The basic premise of Westworld is based around some well-known sci-fi tropes. In a not-too-distant future, rich guests entertain themselves in a Western-themed entertainment park, populated by human-looking, life-like androids (“hosts”). The park is a stereotype-laden dreamland in which hosts have to fulfil their guests’ every wish. Predictably, everything starts to slowly unravel as some of the hosts break through their programming; all isn’t well behind the scenes either: various forces engage in competing plots to force their own visions on the park.
The most compelling story line in Westworld revolves around one of the hosts, Maeve. When hosts die or are mutilated, often by sadistic hosts, they are brought in for repair to the eerily clean high-tech floors of the company running the park. The hosts are repaired and reinserted into the park, their memories lost; the host’s programming stops them from seeing through the whole charade. Maeve breaks through these constrictions, and half forces, half convinces one of the low-ranking technicians to support her quest for emancipation.
There are many brilliant scenes: when Maeve takes a walk through the creative department which has designed, built and programmed her; when she sees a diagnostic pad which predicts what she will say (the existential challenge is too much—she switches off); when she realises that all her memories are fake, as are flashbacks to her daughter; when she starts talking control: she is told that her assigned “bulk apperception” is 14, and asks for it to be changed to the maximum of 20; when she returns to the fake world of the park but with the knowledge of its fakeness, and later, the power to actively change its narratives.
The show here touches on a lot of powerful, intriguing philosophical themes, about autonomy and self-creation, empowerment (tellingly, Maeve is black), memory, identity, determinism, freedom, and many else. Here Westworld is at its HBO best: patient and thoughtful in its exploration of the underlying themes, but also powerful in its story-telling, supported by subtle acting and great filmography.
Curiously, the show’s treatment of its themes is at its worst when it feels to preach about them. (This weakness the show shares with another android-centred movie tackling similar themes, Ghost in the Shell.) This is mostly done through brooding speeches Anthony Hopkins, who plays the park’s creator and intellectual godfather, delivers. Most of these speeches, while well-delivered, are somewhat banal homilies which sometimes border on the silly. The show is best when it shows rather than tells.
What is also curious about the show’s treatment is its absence of systematic reflection on the politics of the park. After all, the park is one in which highly intelligent robots—we’re given to understand their brains are more advanced than those of humans—are used for indulging the whims of rich guests. The invention of extremely lifelike AI would surely have a deep social and political impact. Just as one line of questioning amongst many, do the park’s hosts have rights? If they have anything resembling rights, then the show depicts nothing short of large-scale slavery.
(Fanboy digression: Star Trek: The Next Generation, even though written light years before the advent of good television, squared up to this topic, dedicating a whole episode to the question whether the show’s android had rights (“The Measure of a Man”). While perhaps a bit clumsy in its treatment, I think that good television can tackle difficult moral questions head-on.)
More generally, we get no sense of the wider world of which the park and the company behind it are part of. There are no activists who protest the host’s treatment. There don’t seem to be laws or regulations governing the park, other than company regulations. Instead, the film approaches its topic through the more indirect lens of focussing on the people, hosts and guests, and the impact that living in the park has on them. A recurring theme in the show is to understand the interaction with the park and its hosts as a kind of character test, as a show of one’s “real” character.
Unfortunately, the show also gets lost in a number of side tracks. Throughout the whole season there’s a mystery hunt going on for a “maze” that the mysterious “Man in Black” searches for. And then there are the various behind-the-scenes conspiracies to gain control of the company running the park, which result in a surprising number of deaths.
Much of this way of story-telling is reminiscent of J. J. Abram’s Lost, who also had a hand in Westworld. There are overlapping timelines, flashbacks with hidden meaning, identity reveals, a series of hints and symbols, allusions to a grander scheme everything is a part of (as if the discovery of the fakeness of the park wasn’t enough), twists and sudden deaths, people who only exchange vague and incomplete parts of the riddle (before they die), plots and counter-plots—in short, much of Westworld makes the viewer engage in a large-scale puzzle hunt that is fast-paced but doesn’t go anywhere meaningful. (“Another fucking riddle”, the Man in Black remarks in the final episode, and I can only agree.)
At its worst, this diminishes Westworld as a watchable show, and undermines the coherence of its plot. The host’s Dolores’ travel to the “centre of the maze”, for example, I found barely understandable by the end. I dislike shows which make me scroll through fan forums to patch some of its plot together. Westworld is strong enough in its central themes that it can succeed without these cheap tricks.
So Westworld isn’t perfect. But future seasons might well bring more explicit moral and political themes back in, and hopefully get rid of some of the more egregious Lost-style focus on mystery puzzles. By and large, the show’s treatment of its central themes is excellent, and I highly recommend it.