In Its First Season, Westworld Was an Elaborate Series of Perception Games

By
Image
L-R: Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Anthony Hopkins Photo: HBO

In my first review of HBO’s Westworld, which ended its first season this weekend, I called it “… a meticulously constructed, obsessively self-analyzing show, tailor-made for a pop-culture era dominated by TV and discussion of TV … 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 … 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.”

I was right, unfortunately.

I say “unfortunately” because I hoped there would be considerably more to Westworld than an elaborate series of perception games played by the creators. There was a bit more, but not enough to make the show’s first ten hours feel as if it had to last ten hours. The hive mind of the internet did a bang-up job of “solving” any puzzles and twists that creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy tried to embed into the story — including the revelation that assorted characters that you thought were humans were actually robots, and that Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the Prospero of this figurative island, had embedded the soul of his old partner, Arnold, inside the body of one of these not-really-humans, the kindly Bernard (Jeffrey Wright).

As we learned earlier this year from audience response to Mr. Robot, when you complain about a TV drama setting up a twist that the audience figures out immediately, the next step is for creators to insist that surprising the audience is not the whole point of the show; that the show is “really” about character, psychology, philosophy, what makes us human, that kind of thing. “The important thing for me, the way that I approach these things, is that it’s also not just about the reveal,” Joy told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s not just about whether or not you guessed that Bernard is a host. It’s about what happens next, and that’s not about reveals. It’s all about character and emotions.”

Well — in theory, anyway. But there wasn’t enough happening on those other levels  —and when there was, it tended to be supplied mainly via the actors’ superlative performances, not necessarily by anything innate to the situations the characters found themselves in. And then these finely shaded character details and eddies of feeling would get overshadowed by “twists” and reveals, all of which had been predicted by the hive mind weeks earlier.

The finale, which ran 90 minutes, presented the transformation of William (Jimmi Simpson) into the Man in Black (Ed Harris) in a disappointingly perfunctory manner, weeks after internet predictions of its inevitability. (The scene in last week’s episode where William threatens Logan also had a tossed-off feeling.) Ford was revealed as the saboteur behind all the other saboteurs, a puppet master of puppet masters, effectively playing a very long game, climaxing in a final narrative that allowed Delores to shoot him and set off a host revolution. Ford’s demise was indeed shocking. But it lacked the force of tragic revelation or catharsis. It was just a thing that nobody saw coming.

The episode also confirmed that the incremental rebellion of Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) was not evidence of her own autonomy — that in fact she’d been programmed (by Ford, I guess, carrying on Arnold’s “bicameral mind” experiment). Fine, but this and other acts of robot rebellion are considerably less compelling than robots gaining sentience one way or another, then acting in their own best interests — like the heroine of the recent, superior feature film Ex Machina, which was knowingly referenced in the design of this episode’s uncompleted Delores (Evan Rachel Wood). If a master (or employee) has secretly programmed the slaves to want to rebel, then there’s no such thing as autonomy (for robots, anyway). Or is there?

While that’s intriguing in a 3 a.m. in the dorm kind of way, it tends to sap excitement, rooting interest and any sort of emotion from the show’s graphically violent action scenes; the latter were inventively directed but lacked suspense because the robots weren’t “real” in the human sense, could not kill humans (at least not unless they’d been programmed to be able to), and could instantly be reprogrammed and brought back from the “dead” (like the Bernard-Arnold robot that blew its brains out at the end of last week’s episode, only to return in this one).

In interviews, I have referred to Westworld as a sort of urtext of “serious” cable dramas, and it was definitely that in season one. We were told by various characters — to the point where it sounded self-regarding — that this adults-only theme park seduces everyone eventually. To an extent, that proved true. The playfully repetitious storytelling evoked Frederick Nietzsche and Arnold Schopenhauer’s writing on “eternal return” as well as video-game theory, and such video-game-influenced films as Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow. We saw many of the “hosts,” or robot servants, “dying,” then being brought back to life again, sometimes reprogrammed, sometimes not. We saw new and repeat visitors to the park making different choices, and having different adventures that taught them something new about themselves (as on the old ABC series Fantasy Island, the lesson was often the opposite of the one they fantasized of learning). The show is so ambitious, so audacious, conceptually so much richer than almost everything else on TV, that its inability to satisfy at the level of drama is often infuriating.

Midway through the first season of Westworld, I found myself feeling grateful for having experienced Lost before the virtual hive mind went mainstream via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the like. Granted, you could go spelunking for “spoilers” ten or more years ago: Henry Jenkins’s 2006 book Convergence Culture devotes a whole chapter to the obsessive detective work of Survivorsucks.com. But you could also easily avoid all that stuff. This is harder today because spoilers might be right in front of you the second you go online. Spoilers are part of the online entertainment journalism economy. This site showcases them, as do many others. A carnivorous insatiability fuels this world. Each day is marked by a repetitious churning of data and a monk-like scrutiny of Easter eggs, a ritual ultimately meant to demonstrate that the viewer is smarter than the people writing the show, making the movie, designing the game, etc. Never mind that the people who make the entertainment are always outnumbered, and spoiler-guessers should no more feel a sense of triumph at crowd-sourcing a prediction than we should feel it upon watching a chess master get beaten by a computer designed, built, and tweaked by a team of IBM scientists in a laboratory.

But far more disquieting than the audience’s tendency to outguess Westworld is the sense that the makers of Westworld have created the show in obedience to what this particular slice of the audience wants more. They have constructed their series as a curated data stream, a succession of talking points and plot points and ideas, an algorithm with characters in place of digits. Even though Lost fans sometimes managed to outthink the show’s writers, they weren’t left feeling empty, because Lost had characters who were lively and colorful even if you didn’t know a damned thing about them. You always cared about them even when they were irritating or inconsistent. It helped that they were all humans, and that even when they were manipulated by other people (or unseen forces) they were making their own decisions, based on their worldview and life experience.

Westworld, in contrast, often seems a bit too much like a player piano of a show, filled by player piano characters, human and nonhuman. Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Anthony Hopkins and other performers bring glimmers of warmth, self-doubt, misery and hope to their roles, and for fleeting instants you can see — or feel as if you can see — people there. Or “people.”

But then the clockwork plotting takes over and turns them into punch-card holes. The instrument spits out a particular melody written and arranged by some unseen person who called the tune long ago, and you sit there watching the keys move up and down, maybe trying and succeeding at guessing what chord will get played next. The characters are positioned in relation to the rules of the park or the philosophies of Ford and Arnold. White hat or black hat? Host or human? Past or present? Dreaming or awake? Other nagging questions are barely even acknowledged: Why would a woman or a person of color want to spend several days visiting a park that fantasizes about the American West in the 1880s, where anybody who isn’t a white, straight man is treated as property or raw material? And: What changes have occurred in the outside world to make such a fantasy alluring and profitable again?

As self-deprecating, self-aware analogies go, the player piano is a good one — and it’s used in the opening credits as well as in individual close-ups throughout all the episodes — but is it the basis of good drama? Why not just tell a complex and ambitious science-fiction story unfolding along two timelines that we already know are two timelines, and let the emotions and psychology of the characters draw us in, rather than the implicit promise of being outsmarted? Why not place emphasis on why things happened, instead of whether they might happen?

Westworld S1 Was a Series of Perception Games