David and Chase talk the highs, lows, and meaning of HBO’s newest blockbuster series.
The Case for the Prosecution
DAVID: There was once an HBO series that began its life decades ago as cult-y source material. The network bought into the vision of a pair of veteran TV producers, and gave them the autonomy (and the cash) to bring it to life on screen. But there were problems; it quickly went over-budget and over-schedule; actors were replaced; the entire pilot was reshot at least once. Production was halted as the showrunners scrambled to refine the story and the world. Bad buzz began to build — did HBO have an incredibly expensive flop on its hands? Shouldn’t someone have seen this coming?
And then the show premiered, the audience embraced it, and the rest is history. That series was Game of Thrones.
Every word of that intro, however, also applies to Westworld, Jonah Nolan & Lisa Joy’s equally ambitious and expensive sci-fi extravaganza based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film. And while it’s been fascinating to watch, the ratings have been solid, and the online popularity high, I can’t help but wonder if there’s any there there. At this stage, halfway through its first season (a renewal is likely, but not a slam-dunk), Westworld is a Puzzle Show, not a Character Show.
Now, Puzzle Shows have their place. Mysteries are great. Mythologies can be enormously fun. Look at Lost in its heyday (which shares a producer with Westworld, some dude named J.J. Abrams). But there have to be real characters at the heart of it, so the series is engaging you on an emotional level, not just an intellectual one. And the paradox at the heart of Westworld is that, at least so far, the most interesting characters are programmed robots who generally lack any agency of their own. I can be drawn in by the scope of the theme park and its brilliant Open-World Game structure (with hundreds of NPCs and side quests and, one assumes, pots to smash). I can thirst for details on the actual logistics of the park (seriously, how does any of this work); I can wonder about which of the human characters are actually robots (it’s Bernard, obviously); I can be mildly intrigued by mazes and possible timeline shenanigans. See? I’m naming good things! There are things to like!
But if I simply don’t care what happens, if a robot’s journey to self-awareness holds no interest for me when it means the actual humans are cardboard-thin, if we’ve had five episodes of table setting with no real sense of where this is going, if the end of every episode of this visually immaculate series doesn’t bring a “wow” but a shrug, what are we doing here? I don’t need it to be “fun.” I don’t need comic relief, though it would help. (I love the idea of the technicians’ behind-the-scenes drudgery, but dialogue like “You’re a butcher, and that’s all you’ll ever be” is cringe-inducing.) Mostly, I need the show to figure out just what it does want to be, and that’s hopefully more than a plot engine for archetypes that spin in circles like their robot “loops.”
Westworld began with big thematic ideas about human nature, “performance,” and meta-storytelling. The park allows people to indulge their wildest fantasies, but most of them land on the depraved (Black Hat) side, and the show doesn’t miss an opportunity to hammer that home while still showing us everything. “Having it both ways,” with both the nihilism and the half-assed critique of said nihilism, isn’t a new criticism in 2016 (The Walking Dead is the latest to spectacularly fail this test, and Thrones has certainly faced it before), but every week that goes by I become less sure of just what side Westworld is on. And it’s not just that head-scratching orgy scene from this week, either. The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is on a dull reign of terror through the outerlands in service of his larger “complete the game” goal, but in the outside world he might be….good? Park creator/God Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) has absolute power, and wants his guests to achieve self-actualization, but his proper bearing masks his arrogance and a vaguely hidden cruelty, hinting at a melodramatic backstory when he isn’t bringing the show to a halt just monologuing about it.
The robots, particularly Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) are beginning to “wake up,” but until we get a glimpse of just what lies outside the borders of Westworld, or unless the only endgame is the park’s eventual destruction, that’s a narrative dead-end. And this is what frustrates more than anything, because there’s a great show in here set in a world that I actually wouldn’t mind spending time in (and I don’t even particularly love Westerns), but it’s buried under what feels like a dozen other shows all pulling in different directions with their own fuzzy dream logic. If Westworld wants to be more than fodder for the theorists of Reddit, it needs to get out of its own way.
Chase, please tell me how wrong I am about this show.
The Case for the Defense
CHASE: I’m not here to make the argument that Westworld is a great show. It isn’t. What I’m here to say is that Westworld is a fun show with a mystery to solve, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the navel-gazing, narrow-minded criticism that it endures weekly.
Let’s start with a weird prologue: Heaven’s Gate is a pretty good movie. I purchased and watched Michael Cimino’s critically lambasted 219-minute western about a year ago because a) I was curious about the film’s current critical reevaluation, and b) I’m a weirdo. Heaven’s Gate was a notorious failure upon release, nearly bankrupting United Artists and enduring a critical competition to see which writers could script the best zingers for their reviews. Honestly, it’s not a colossal failure of a film, and its failures are those of ambition rather than incompetence.
I think Heaven’s Gate originally failed for two reasons. First, the film was colossally different from what people were expecting. In the age of anti-hero westerns, Heaven’s Gate was a European-styled character piece about the dangers of manifest destiny. Secondly, critics couldn’t help but heckle for how much it cost. Once they saw the film and misunderstood it, derision was the best tool in their boxes. Michael Cimino spent $40 million dollars on THIS!?!?
I look at Westworld in a very similar way. The show had a tortured development, cost a fortune to make, and the resulting show is devilishly difficult to wrap your head around. See where I’m going here?
Yes, the show was crazy expensive, but does it rival the quarter-billion dollars of Netflix’s Bloodline? The difference is that Westworld at least looks like it cost a fortune. Every shot of this show is gorgeous to look at whether it’s focused on sweeping western vistas, the mechanics of robots, or just characters in a period-appropriate saloon. It’s a visual marvel. You’re also paying for some of the greatest actors in Hollywood. Jeffrey Wright is a national treasure. Ed Harris adds gravitas just by showing up. Freaking SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS stars as a guy who created a robot theme park for crying out loud (and you get the impression he wishes more people had the guts to pitch him weird-ass projects). There’s James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton…I could go on. This cast is enormous.
But none of that would matter if I didn’t think the show was interesting. Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste, but I love robots. Ex Machina was my favorite film last year. Blade Runner is an all-time favorite. Westworld scratches that itch for me. I love explorations of what happens when artificial intelligence comes to understand its place in the world. Would it view us as creator gods or slave master-like oppressors? Would overthrowing its creators be a natural extension of intelligence or a tech glitch that can be solved? After all, what’s more human than trying to find the meaning of your life and your place in the world?
I understand your frustration about character motivations, but even you understand the connections between Westworld and a video game. Sure, that offers us the exploration of morality when your actions exist only for pleasure and have no real-world repercussions, but have you thought about how that effects episodes? That’s why I think Westworld has been so misunderstood by critics. Dolores, Maeve, Teddy, (probably) Bernard, and the rest of the robots have no distinct wills of their own as the series begins. These are essentially NPCs trapped in recurring story loops. They don’t have any motivations except for what they’ve been programmed to do. They only become interesting characters when they break away from their programming and make the decision to govern their own lives.
That’s only now beginning to happen. Don’t forget we’re only five episodes into this little adventure. It’s too early to judge the robotic character motivations when they’re only just now metaphorical newborns discovering their new, big worlds. I expect that the robots will begin to question more as they come to terms with that, and that questioning may lead to exactly the types of revelations and motivations you’re looking to understand. Think about everything the show has had to cover in the first five episodes. How does the park work? Who are all the characters? What are the rules? It’s the foundation the rest of the series has to be built on. The park itself is a character, and we’ve learned a lot (but not everything) about it.
I think Westworld is partially a victim of critical expectations. There are certain things we expect from expensive, Sunday night HBO shows, and critics are annoyed that the show isn’t fitting into that box. I love the show’s mysteries, and I can’t wait to solve them. You just have to understand that this is a very different setup. I hear arguments that the show is too serious and lacks any humor, but those same critics praise the endlessly bleak Black Mirror. I hear critics praise the weirdness of Atlanta, but kill Westworld for where it’s extremely weird: the setup and format. isn’t lack of characterization a common critique of everything that Jonathan Nolan and his brother have worked on? So why do we love Inception and The Dark Knight but paint Westworld with a different brush?
We had 100 years of classic western stories before the foundation-shifting violent anti-hero westerns of the 1960s and 70s. Don’t forget how controversial the early modernist western films were in their day. We shouldn’t expect anything different from what might be the first “techno-western.”
Maybe this is all too much, and I’m okay with that. I watch plenty of prestige TV that love. The Americans, Halt and Catch Fire, Mr. Robot; the list goes on and on. But when I’m given a bloody robot western, I want to just go with it. Show me some gunfights, give me a mystery to solve, and leave me alone. Maybe, at the end of the day, Westworld is just a meaningless Puzzle Show, but what’s so bad about puzzles if people enjoy them? What’s the character motivation for a Sudoku, anyway?