HBO was really banking on this being the next Game of Thrones, wasn’t it? Even before the influx of big-budget fantasy shows proposed by Netflix and Amazon (and even HBO itself), we had Westworld as a moody visual spectacle intent on outclassing that dilapidated old medium of film. While I’m sure HBO had an eye toward His Dark Materials and those hypothetical Game of Thrones spinoffs while Westworld was still in development, the latter’s marketing upon its release quickly established it as an early attempt to fill the niche Game of Thrones would leave behind. You can’t blame them, really; Game of Thrones has a very different appeal from the rest of HBO’s retinue, so promoting another series of a similar ilk without directly competing isn’t a bad move. Putting down roots early so that you have several seasons and favorable buzz when the competition is only starting to hit the ground is also a smart move.
But all that kind of assumes the show you’ve created is good, and Westworld… well, it’s a mixed bag. I have no doubt that Season Three will gain favor among fans, but it’s no coincidence that HBO has lined up a host of new shows following the end of Game of Thrones. If ratings for the second season are anything to go by, it’s no wonder HBO is nervous about putting its eggs in one basket.
3P Reviews: Westworld (show), Season One – ***
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: What is it with People and Cowboys?
What if Jurassic Park, but the dinosaurs were people?
Who thought this was a good idea? In-world or external to it?
The main appeal of Jurassic Park is its dinosaurs. The films and books are fairly simplistic in their plot and characters, providing only enough to keep audiences engaged sufficiently to get to the dinosaurs, but the stars of the show are never in doubt. As much as everyone loves a good Goldblum, the reason the first Jurassic Park film was a success was because of its top-notch effects. Later films did not push boundaries in the graphical department, and so their narrative flaws became more and more apparent with each new installation. People still go to them to see the dinosaurs, and for basically no other reason.
So right out the gate, Westworld has to make up for ground lost due to its premise. Its setting is an amusement park based around the Old West, or a Hollywood version of it, anyway. Visitors can book a stay to live out their dreams of living on a farm, free from the burdens of modern technology, and accountability. The park is populated by androids, or hosts, who are always in-character and cannot attack guests or defend themselves, so the park is really more of a front for wealthy people to live out deranged sex and murder fantasies. The story, at least for the first season, revolves around the managers of the park and the androids slowly realizing the androids are sentient.
There’s also something about a twee dumbfuck boy and a man in black and a sexy lady android, and all of that subplot matters not at all.
I’m being unfair. I apologize.
My trouble with Westworld is tied up in what I feel is an attempt to pass off as new an idea that is not itself particularly unique. It tells its story at a gradual pace through many monologues that philosophize about the nature of man. Its visuals are a sort of poetry, often abstract and grand, instantly recognizable, yes enigmatic. And when I try to peel back the surface even the smallest amount, the show seems to collapse like an anvil suspended by wet toilet paper. This is one of many prestige dramas that wins praise by looking like something people would praise. I tend not to enjoy those much.
I think it’s easiest to discuss this show by its characters, as they are what its audience gravitates toward. There are six of note in the first season: Dolores, Maeve, Bernard, The Man in Black, Robert Ford, and William. Other figures populate the landscape, but most of them serve as set dressing or prompts for the main characters to monologue.
Dolores is sort of the figurehead of the show, a beautiful android girl who is the object of affection of many of the guests. Early on, a newcomer to the park, William, takes a liking to her. She fosters a bond with him, and he becomes obsessed with keeping her safe from the simulated dangers of the park’s world. Perhaps with good reason, as a mysterious Man in Black reveals he is in pursuit of Dolores, as well as some sort of treasure in the center of the park.
Maeve, also an android, runs a brothel, and is among the earliest androids to realize what she is. She tricks workers behind the scenes when she’s brought in for repairs, and starts to free the other androids in an attempt to reunite with a daughter she had in a previous storyline.
Bernard is a lead designer for the park and concerned with an increasing number of accidents related to the androids. He converses frequently with Ford, the owner and creator of the enterprise, who is perhaps a bit senile and continues to divert Bernard from his concerns.
This sets up three main subplots based around the interactions of these characters. Here’s the problem: these plots have nothing to do with one another, nor do the characters within contain sufficient internal conflict to sustain their subplots alone. What we get are snapshots of characters, their entire story more or less evident from an early point in their arc. But the show seems reluctant to introduce new conflict pertinent to these figures. The show is therefore in something of a stasis that it struggles to escape. Ironically, stasis is one of the themes of the series, though I’m not sure its mimicry in this regard is intentional.
The setup produces a cascade of related problems that haunt the series. For instance, because characters in the three main groups don’t know each other, their rare interactions are usually conducted through third parties. Those third parties are generally park hosts, so for instance, the Man in Black kills a host who is later repaired by Bernard, and Bernard reads something of the man’s actions through the android. Except, not only is this an inefficient means of communication, the characterization of the hosts means that to even get to this point in a logical narrative way, the audience has to sit through a good deal of cowboy speak intentionally designed to be artificial like in a western.
Now I don’t know about your inclinations toward cowboys, but the aesthetic of Westworld being “cowboys” is kind of hilarious to me, especially when you consider how much the story is tied up in the immersive nature of the environment being dependent on androids. Look, I do not live in cowboy country, but I don’t like that far from it either. Like, I know people who are cowboys. Properly. Have cows and wear the hat and everything. It is really not difficult to find cowboys in the U.S. They’re not everywhere, much as the British apparently think, but there are plenty of ranches that offer exactly the thing Westworld does, and the idea that they would be driving the invention of hyper realistic androids is honestly the most ludicrous thing about the show. It’s like telling an Australian that you need to colonize the moon so you can create a giant immersive kangaroo park. Like, buddy, have I got news for you.
Bottom line, a not insignificant portion of the show’s runtime consists of C-grade western plotting that matters neither to the story nor the characters.
Another side effect of the static character setup is that the show can’t use genuine character development to propel the story. To its credit, Westworld is actually highly bingable and will keep a viewer engaged through to the end. It accomplishes this with plot twists. As you might imagine, plot twists as a means of advancing a story with weak substance is not, traditionally, a recipe for success. Westworld comes about as close to pulling this off as it can, though. It remains engaging up through the end, but ask someone to recount the plot in much detail immediately after and they’ll likely struggle. The show tells its story through individual moments, and the most memorable of these are plot twists.
So those twists.
The first major twist comes at the end of the first episode, revealing, contrary to the insistence of the programmers, the hosts can in fact harm living things, so presumably they can harm humans as well. Tension. Drama. The show telegraphs that it is going to use violence as the resolution to problems. How original.
For the first half of the series, twists are primarily related to the in-universe cowboy stories, with figures dying and revealing information. I’ll be completely honest, I found the in-universe story difficult to follow, mostly because I had little interest in it. It involves a maze and hidden treasure and a crime lord known as Wyatt, and the programmers change the story halfway through the show, so good luck if you want to understand it fully. Deadwood this show is not.
Once the story starts to focus on Maeve, the major behind-the-scenes twists crop up again. Maeve starts to relive past lives and holds two low-level programmers hostage so she can see what’s really happening. Like the other hosts, she has been living the world of the program, so she only has a nineteenth-century idea of life. Through her investigation, she learns how her world really works, and uses that to gain an advantage over her peers, and also find her former child.
Then, surprise, it turns out Bernard was a robot all along!
How does this change the plot? Not at all!
Well, it mostly changes nothing. Bernard has been expressing concern about how the park works and how the hosts are treated, and learning he is one gives him extra motivation to free them. The twist is mostly included to bridge one episode into another, though.
Then the show reveals the Man in Black is on the Board of Directors! He just really likes playing the game even though he helped create it.
Then it turns out Dolores is actually Wyatt!
Then we learn Ford actually planned the robot uprising all along!
None of these revelations changes the plot in any meaningful way, nor do they affect the characters or their slim arcs.
By far and away, though, the most vacuous of these inane twists is the revelation in the final episode that the Man in Black is in fact William, meaning the story has actually taken place in two different timelines juxtaposed to look like one. Cool twist. And the point of it is…?
See, the Man in Black and William, despite their proximity to Dolores and Dolores’ significance as the leader of the robot uprising, have nothing to do with the actual plot of the show. You could cut them entirely and the story would just continue as is. William’s arc, as we learn from this revelation, is that he becomes rapidly obsessed with Westworld and Dolores, much like a new World of Warcraft player, to the point where it consumes his life and turns him into an antagonist. That’s not a bad arc, actually, and it effectively demonstrates the danger of this sort of entertainment for the consumer. However, by hiding William’s arc as a plot twist, the show prevents itself from actually exploring how William’s arc affects him or the people around him. You know, the reason you give a character an arc in the first place. Not only that, but by trying so hard to trick the audience, the show confuses its own internal logic, turning the storyline the audience was loosely following for the past nine episodes into a disorganized blend of two completely unrelated storylines, making the significance of what happened in either of them obsolete.
In effect, the plot twists undermine the bulk of the narrative. Good job, Westworld.
Part Two: The Piano Plays Itself, DO YOU GET IT?
Suffice it to say, I did not care for the plot of this show. It think it’s hilariously terrible once you poke it a bit, but perhaps that’s just me venting my frustrations.
Much more to my liking is the aesthetic. The show is usually praised on this level more than its narrative. The music does exactly what music should and sets the tone of the show, much of it pulled from a blend of traditional songs and instrumental covers of more modern pieces played to sound traditional. A lot of the music is drawn out in slow piano notes, as it is for the opening, giving the music a beautiful yet ominous cadence.
The opening itself is probably my favorite part of the series, using top-notch effects to show the creation of the androids, clearly artificial structures that look and function biologically. The slow-motion is also quite elegant, and the scenes make good use of the monotone palate of the behind-the-scenes setting of the show.
Of course, my enjoyment of the opening largely comes down to it being visually impressive. The thematic tie-ins are about a subtle as a walrus in a bathtub, and the metaphors aren’t so much on the nose as picking it. Yes, we get it, the android and the player piano are the same, the designers of Westworld are playing God, and the show creators are the Westworld creators. I mean, come on, the symbol for the show is Dolores’ body as the Vitruvian Man. So meta. Much symbolism. Wow.
While I would generally praise visuals in the show as a whole, their insistence on hammering every bit of the show’s very shallow depth into the audience as though anyone watching the show is too ignorant to pick up on it otherwise frequently undermines the general elegance of the visuals. As a result, while the show’s cinematographers and other visual specialists are clearly talented, many of the shots overlook basic principles of design, whether because they are trying to imprint an obvious idea on the audience or simply aren’t paying attention. It was actually somewhat difficult to find images to use in my review, because so many shots are awkwardly blocked or cut rapidly or just off in some distracting way. It’s not something you would notice while the show is playing, because the editing is quick enough to cover blemishes or the peculiarity of what’s happening on-screen draws the eye, but it becomes woefully apparent when you pause the screen.
Take the image I grabbed for this section, for instance. At first glance, it looks fine. I may have taken a little bit of an awkward expression of the actor, but she’s still communicating her character. The composition is nice, it gives you a good look at her face and the background, the color grading is pleasing. It’s a fine shot.
Except, look at it for a moment, and you start to realize the stranger elements of the shot. The character’s eyes are shaded disproportionately to the rest of her face, making her look simultaneously sinister and cross-eyed. The camera angle is unnatural, looking slightly up at the character but directly across at the background, requiring the background to be exceptionally tall or on an elevated surface — the shot composition would look more like it was occurring on a single plane if they’d shifted the camera just a bit to the left so it didn’t capture the building in back. These disorienting elements aren’t necessarily a bad thing if they’re tonally appropriate. The scene takes place at a point where Dolores is confused and her simmering wrath is starting to surface more frequently, so it’s kind of supposed to look intimidating. Except, it’s kind of silly, too, isn’t it? Aside from the facial expression (which the shot held on for a bizarrely long period of time), the angle of Dolores’ face and the cut of her dress is situated to draw attention to her low-cut neckline (something Westworld does a lot with its female characters, whether the situation calls for it or not), and the most prominent prop in the background is a palm tree. A palm tree, in what is supposed to be a Southwestern desert.
There are in fact palm trees that grow in the American Southwest, but these are relatively rare and tend to make up the arid scrubland of California, where some of the scenes in Westworld were filmed. The issue is not technical realism, but audience expectations. There are plenty of places in the actual southwest that look like Russia or the Serengeti or Australia, and it’s the job of filmmakers to know how to frame an environment so that it carries across the idea they want it to. Westerns don’t feature palm trees, so palm trees in a western can pull the audience out of the experience.
Again, so much of this shot could likely have been improved by moving the camera just a bit to the left.
I’m nitpicking to an absurd degree here, of course, and like I said, it’s not technically a bad shot, especially on first glance. These aren’t the things that most people would likely notice, and I certainly didn’t notice them when watching the show for the first time. However, similar issues are rampant in the first season of the show. The shot below, for instance, while I quite like it otherwise, has Maeve’s hand covering a figure in the distance, and makes the figure look a bit like a small doll Maeve is about to chuck at someone. I’m used to blocking issues in shows and film obscuring faces every so often, but Westworld seems to not recognize when this becomes an active problem for its visual composition, and because the show puts so much emphasis on how how grand its aesthetic is, what would be minor notes in another series become laughable. It’s quite distracting, especially when you’re trying to convince someone that this show actually looks quite good otherwise.
Part Three: BUT ARE THE ROBOTS HUMAN?!?
If this is your trash, I’m not here to judge you on it; plenty of people give Westworld high praise, and I’m not exactly a voice of authority on the matter. However, like many shows that take themselves this seriously, it’s easy to make fun of Westworld, and fun to do so. In fact, I’m kind of warming up to the series in the same way I did for the Two Boats and a Helicopter episode of The Leftovers, and for similar reasons. Sometimes the best merits of a piece of art are not those intended by its creators.
To cap off this wild ride, I wanted to save the best of last and talk about the parts of the show that I think even those who appreciate it feel are a bit heavy-handed: its themes.
So Westworld is preoccupied with convincing its audience it has something important to say, and it does so by repeating motifs and building upon a collection of related themes that become progressively louder as the season goes on. These are, in no particular order:
- Stories and storytellers
- The nature of humanity
- Fiction versus reality
- Past versus present
On a foundational level, it is not difficult to see how these themes relate to one another: the hosts are part of the fictional story, inhuman, and stuck in the past, where the creators and visitors to the park are supposed to be the storytellers, as modern humans who understand the reality of Westworld. Except, says the show, as though revealing another plot twist, what if these assumptions are wrong? Who is it who goes into the past to escape their reality? Who is it who becomes obsessed with the fiction, to the point where they nearly forget their own world? Are the robots more human than the humans? What if the storytellers are part of the story and the story tells itself?
The piano! Do you get it, do you get it?
I swear, this series makes David Cage look understated, and that is an accomplishment.
I’ve surely expressed my frustration about the “are the robots human?” theme in stories, and Westworld is high on my list of examples for what not to do. At its core, I don’t begrudge a series that wants to address how people react to sentient beings who are not technically human, and in fact I often find this subject interesting. But for some reason, whenever we talk about it in the context of AI, we always fixate on what the boundary between human and machine is. I think this might be because we are approaching the so-called singularity in real life, and we’re so used to thinking of machines as unquestionably non-living, the question of when do we give AI human rights perturbs a lot of people. However, most often, the question people are asking when they think about this subject is not “are the robots human?” but rather, “is it okay to ignore the pain of others if we can dehumanize them enough?” and “how can we find ways to justify slavery without feeling bad?”
Because, the thing is, “are the robots human?” stems directly from a colonialist perspective. Europeans applied the same exact question to, for instance, brown people, and indigenous people, and anyone who wasn’t Christian, and women, and queer people, and people with disabilities, and the poor. And the answers they came up with, such as “yes brown people are humans, but only 3/5 as human as white people” are perhaps indications that this is not a great question to offer for debate.
Yes, the fucking robots are human. Mystery fucking solved.
What defines a human is unimportant. How we treat others is what matters, and in that sense, most of us develop a pretty strong sense of right and wrong on a gut level. We don’t like seeing others hurt, and we imprint this instinct onto everything, including inanimate objects. That people have a conflicting fascination with violence and are willing to sweep associated pain inflicted under the rug in order to indulge in violence is far more prescient to the discussion of AI and the nature of humanity.
The series that handle the “are the robots human?” question effectively pretty much ignore the question itself and focus instead on the ramifications for those the question is aimed at. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, for instance, multiple episodes are concerned with the android Commander Data and his relationship to humanity. Data is clearly a complex character who, while he apparently doesn’t experience human emotions, has wants and desires and concerns. He likes his best friend Geordi and his cat Spot very much, and he dislikes when people mispronounce his name or refer to him indirectly. Data is constantly playing around with mimicking human behaviors, both for fun and so he can be a better Starfleet officer, and it is all endlessly adorable and ridiculous. But, although Data is clearly not a human, the show and the characters on the ship never question whether he’s human in the metaphorical sense. A few episodes explore how external characters treat Data like an inanimate object, but these are focused on the societal biases that try to dehumanize him, not whether those biases are correct — the default assumption is that they aren’t.
Sociopolitical issues are far more interesting than abstract philosophical ones. It doesn’t matter if the robots are human or not, if we’re doing cruel things to them that they don’t like, the makeup of that situation is where the story lies. This is why Westworld becomes far more engaging when the show presents Maeve as a perspective character, as she’s the closest thing we get to someone with stakes and motivation. However, because the show’s other themes are still mulling over how to convince the audience that in watching Westworld, they are the visitors, the show rapidly loses any semblance of reliability by the end of the first season. It’s not that those other themes aren’t interesting in their own right, but because the show opens with “are the robots human?” and uses this as its nexus, the core is rotten and anything springing from it is superficial.
You want a series that deals with the inherent interactivity of storytelling? Go watch Paranorman.
You want a story about what makes us human? Watch Star Trek: The Next Generation.
You want a story about our relationship to fiction and fantasy? Watch Pan’s Labyrinth.
You want a story that deals with the dangers of nostalgia? Read the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels.
You watch Westworld if you want to listen to pretty music while Anthony Hopkins hammers you over the head with long empty monologues about metafiction.
As a final note to wrap up this whole discussion, which I think would better be classified as a rant at this point, I want to point out the metaphor of the hosts. The show thinks its hosts are representative of mechanical attractions in places of entertainment, like AI in a video game or ultra-realistic animatronics. It’s not subtle in this at all, right down to the visuals and language it uses for when the hosts are being repaired or built in the laboratory. Disney and other theme parks have plenty of back areas where they do the exact same thing with their animatronics, and for a lot of park-goers, the animatronics are familiar attractions that people can anthropomorphize and form emotional attachments to. So it’s no wonder the show parallels its hosts with animatronics.
However, the show, in humanizing its androids on the basis of developments in AI and the rise of video games, overlooks something rather important that it has imported from the concept of its source material. See, the original Westworld was more like Five Night’s at Freddy’s, with the animatronics being actively malicious and just plain creepy. In the show, the androids are depicted more as slaves, abused and manipulated by their human overlords, and given no choice in how they interact with the guests or live their lives.
And, weirdly, in this, the modern age of unchecked capitalism, we actually have a really pertinent comparison that has nothing to do with AI, but follows many of the conventions set for the hosts: retail employees. While it’s most obvious at the Disney parks where in recent installments like Star Wars Land, employees are required to act in-character and use specific terminology to keep the fantasy immersive, retail workers everywhere experience similar limitations. No matter how shitty your day has been, or how much you want to go home, or how much you resent standing behind a cash register with no chair for low hourly wages and no health benefits, at most retail jobs, you still have to smile and wave and ask people how they’re doing as you perform the actual thing you are there to do. And if you don’t go about the greeting in exactly the way the manager insists, you’ll get a slap on the wrists for it by the boss or the customer or both. It is hell on earth. If you haven’t been the unfortunate “Courtesy Representative” stuck trying to close at 7:58 when a family of five walks in and starts browsing, you are that family of five. All of them.
I haven’t worked retail in years, yet I still have nightmares about it.
This is a real thing that people have to go through. Plenty of people are stuck with retail jobs they’d rather not have for years on end, and the tiny amount of independence these positions allot is inconsequential compared to corporate expectations that you behave like a robot and just live with the abuse. For customers and managers, a person working retail is, or should be, basically indistinguishable from a kiosk with bright buttons. This is even more pronounced in jobs where the worker is the object of interest, like entertainment, modelling, and sex work. While popular individuals can use their desirability as a bargaining chip, the vast majority of people working in these fields are expected to fulfill the role of a highly complex and obedient mannequin.
It’s almost like there’s a android metaphor here, or something.
So yeah, if you continue this line of thought, Westworld essentially takes a look at Disneyland park conditions, sees the creepy animatronics, the exploitation of workers, the artificially amiable facade, and the monopolization of entertainment, and says, “Let’s save the creepy puppets!”