HBO’s new epic is the its answer to Thrones-less Sunday nights, an incoming reality for a network that’s always seemed smarter than its audience.
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It’s getting harder and harder to talk about Westworld. Even worse if you’re trying to write about it.
Why? Because everyone else already is. And everyone loves it. This is for three reasons. First, they wanted to love it before they even watched it, caused by a summer’s worth of hype calling it ‘the new Game of Thrones‘ even though neither has anything to do with the other, but they both seem serious and epic and sexy, so f*ck it, it’s the new Game of Thrones, right? Second, people love Westworld because it makes them feel smart, and because it’s easy to rant about how brilliant it is – just say ‘artificial intelligence’ a bunch of times and maybe mention that it’s based off a movie and concept written and created by author Michael Crichton. (And if you really want to stand out, start listing all the ways it’s similar to Crichton’s most famous book/movie, Jurassic Park, another story about how playing god with a theme park can have disastrous results.) Third reason, and this is the truest – yes, Westworld is really that good. It’s phenomenal. It’s hard to explain and, again, hard to write about because you don’t know where you start. There’s too much to cover, too much to recap, too much to fawn over.
When writing about anything, you have to start small and sentence-by-sentence with a mirage of a plan and just learn when to cut yourself off. But first step is, start small and work your way out from there. My elementary school art teacher used to tell us, “Always start with the eye.”
And that always worked, and it’s certainly fair with Westworld – the show is about humans in the future who are creating new humans probably unintentionally. They have created them as robots first, or androids, basically as sketches traced from romantic characters that never actually existed in the Wild West – and don’t exist today, either.
Not even Hemingway was really Hemingway. A macho hero in 1930 is a philandering, animal-murdering egomaniac in 2016. Nothing that’s real is actually real, especially the ideals of ideal men and women, which is a conclusion the show very unsubtly want you to know. (“Are you real?” William asks a potentially human bombshell in the second episode, titled Chestnut. She responds, “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?”)
(And getting back to the Jurassic Park deal, there’s another quote from Anthony Hopkins’ character Dr. Ford – the owner of the theme park and for sure the series’ most sinister antagonist-to-be – “You can’t play God without being acquainted with the Devil.” And when he said that, all I heard was Jeff Goldblum saying this.)
I won’t try and recap the show or sum it up. That would be too hard and, perfectly, I’m not even too sure where it’s going yet.
I have my predictions, sure… I’m thinking Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard might be a robot himself, one that Hopkins’ Dr. Ford created to be his perfect servant or assistant. And it would make sense, then, that Bernard is trying to leak Dolores and the other hosts the breadcrumbs to their consciousness. Or I’m thinking that Ford’s original partner – we just learned his name was Arnold in the third episode, titled The Stray – was an android created for the same reason, to be his perfect assistant or partner or servant. (And maybe that’s why Ford then created Bernard, as his replacement?) Or, Bernard is Arnold… we’ve seen how the robots’ bodies are re-used and re-assigned from character to character, being switched out and having their storylines changed as soon as they’re too inconvenient or stale for the guests’ pleasure or Ford’s evaporating patience.
So, no recap here.
Instead, I’ll just say why it works.
Westworld works for the same reason that all the other uber-famous stories it’s borrowing from worked – stories about man’s creations and actions turning on them or backfiring and causing inevitable chaos, like Frankenstein or Planet of the Apes or 2001. Or stories about women being tortured and raked across the coals in a cruelly managed man’s world before they finally get their revenge or reward, whether it’s Pride & Prejudice or that Pam Grier movie or, yes, Game of Thrones. (On the ‘Women’ angle, think about the hardships Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores has had to endure – she’s been raped by Ed Harris at least once in her history, and has also been rather innocently led-on romantically by James Marsden’s Teddy. The former is evil beyond explanation while the latter is an everyday inconvenience of being in a relationship. Yet they’re displayed as almost equal offences in , because this universe is make-believe, after all.) And, of course, the show is piggybacking off every noteworthy story about artificial intelligence and the future.
These are all easy themes to greenlight, especially now. But it’s more than that.
Westworld works because it’s relatable. Every part of it, both from the robots’ side and from the humans’ side. Like the robots, we’ve all questioned our place on earth and our reality. And we’re always running up against several things you can’t explain or understand. Take deja vu, for instance, which is very familiar to the ‘memories’ and ‘dream’s the robots in Westworld have finally started having. There’s always the fear, if you think hard enough about it, that the world we’re living in is nothing like the world it actually is – whether we’re all living in a simulation like Elon Musk keeps going on about, or whether we’re each the star of our own The Truman Show, or whether there’s anything up there above the clouds.
Like the hosts, we’ve all dreamed about a world without consequence. And we’ve all dreamed about a future where technology isn’t terrifying but it actually is designed for you.
But of course, there are always consequences. Everything you do comes back around. It all comes out in the wash. Someone’s always watching. It’s all recorded. Or, at the very least, it happened. Every debit comes with a credit.
The real allusion Westworld really shatters has nothing to do with evolution or A.I., although it does have statements to make about both. The allusion it shatters is that anything is free. Those men and women heading to the theme park to kill or f*ck or worse have been sold on the belief that what happens in Westworld stays in Westworld. Like Vegas, but as a hologram. But if they do something awful, and say nobody but them knows they’ve done it, is that really the same thing as innocence? If only you know what you’ve done, wouldn’t that be one person too many? If a tree falls in the forest…
Because the truth is, none of it is free. None of it comes without consequence. Guilt is guilt, and there’s nothing heavier.