It’s safe to say that when HBO go big, they really don’t mess around. They’ve shown that on several occasions over the years; my first experience with them, I think, was the remarkable WW2 miniseries Band of Brothers, but they’ve put themselves to the forefront of televisual badassery over the last few years with the epic fantasy series Game of Thrones. But all good things must come to an end, particularly in television where it’s either that or outstay their welcome and become a bad thing, and thus HBO are looking ahead into their future and seeing a time where Game of Thrones will no longer sit proudly as its flagship TV series.
And so, with only two seasons remaining to play out on the battlefields of Westeros, there’s a new gunslinger in town, and its name is Westworld.
Based on the 1973 sci-fi thriller of the same name, the series is set in a futuristic theme park, a recreation of the old west, populated by the euphemistically-named “hosts”, androids indistinguishable from humans, whose sole purpose is to fulfil every whim of the wealthy guests who come there to play.
The original movie is a basic thriller – guests arrive at the park, robots go wrong and a chase ensues, leading to a final confrontation. The malfunctioning robots are the villains of the piece, principally embodied by Yul Brynner’s implacable Gunslinger, and matters play out in a straight-forward manner. The TV series, unsurprisingly, is much more ambiguous in its approach.
Created by Jonathan Nolan, previously responsible for the excellent AI-themed series Person of Interest, and his wife / writing partner Lisa Joy, it becomes apparent rather quickly that the hosts are beings to be pitied, as the show pulls no punches in depicting the horror that lies hidden behind their lives. They spend their time in pre-programmed loops, with multiple contingencies coming into play depending on how they interact with guests. Once the loop plays out, they reset and begin again, once the park’s staff have made any repairs that might be necessary. Which is not uncommon by any means. While the park is set up for families – dialog asides refer to the existence of adult-only areas and the control room staff are shown monitoring a family’s progress within the park and putting a stop to a bloody confrontation before they can get there – most of the guests seen within the show come across as bored, wealthy and, to put it bluntly, total arseholes. To these jaded individuals, tired of carefully constructed quests – I could do a whole post on the video game metaphors within Westworld – the hosts are basically there to be abused, raped, murdered; essentially they see them as an outlet for their darker impulses, one that they take advantage of with zero restraint, secure in the knowledge that the hosts will simply be repaired, reset and returned to their loops, oblivious to just how crappy their existences are, to wait for the next indignity to be visited upon them.
The staff, equally, do everything to dehumanise the hosts under their charge – an understandable move, given what happens to them, thinking of them as anything more than machines would be a significant handicap. Hosts are routinely stripped naked when taken out of the park, leading to uncomfortably creepy scenes when hosts are being interviewed to diagnose problems, and are quite regularly decommissioned if an issue arises, banished to large storage areas of inactive hosts that, speculative foreshadowing ahoy, certainly aren’t under any circumstances going to be one hell of a problem when the shit hits the fan. Hosts can be switched to a different role, effectively a totally different life within the park, at the drop of a hat, just by giving them different programming. The programming isn’t necessarily even that detailed, containing only what they need to function within their storylines; a rather sad scene reveals that Teddy, whose current role within the park is that of a good-natured bounty hunter haunted by a past guilt that he won’t talk about, actually can’t talk about it because nobody ever bothered to come up with a backstory for him. He carries around a hidden guilt without even knowing why. It’s next to impossible not to sympathise with them and the show clearly sets out to get the audience to do just that.
As with most shows this early in their run, the appeal of Westworld is in the questions that it poses to the audience about what’s going on. It’s fun to speculate about what’s going to happen, what certain things might mean, what certain characters intend to do and so on. It’s currently following several different plotlines, giving insights into how the park works, establishing the personalities of the main players and so forth, but there’s plenty of room for speculation. Theories abound online about, say, which of the human characters will turn out to be unwitting hosts, why certain hosts appear to be different, or whether different plotlines are even happening at the same time – a major theory is that two characters are actually the same person, with their scenes occurring decades apart. Personally, I disagree with that one, for reasons that I won’t bore you with, but there’s a lot of entertainment value in discussing them.
Westworld is, so far, a slow-burner of a show. A dense script is carried by an astonishing cast. James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins would be an eye-catching line-up for a movie; for a TV show, that’s mind-blowing. Occasional bursts of impressively staged action fit into an otherwise relatively slow pace, but the show carries a sense of implacable momentum, that, as certain hosts begin to see the cracks in the world they exist in and start to defy their programming, something is building up that cannot be stopped. When events come to a head, all hell is likely to break loose.