Westworld, and When TV Uses Pop Music to Do Its Emotional Heavy Lifting

By
Thandie Newton as Maeve. Photo: HBO

Maeve Millay is a paranoid android. Nominally the madam of the Westworld theme park’s central saloon and brothel, she’s haunted by dreams of a previous life (or “build,” in the park’s parlance) in which she had a daughter and lost her life in a raid on her home. As her suppressed memories continue bubbling to the surface, she also gains the ability to wake up during periods of deactivation in which her body is repaired after “death.” She starts retaining the information she learns even though her mind is supposed to be wiped with each reboot. As she gets used to the experience, she goes from running around in confusion and terror to taking cool and confident charge of the situation — and of Felix, the mild-mannered medical technician operating on her.

Finally, in this week’s episode, she demands answers, and Felix — partially intrigued, partially intimidated, mostly stunned — agrees to give them to her. In the hour’s centerpiece sequence, he takes Maeve on a stroll through Westworld’s behind-the-scenes house of horrors. Bloody corpses, piled up and hosed down for reuse, new “hosts” in the middle of being manufactured, scientists probing and observing androids in various states of undress as they kill or kiss or simply sit there inert. It’s a traumatizing glimpse behind the curtain of reality for a character who has to keep a straight face and pretend she doesn’t comprehend any of it the entire time.

It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the instant in which one of Westworld’s unfortunate, unwitting robots receives undeniable, unforgettable confirmation that their life is a lie. It’s a crushing concept all on its own, and the guided-tour-of-hell structure of the scene adds to the pathos. By rights it should stand alone as one of the series’ most powerful moments.

And yet, Westworld’s treatment of it falls flat. Like park technicians fiddling with a host’s intelligence or empathy on their control panels, the show’s filmmakers artificially increase the sequence’s tear-jerking levels by soundtracking it with a chamber-music version of the closing track on one of the most acclaimed albums of all time: “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” the achingly sad conclusion of Radiohead’s electronic-music breakthrough Kid A. It’s not the first time the hyperactively overscored series has relied on the band, having previously gone to the Radiohead well with their suburban-ennui anthem “No Surprises.” Hell, it’s not the first time it did so in this episode, which opens with a similarly heavy-handed accompaniment by a player-piano version of the band’s ode to falseness, “Fake Plastic Trees.” But it is the show’s most egregious example yet of using a song with preexisting cultural clout to do its emotional work — a syndrome we’re seeing, or hearing, with increasing frequency as Peak TV prestige dramas attempt to cut through the clutter and grab viewers, or listeners, by the heartstrings.

Rather than let the power of the scene emerge on its own, Westworld leans on a preexisting work of art to doing the heavy lifting for it. It’s a cheat, a shortcut to resonance. That particular work of art has far more cultural purchase, impact, and history than a first-season TV show. Even if you don’t rate Radiohead, substitute the gut-wrenching classic-album closer of your choice — “Purple Rain” by Prince, “Little Earthquakes” by Tori Amos, or "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails (to cite an artist Westworld’s already employed, with a different song, to dubious effect in that over-the-top orgy scene last week) — and you’ll get the point.

It’s worth comparing this to how other shows, including some of the greatest ever aired, have handled standout pop-rock songs well. The Wire ended its run not with some tear-down-the-sky classic, but with the Blind Boys of Alabama cover of “Way Down in the Hole,” a relatively random Tom Waits song, that it used as its first-season theme music. Mad Men wrapped things up with a freaking commercial jingle, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)”; its main character turned off the show’s single most iconic song, the infamously hard-to-license Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” in confused disgust. The Sopranos, widely credited with launching the New Golden Age of TV and creating the prestige-drama template, earned the right to wrap up with pretty much any supercharged song it wanted, from “Born to Run” to “Born in the USA.” However, creator David Chase chose Journey’s crescendo of corn “Don’t Stop Believin’.” (Though considered a classic now, it didn’t have nearly the pop-culture purchase then that it has now — clout it earned in large part from its use in The Sopranos and, later, Glee.)

Westworld executive producer J.J. Abrams’s previous genre puzzler, Lost, delighted in using comparatively obscure or uncool songs to disorient or delight. Its most memorable music cues included Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” during our introduction to major character Juliet; Three Dog Night’s “Shambala,” blasting from the 8-track player of the Dharma Initiative’s VW van; and, most famously, Mama Cass’s forgotten AM-radio jam “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” soundtracking our bizarre initial journey into the mysterious Hatch. Even when the show included iconic alt-rock artists Nirvana to accompany imagery of main character Jack hitting rock bottom, it didn’t go for a smash hit like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or an album-closer like “Something in the Way” — it used the abrasive In Utero album cut “Scentless Apprentice.”

This is not to single out Westworld for relying too heavily on songs bigger than itself to get its point across, though the juxtaposition of its faux Wild West setting and its library of massive goth-alternative hits, from “Black Hole Sun” to “Paint It Black,” make it an easy target. The summer smash Stranger Things was an especially egregious offender in this regard. Take the use of Joy Division’s aptly titled “Atmosphere” to sell the grief of the Byers family over the supposed death of missing son and brother Will. Put aside the anachronism of a Manchester post-punk act appearing on the mid-’80s mixtapes of a Midwestern kid for a moment. This song, one of the famously depressive band’s loveliest and most evocative, was initially released just two months before singer and lyricist Ian Curtis’s suicide, and as such, it’s a major part of any fan’s relationship with the group. Stranger Things takes this ready-made association and repurposes it to evoke feelings about a character we know isn’t even really dead, in a pastiche of Spielbergian genre films that, whatever their quality, wouldn’t have touched that song with a ten-foot pole at the time.

The show pulled a similar trick when it used Peter Gabriel’s cover version of David Bowie’s yearning, definitive hit “Heroes” for the same purpose. Again, this is a song with a strong and powerful preexisting context, particularly following Bowie’s shocking death from previously undisclosed cancer at the beginning of the year. There’s something crass about yoking a song that big to a soon-to-be-debunked plot twist.

Better shows than Stranger Things or Westworld have used pop to punch above their weight class. The Americans, one of the very best shows on television, is usually quite clever in how it deploys its recognizable songs; there’s an argument to be made that the ’80s-set drama’s use of Fleetwood Mac’s left-field stomper “Tusk” in its pilot episode more or less cemented its reputation. That’s what made its recent use of Bowie and Queen’s magisterial collaboration “Under Pressure”— during an episode-ending montage designed to show that its characters are, you guessed it, under pressure — so disappointing. The correspondence between song and scene is too literal, and the song itself too huge a part of the catalogue of the late and lamented artists involved, for the result to feel anything but overblown.

But there is a better way. Halt and Catch Fire, another of television’s finest dramas, also set in the ’80s, didn’t raid rock radio for a major staple of the Thin White Duke’s discography for its Bowie song this season. It selected “Absolute Beginners,” an elegant track from the tail end of Bowie’s yuppie-superstar phase known today, in the States at least, only by serious aficionados of the artist’s career. It played in the background of a glitzy, coked-out party thrown by Silicon Valley multimillionaire Joe MacMillan, its use both period-appropriate and environmentally apt. It lent character to the scene without creating the scene’s character from whole cloth. Halt was particularly astute with its song choices this season: That same episode featured “War Songs,” a very deep cut from synth wizard Gary Numan (no, not “Cars”), and “The Boy in the Bubble,” a track from Paul Simon’s Graceland that barely dented the charts (no, not “You Can Call Me Al”). The one big hit it included, Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” was utilized as a tongue-in-cheek joke at the expense of one of the show’s would-be iconoclasts. (This was a favored technique of another period piece, The People v. O.J. Simpson; see: its very funny use of C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” and Portishead’s “Sour Times.”) It’s a far cry from using a famously morose band’s famously morose song to say “hey, check out our morose scene.”

As music critic Chris Ott has argued, the most astute users of pop in film alternately launch songs themselves (think The Breakfast Club closing with Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” or Do the Right Thing opening with Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”), elevate overlooked or underplayed gems (John Cusack blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” at Ione Skye in Say Anything), or radically recontextualize classic works to give song and scene alike an emotional spin they can’t access on their own (Martin Scorsese using the gorgeous, plaintive outro of “Layla” to soundtrack the discovery of a series of corpses in GoodFellas). All of these involve the visual and narrative parts of the equation lending power to the sonic element, not, or not just, the other way around. Westworld can hijack all the show-stopping songs it wants. But unless and until it has the confidence to rely on the impact of its own images and ideas, and the chops to back it up, the result will always feel as empty and unearned as that player piano. The keys move, the notes come out, but the artistry is absent.