While one character in HBO’s Westworld describes consciousness as a journey through a maze, I would liken the audience’s own voyage as a series of Russian dolls. One layer comes off only to reveal another, then another, and then another after that. Like those nestled dolls, the many surprises of Westworld fit perfectly within one another, each a mind-blowing revelation that is perfectly obvious in hindsight. Few stories pull off one major plot twist without it feeling clunky, let alone several, but Westworld accomplishes just that with remarkable elegance.
Just to clue you in a bit on the premise, the show is set within a Wild West theme park populated by extremely human-like robots. Think of it as a roleplaying video game, only real life. The park’s human “guests” pay enormous sums to visit Westworld and act out roles within action-packed missions, or “narratives” dreamed up by the park’s creative team. Others come merely to indulge in depraved sexual and violent fantasies with the park’s robots (called “hosts” in the show’s parlance), whose memories are wiped clean after each encounter. The hosts remain trapped within their programmed loops, doomed to repeated murder, rape, and torture until the end of time.
And that only scratches the surface. Westworld’s many shocking and brutal moments sum to a tiny fraction of the show’s appeal. Truly, Westworld represents the very best of what television can accomplish as an art form. The show explores fundamental questions of the philosophy of mind which are still debated, doing so in a way that maximizes the “show” and minimizes the “tell.” We get a little discussion about the theory of the bicameral mind, but the show mostly allows the characters and story to guide us to the answers. Thankfully Westworld avoids getting caught up in boring technical exposition of how the robots and computers work, preferring to focus on the interesting characters, fascinating story, and epic setting.
The attention to detail, high production value, and lovely cinematography make for an immersive experience. Every shot of the park captures the hustle and bustle of the various settlements and the timeless beauty of the picturesque desert, making for a visceral, gritty realism. Cowboys on horseback thunder across the screen, firing pistols and kicking up clouds of dust in their wake. The scenery of the park sharply contrasts with the cold, industrial vibe of the control center where scientists and programmers pull Westworld’s strings behind the scenes. The scenes where automated machines create new hosts, suspended from a hoops like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, stick out as particularly memorable. HBO reportedly shelled out a cool $10 million per episode, and it shows.
But what really makes Westworld stand apart is a cast that delivers a richly layered performance. Evan Rachel Wood is brilliant and captivating in her role as the robot host Dolores, a character displaying both a charming naiveté and a dogged determination to break free of her programming. Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright, who play Maeve and Bernard, respectively, also shine in complex roles. Veteran character actor Ed Harris appears as the Man in Black, a steely-eyed antagonist whom we can’t help but cheer on despite his sadism. Manipulating them all is the enigmatic Dr. Robert Ford, the Westworld founder and director brought to life by Anthony Hopkins. Now 79 years old, Sir Anthony clearly hasn’t lost a step and still steals every scene with incredible intensity. Among the recurring cast I hope that Ptolemy Slocum, who gives a hilarious performance as the hapless lab technician Felix, returns for more comic relief next season.
I suppose my one gripe, and a minor one at that, is that Dr. Ford’s motivations seem inconsistent. Apparently the show went through a huge reshoot when the writers decided to take the story in a new direction. The strength of Hopkins’s acting makes his character’s disjointed arc appear seamless, but I am not so sure it is credible. Perhaps it will all make sense next season, so I will withhold my judgement on that for now.
Overall I recommend Westworld without reservation. I found myself deeply moved after watching this show’s first ten episodes, which I think will go down in history as one of the finest programs to ever grace the silver screen. At its heart Westworld is a story about what it means to be human, and appropriately we experience a feast of emotions. We feel for the characters, ponder intellectual questions, and hold our breath during bursts of intense action. Certain eminently quotable lines (“doesn’t look like anything to me” or “freeze all motor functions!”) seem destined to find themselves embedded within a subculture created by an already rabid fan base. Indeed, devotees on internet forums continue to pick apart the finer plot points and speculate endlessly about the next season.
But enough of that. Just go watch the show for yourself and resist the temptation to read ahead. I promise that you are in for a great ride.