On Westworld

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.

On The Walking Dead Season 7 Premiere

To be truly fair, I have to look at this one in two ways, firstly as an episode without regard to how it fits into the run of the show, the second taking that into consideration.    And, spoilers, on one level, it works.   On the other, not so much.

Obviously, given the need to discuss specifics…


So, as an episode, how does it hold together?   Generally very well.    It’s brutal, pulls no punches at all, and is a pretty effective portrayal in tearing a man down to absolute rock bottom.     For the most part, the episode runs as a two-hander between Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes and his latest tormentor, the long-awaited and diabolically cheery Negan, played with considerable relish by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who misses no opportunity to chew as much scenery as he can get his hands on.    Pretty much everything in the last half-season leading up to this episode has been based on Rick’s hubris that he and his gang will have no real trouble ridding the world of a group that he has absolutely no knowledge of.    He’s made promises based on almost no information and this is where it’s got him, surrounded by enemies, grovelling on the ground by the bodies of two of his most trusted people.   Negan is utterly ruthless in destroying any last vestiges of resistance in Rick’s head, leaving him broken.    As episodes go, this is certainly a game-changer, and a particularly brutal one.   The status quo has been shattered in spectacular fashion.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t flaws in the episode.    The episodes holds out on the big reveal of who Negan killed for a good twenty minutes, throwing in unnecessary teases showing every member of the lineup falling prey to Negan’s bat.    The brutality is pretty relentless, making for the bleakest episode of the show by some distance, and the gore is extreme even by the already pretty high standards of The Walking Dead.    Negan, so far, is pretty one-note, basically coming across as a charismatic and ruthless sadist; if the character is to maintain interest over the length of his run on the show (if the comics can be used as a guideline, he should certainly be present into the recently announced eighth season), they’ll need to find some depth for Jeffrey Dean Morgan to work with.    The other flaws aren’t so much the fault of the episode itself, but more that they made it the season opener, so I guess this is where the second angle of this review kicks in.

It’s a matter of considerable record that the decision to end the sixth season with the unrevealed death of a member of the group was controversial, to say the least.    While some defended it, a lot of fans hated it with a passion, feeling cheated that, after half a season of teasing Negan’s arrival and encouraging speculation over who might be having a very up-close-and-personal meeting with Lucille, Negan’s infamous barbed-wire-wrapped bat, the producers decided to delay the big reveal for seven and a half months.    Scott M. Gimple, the showrunner, spoke out, asking, not unreasonably, to be given the benefit of the doubt, stating that he felt that, once the season seven premiere aired, that people would understand and appreciate the way they’d decided to tell the story.

For me, this very much turned out not to be the case.   This episode really should have been the final episode of season six, not delayed until the opening of season seven.

For me, a good season finale should end with questions that the audience need answers to, something to whet their interest for the next season.    The season finale that they gave us did indeed do that by posing the most direct question possible, “who did Negan kill?”    I’m not saying that that’s not necessarily a good question to be posing, but it’s such a straightforward one that it doesn’t necessarily give the following season premiere much to work with.    We find out who he kills, question answered.

Seven and a half months is a long time to wait for an answer, and speculation immediately kicked off.    It didn’t take a huge amount of thought, for example, to conclude that, dramatically speaking, only a handful of characters made sense as victims.    Rick and Carl were already immune, spared by dialogue in the finale itself.   Daryl and Michonne, as huge fan favourites, were arguably too big to kill off; at the very least, it would have been an extremely bold move to eliminate either.    On the other end of the scale, Sasha, Rosita, Aaron and Eugene were too small to be dramatically satisfying as Negan’s big kill.   That left Glenn, Maggie and Abraham.   Of those, only Abraham really made sense.   Maggie’s currently pregnant and is clearly unwell, making her an unlikely choice for Negan to make an example of, even before considering whether the network would really portray the beating to death of a pregnant woman, even on The Walking Dead.    Glenn took a swing at Negan in the finale and was told that he got that one for free; Negan, despite being a spectacular bastard, is generally quite truthful in what he says, so it made no sense for him to then beat Glenn to death anyway.   So, based on conjecture it might be, but Abraham became by far the best candidate.   Then, as time went on, word began leaking out of Stephen Yuen signing on for other projects.    Not impossible that he could have done those and continued to work on The Walking Dead, but it immediately threw into doubt Glenn’s survival.   The end result was that, coming into the new season, I was already fairly sure that Abraham and/or Glenn would not be making it to the end of the episode.     While I still enjoyed the episode, that did colour things; it’s easier to damp down an emotional reaction if you’ve been expecting a certain result for months.    If what became the season premiere had instead been used as the previous season’s finale, there would only have been a week to think about it, and reactions would have been very different, I think.

As I said earlier, the theme of the second half of season six is basically hubris.   It starts with Rick confidently boasting of his groups’ ability to eliminate Negan and his Saviours in exchange for trade with the Hilltop and how subsequent events prove that boast to be hideously and tragically overconfident.   The events of the season seven premiere cover the end of that process, ending with Rick and, by extension, his group, broken and lost.    They’ve failed utterly, lost two of their own and have a third, Daryl, in captivity.   Negan is coming in a week’s time to collect his first tribute that they have to try to prepare.    And they have no idea where Carol and Morgan have got to.

This leaves us with a question that, while far more vague and less headline-grabbing than “who did Negan kill”, is ultimately way more compelling.  “What happens next?”

How do they go back to Alexandria and explain to the others what happened?   How are they going to take the fact that they’re now living under the boot of a brutal sadist?     How is the Hilltop going to react to Rick so spectacularly failing to live up to his promise, particularly as they may well face retribution from Negan for making such a deal in the first place?    Can Rick, who has shown considerable instability in the past when things go south, pull himself back together to be an effective leader and, given his failures, should he even resume such a role?

Those are much more interesting questions to spend over half a year considering.