanding. Answers and reveals come at a slow dribble, and every singular bit of new information seemingly begs five new questions. The story of how this turned out for Lost is well-chronicled. Without an end date or ending in mind, Lost was forced to spin its wheels with pointless side-plots and simply too many new intrigues. By the time the show was ready to wrap up, it was too late, and Lost eventually collapsed under the weight of both its countless mysteries and its futile attempt to answer them.
Will Westworld share the same fate?
It’s obviously too early to tell, but the television landscape has changed dramatically since Lost. Creators now negotiate end dates, and have complete stories in mind before the pilot airs, perhaps in fear of repeating Lost’s mistakes. Westworld should tread carefully for fear of repeating the same mistakes. In the meantime, we the audience have turned into answer-junkies, begging for that next sweet hit of information. A few dozen Westworld analysis podcasts have already sprung up. A quick perusal of the Westworld subreddit finds wild theorizing and bitter arguments. Of course, that’s not entirely the show’s fault. It’s a natural reaction to the episodic nature of TV. We’re only getting part of the picture each week, a new piece of the puzzle with little idea what the picture on the box is.
Westworld asks a lot of questions, and like the great artificial intelligence stories before it, one stands out: what does it mean to be human?
When we can 3D print a “human”, and program it with surprisingly subtle emotions and language, when do we start calling it real? One of the things I respect the most about Westworld is that from the very first episode it has stated exactly its answer to that question: memory. Everything starts going wrong with the hosts, and the sentience/AI singularity begins, when they simply start to remember. Of course what they remember mostly is guests treating them like less than dirt, so it’s a rude awakening.
Now, at the midpoint of season one, things seem to be shifting as more and more hosts become more active participants in their stories. Experiencing a new sense of agency, Dolores says “I think I want to be free.” It’s a fascinating journey, and so far Westworld has done a great job balancing its many mysteries with real human emotion, from both humans and androids.