It’s a show that has ample helpings of its own distinct appeal and particular rhythms, but HBO’s Westworld is also a series that feels like it’s layered with familiar influences and previous stories. Some of that has to do with its style — it’s a big HBO Western full of saloons and cowboy hats and dust, and there are elements of that which will ping some dim recognition for longtime HBO viewers regardless of anything else in the show. But there are also familiar flavors in Westworld that will have important storytelling ramifications, and reveal potential pitfalls, for the long-term success of the series.
This is the obvious stylistic and generic watch-alike, thanks to Westworld’s firmly rough-and-tumble portrayal of the American West and the show’s dominant aesthetic. There are prostitutes who try to pick up grimy men in well-to-do brothels. There are distinguished men with sheriffs’ stars and bank robbers who come riding into town to pull off heists. There may be more leather chaps, fringed vests, ruffles, satin, bandoliers, boots, bandanas, and garters than there were in 20 seasons of Gunsmoke. And although there are also some crucial differences that I’ll tease out in a moment, Westworld and Deadwood share an interest in the idea that you arrive in a new place and choose to be a completely new person. Both places are meant to be nearly blank slates, allowing the people there to choose their futures without any reference to their pasts.
This, too, is a clear Westworld predecessor (or descendant, if you’re counting the original Westworld movie). Like Whedon’s deeply flawed but theoretically fascinating series, Westworld is invested in exploring the idea that a human body can be devoid of any of its own personality or desires, and instead be programmed for the pleasure of others. In Dollhouse, the dolls were originally normal humans; on Westworld they are highly advanced robots. And in both series, part of the deep mythology and ongoing dramatic thread lies in the possibility that these empty human-shaped vessels can somehow “wake up” into consciousness and personhood.
In this respect, Dollhouse also acts as a cautionary tale for the HBO series. Part of what plagued that show was the immense frustration with a protagonist who was impossible to root for — how can you cheer for a fancy sex doll who, by definition, is incapable of charisma, or character, or the barest spark of a distinguishing trait? Westworld attempts to dodge this obstacle in a few different ways, but it remains a tricky fictional dynamic.
The immediate comparison here is also a good one. Like Westworld, Battlestar was a show preoccupied with the potential to find humanity inside inhuman creations, and in probing the innate prejudices and assumptions that come with seemingly binary categories like “human” and “robot.”
But the Battlestar echoes are not limited to the “thinking machine” idea. Westworld also thrives on something Battlestar milked almost ceaselessly — an uncertainty about who on the show is human, and who’s a robot. And further, both series are hemmed in by the foundational restraints of their premises. Battlestar only had a certain number of Cylons who could be revealed, and had to drag out and modify that limitation several times throughout the series. It was also functionally limited by its setting: In order to reasonably introduce new characters, the Galactica at one point had to somehow manage to stumble into the one other surviving human ship in the entire universe. While Westworld’s constraints are less harsh, there’s still a similar underlying sense of limitation. Its world is fixed. The people who run it can keep making new stuff potentially forever, but that novelty will quickly grow thin if the series can’t also find wealthy storytelling veins for the characters it already has.
The Fallout Games
This is the most interesting, and possibly most palpable vein of influence for the series. Much of its storytelling is based on the largest, most immersive RPG anyone’s ever seen, and the narrative fingerprints of a video-game structure are all over it. New players wander into town and are instantly accosted by non-playable characters soliciting them with side missions and bounty quests. Players can choose to be monstrous or angelic or whatever mixture they prefer. As in the best RPGs, there is the distinct sense that you’ve walked into a fully formed world that was already functioning before you got there, and will keep going when you leave. Sometimes you have control over the narrative, picking and choosing what story to follow and what decisions to make. Other times you scurry to the margins and watch what’s essentially a cut scene, as the neighborhood bandit comes charging down Main Street.
Given the Western aesthetic, Red Dead Redemption might be the best choice for Westworld play-alike. But Bethesda’s Fallout games seem much closer in structure and in overall vibe. Where Red Dead is a little more linear, and its world feels more unified, the postapocalyptic Fallout games (as well as Bethesda’s vaguely Norse fantasy Skyrim) are an overwhelming cornucopia of choice, allowing you to pursue minor side quests for hours, to fall down time-sinking wells endlessly personalizing your character or your home, or to go on otherwise pointless missions to collect mostly useless hidden Easter eggs. Just because.
And, just as the guests of Westworld sometimes suspect, the outer trappings of distinction and differentiation for these quests can often disguise a fundamental sameness. Sure, it’s a different group of bandits that you have to wipe out this time. But the idea’s basically the same. Plus, if you die, you end up replaying the same quest, with the same characters repeating the same lines, over and over again. Together, these characteristics of the series (the mission-quest structures, the pre-set world, the distant but palpable sense that this world does have limits, the repetition) make Westworld the video-gamiest series I’ve ever seen.
What Westworld Is Not
It is not Game of Thrones. Oh sure, it’s a big show, with lots of characters and story lines (although frankly not that many) and it’s got a not-our-world flair and there’s violence and sex and sexual violence and lots of good costumes.
In the way it sets up its world, and in the way it goes about telling its stories, though, Westworld is a different ball of wax. Game of Thrones capitalizes on the sense that anything can happen. Part of that is the size of its fantasy world, and part of it comes from knowing that every one of its dozens of characters has his or her own desires, history, and agency. They are all equally capable of impacting the world, and the result can sometimes be hundreds of individual variables that feel like they’re spinning out of control. But that’s also why Game of Thrones is so overwhelmingly impressive when it does work — it is like a 1,000-person orchestra, each in a battle to control the melody, but somehow, occasionally, aligned so they’re all playing the same song.
Westworld often grasps for a similar feeling of expansiveness. One of its favorite devices is a sweeping view of the landscape, something that its characters also mention frequently. “This world is so much bigger than you even realize!” one guest will regularly say to another.
At least in the first several episodes, though, it’s not. Especially after it becomes clear that one of the series’ plots will be the park’s creator and his quest for new narratives, the series feels less like a massive world, and more like an intricately designed, obsessively constructed diorama, with far more detail than initially meets the eye, but which is also constantly viewed in relation to the size of the box it’s inside.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Limitations in storytelling can be good — great, even — and I tend to think that a smaller world with an interesting rule set and deeply drawn characters is more appealing than size and freedom for their sake alone. (This is true for TV content and for form). And if it really leans into those limitations, embraces its weird video-game DNA, and digs in, Westworld could easily resemble a multilayered, endlessly complicated, thoroughly satisfying piece of clockwork. If it doesn’t, it could quickly look like a one-trick pony.