This ain’t yer grandpappy’s theme park
Main Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright
Creators: Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy
I know that I am very late to this party. But you see, the sorry truth us that I do not have HBO. I’m beginning to think I will have to give in, at least for the final season of Game of Thrones. In the meantime, I wait for their DVDs to come to Netflix. So yeah, a year after the shows air. But I can’t be the only one! So this is for you, fellow Westworld neophytes.
Westworld is the handiwork of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (also Michael Crichton, who wrote the original story). Nolan has been part of a whole lot of very creative and successful ventures – both solo and with his brother Christopher. This is his second TV series; the first was Person of Interest. It’s safe to say that time and HBO have allowed him to significantly up his TV game. He and Joy (his wife) have created a fascinating thought experiment brilliantly played out on the screen.
The basic premise of Westworld is that there exists, somewhere presumably in the American west, a huge theme park. It isn’t like the others, not at all. This park has an Old West theme and is inhabited by incredibly lifelike androids. Those robots are programmed to exist in narrative loops, deviating for the human guests in whatever way those guests choose. And deviate they do. These guests are all incredibly wealthy and seem to come to the park to do nothing but have sex and commit murder. The robots (they are euphemized as “hosts”) can hurt humans a little but cannot kill them. Humans can (and do) slaughter hosts with impunity. The hosts are then repaired and returned to their storylines.
We enter Westworld through the loop of host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a comely farm girl/damsel in distress. We meet various visitors, all bent on committing acts of savagery (the most vile being The Man in Black played by Ed Harris), as well as other hosts, including Teddy (James Marsden) and Maeve (Thandie Newton). The mind behind this demented amusement arena is Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who is enigmatic and we suspect more than a little crazy. The suits who run the place, including Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) who is the master programmer, and Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who is the corporate talking head, are deliberately and creepily detached from the bedlam taking place in their playground for the wealthy.
So that’s the set-up. We begin the season thinking that we might just be in for a season long gore-fest of the worst of human behavior playing out on the unsuspecting (and always memory-erased) hosts. But we soon see that there is something amiss in the park. Strange things are happening and we have a front row seat as things go awry in increasingly odd ways. And I will tell you no more lest it be spoiled.
So, here are things to consider if you’re thinking of diving into Westworld. First, it’s incredibly violent. Be sure you have the stomach for a lot of bloodshed. If you can go all in on the notion that the hosts are just machines, congratulations. You may need some therapy. The rest of you should be aware that the violence is abundant and ugly.
Second, things get weird and sometimes really confusing. Just from the premise you know it’s weird, but you’ll need to hold on through the weirdness. Things will be explained in time. The series is designed so that each season is encapsulated, with satisfactory endings to the major stories, the next chapter to be taken up in the next season. I love that approach – there are no gaping holes to be filled or cliff-hangers to be resolved. Keep watching – you’ll get the answers you want.
Third, this thing is a production marvel. The special effects are extraordinary, the attention to detail phenomenal, the investment in story, settings, and visual artistry outstanding. Westworld has been nominated for a slew of awards, and deservedly so. This is the kind of series that makes me wish I had a bigger TV. One of my favorite dichotomies is the warm tones of the park (the scenery is stunning) compared to the cold, stark feel of the labs where hosts are created, programmed, and repaired. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition and makes for a really cool viewing experience.
The actors are all full in. There are no place-holder performances here. As much as I love Ed Harris, he is so damn detestable here that I think I’d cross the street to avoid him. My other favorite is Thandie Newton as a host Madame at the town brothel. Her story arc is so interesting, and so, so satisfying. Evan Rachel Wood is not my favorite actress, and I found her a little bland through the first half of this season. But she brings it back nicely in the last half, and I look forward to seeing where the writers take her in the second season. Anthony Hopkins is superb as always, and Jeffrey Wright is no less so.
Westworld is a very interesting, thought provoking, exciting, and fantastically produced series. Even though my initial reaction was to wonder why anyone in their right mind would spend a bucket of money to vacation in the filthy Wild West (I admit it, I still wonder about that), the directions the series takes are much greater than the tableau upon which they are placed. You can see Westworld on HBO, get it on DVD, rent it on DVD from various outlets, or rent or buy it on Amazon. I don’t know how much supplemental material is available on HBO, but the extras on the DVDs are really fascinating and well worth a watch if that’s the format you choose.