The Layered, Self-Aware Westworld Is Perfectly Suited for This Pop-Culture Moment

Westworld. Photo: John P Johnson/Courtesy of HBO

How fitting that Westworld, a science-fiction drama set at a Wild West theme park staffed by hyperrealistic robots, would run on HBO. Almost 20 years ago, the cable channel premiered The Sopranos, an intellectualized gangster saga that perfected the idea of the “novel for television.” This new megaproduction has been marketed as if it were the next Game of Thrones — itself a Sopranos-dark sword-and-sorcery epic, based on an actual series of novels — but it turns out to be something much richer and slipperier, and in some ways more off-putting: a meticulously constructed, obsessively self-analyzing show, tailor-made for a pop-culture era dominated by TV and discussion of TV. Westworld is an adults-only drama with characters who seem a bit abstract and thin in the first couple of episodes but who grow more complex the longer you spend in their company. But it is also an adults-only drama about the idea of an adults-only drama — a show that scrutinizes itself from so many different angles that all the recaps and think pieces it’s sure to generate might end up seeming redundant. Created by J.  J. Abrams and the married production team of Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight, Interstellar) and Lisa Joy (Pushing Daisies), Westworld is inspired by the late novelist and filmmaker Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie about a Wild West theme park where theoretically servile robots blow a gasket and attack the guests.

Evan Rachel Wood plays Dolores Abernathy, a blonde, apple-cheeked frontierswoman. James Marsden plays Teddy Flood, a dimpled gunfighter who’s sweet on Dolores. Ed Harris plays the Man in Black, a menacing figure whose ensemble evokes Yul Brynner’s proto-Terminator in the original Westworld, and who comes across as one of those Shakespearean villains who know they’re in a play and are determined to decode its rules. Thandie Newton is Maeve Millay, the British-accented madam of Westworld’s brothel. Ben Barnes plays a decadent rotter who only wants to get laid; Jimmi Simpson is his brother-in-law-to-be, who’s not the least bit ashamed of being a do-gooder. When you watch the pilot and the next four episodes, you will immediately realize that many of these descriptions are wildly misleading; part of the fun as well as the allure of Westworld lies in discerning not just which character is a robot and which a person, but what, if anything, such distinctions mean in a universe where human creators have programmed robots’ minds with memories, experiences, and gestures drawn from their own lives (as screenwriters and filmmakers might do); and whether the improvisations of “actors” (be they robots or guests) amount to embellishments of that deeply personal material or a wholesale hijacking of it.

The visitors and “hosts” are watched via surveillance cameras by the park’s staff. Their ranks include Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Westworld’s creative director, though perhaps we should call him a “showrunner”; Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), the head creator of “artificial people,” who seems increasingly inclined to emphasize the second word in that phrase (he might be a sort of creatively powerless co–executive producer); and Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an “operations leader” who watches the schedule and the bottom line and advises shutting down any experiment that might damage property or injure guests. At first there seems to be a clear separation between the park and the staff that creates, maintains, and supervises it. Ford, Lowe, Cullen, and other characters are constantly making large and small decisions that affect the visitors’ experiences and inflict physical and “emotional” wear and tear on the nonhuman hosts — everything from unveiling new “story lines” to implanting the robots with fleeting but meaningful physical gestures called “reveries.”

The scripts draw on theories of simulacra, spectatorship, life-as-performance, and the late-capitalist consumer as both royal and serf; leaven them with an almost spiritual yearning for redemption (expressed by robot and human alike); and fold it all into a series of recursive situations, like loops in a computer program or levels in a video game. Visitors adopt different moral stances depending on what they hope to gain from an experience, secure in the knowledge that if the story doesn’t satisfy them, they can always come back and be someone else next time. Some visitors never leave the Westworld “arrival” set, a dusty frontier town, and hang out there as if it were a very expensive version of Las Vegas or Bangkok, getting drunk and bedding synthetic but physically realistic sex workers (the most popular HBO dramas feature brothels, and Westworld seems keenly, at times disapprovingly, aware of this fact), but others go on adventures in the surrounding deserts and canyons that test their capacity to resist corruption and cruelty or tempt them to release it in atavistic bursts of assault, thievery, rape, and murder. The show all but demands that we ask certain questions of ourselves, and of Westworld, as we watch. There’s quite a bit of HBO-brutal sexual assault (offscreen, thankfully) and casual nudity — both male and female robots are examined “backstage” without their garments, as if they were automobiles with open hoods — but is it exploitative? These are not people; they’re nonhumans played by people. Ditto the violence, which poses the same conundrum as the wanton destruction of zombies on The Walking Dead; in both series, we’re watching actors playact getting shot, stabbed, burned, and torn apart in a “fantasy” context, but is this really so different from watching “human” characters who never existed being treated as if they were talking piles of meat? What is bad, what is good, and are the binary categories embraced by the park’s directors ironic or sneakily sincere?

Westworld owes as much to post­modern fiction and television criticism as it does to any post-Sopranos drama you can name, even as its situations resonate backward through TV history, echoing everything from UnREAL and The Prisoner to Fantasy Island, The Twilight Zone, and Abrams’s Lost, stirring in fragments of Blade Runner, Dark City, and The Truman Show. It’s not a Western, nor is it about the prominence of the Wild West in the American imagination, although it does touch on the notion of the frontier as a simultaneously liberating and horrifying imaginative space. I can’t think of another recent series that’s so aggressively about what it’s about while also being about story­telling, especially the 21st-century TV variety. “This story line will make Hieronymous Bosch look like he was doodling kittens!” crows the park’s narrative director, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), debuting an “adventure” that’s little more than a compendium of horrors, including vivisection and cannibalism; not since The Good Wife’s show-within-a-show, Darkness at Noon, has an American TV series so witheringly sent up cable’s quest for the next outrage generator. Of course, the laughs are tempered by our awareness that Westworld the show is forever eating its cake and having it, too. The naked actors are still naked even as castmates decry their nudity; the blood still looks like blood, whether it’s spilling from robots or humans; the sex-worker characters that bemoan their lot in life are still in Westworld (and on Westworld) to get guests’ (and viewers’) rocks off. But in a hall of mirrors this immense, such contradictions come to seem like intentional touches, not sloppy mistakes. The wry-grim tone of the show invites you to go looking for notes of hypocrisy or cynicism, then ask whether Westworld’s self-awareness complicates, obscures, or evades them.

Most startling of all are the bursts of feeling that bloom inside Nolan and Joy’s puzzle-box narrative structures. These, too, regard themselves with two minds. They are great TV moments but also comments on the act of watching TV, a medium whose long-form stories eventually thaw even the iciest viewers’ hearts, whether they think the show in question is good or bad, ambitious or merely pretentious. 

“You know why this beats the real world?” asks the Man in Black. “The real world is just chaos. It’s an accident. But in here, every detail adds up to something.”

*This article appears in the October 3, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.