close reads

Westworld Is Better When It Starts Having Fun

Tessa Thompson!

Thank heavens for Tessa Thompson, who arrives midway through this week’s episode of Westworld to play mind games with Simon Quarterman’s narrative director Lee Sizemore. She’s rocking a black bikini, already having more fun that any paying customer inside the hyperviolent Wild West theme park, or anyone else on the show for that matter. Later in the episode, after Sizemore drunkenly pees on the giant relief map of Westworld, he learns the truth: Thompson’s character is named Charlotte Hale, and she’s the executive director of the board that runs the park. It’s a silly, predictable twist, but Thompson sells it with a smirk from the Shondaland school of acting. “We’ve met,” she deadpans. Finally, Westworld has started to loosen up.

As is perhaps fitting for a show about robots, Westworld’s first five episodes have included little that resembles actual humanity. This is mostly a structural issue: It’s awfully hard to care about characters like Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores who, by definition, are blank slates. But the show has felt dispassionate elsewhere, too. We had little reason to care about the park’s intra-corporate intrigue, and even the show’s big orgy was fairly anodyne. Westworld can feel like a long-form philosophical problem, so it’s no surprise that many of the fan theories that purport to solve it are often livelier, weirder, and more particular than the show itself.

Luckily, that’s starting to change. Charlotte Hale already adds some intriguing specificity: How does someone so young occupy such a powerful position? Who exactly runs this place? Why did it take so long for Tessa Thompson, who is credited as a series regular, to show up onscreen? Hale also energizes the dynamics between the rest of the Westworld employees. Theresa’s no longer a sole authority; Sizemore, who always seemed to be overacting elsewhere, gets to provide some Gaius Baltar–style comic relief; and thanks to a separate plot involving Bernard and the sullenly resentful Elise (who owns another spot of humor in Westworld’s bleak-fest), we know that the company’s information is valuable, and that various employees might have cause to steal or protect it. When Westworld brings life to its human characters, the show feels less like something that takes place in the abstract (or on another planet), and more grounded in real people and real situations. It turns more into a workplace drama, plus robots, of course.

The show has gotten a bit looser in other areas, too. In recent episodes, I’ve been less interested in the series’ primary mystery, which involves Dolores, William (Jimmi Simpson), the Man in Black (Ed Harris), and a pair of dueling story lines so convoluted that even the characters’ motivations are largely unknown. But while Westworld labors to raise questions about meaning and consciousness through Dolores, those same questions arise naturally when it spends time with Thandie Newton’s Maeve, who gets to maintain the madam’s snarky personality even as she develops fuller self-awareness. From holding her creators captive to marveling at videos of Westworld’s technological feats, Newton plays a full spectrum of emotions, while most of the cast is stuck hitting the same one or two dull tones again and again. If Maeve’s story line winds up being a little garish, all the better: In one scene, she makes the engineers crank up her Dungeons and Dragons–like intelligence stat to a higher level, a demand that plays as charming, unsettling, and a little absurd. We’re closer than ever to the pulpiness of the original film, and it works. Finally, a character wants something concrete!

When Sizemore fought with Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) in an earlier episode, he insisted that people come to Westworld for superficial pleasures. Ford countered that the guests actually seek deeper meaning. The show sets up Sizemore as a straw man, but watching the last few episodes, I think he may be right. It’s difficult to relate to the byzantine logic that governs the plots surrounding Dolores, Ford, and the Man in Black, while Sizemore’s drunken antics, Hale’s duplicity, and Maeve’s sinister plotting are all far more legible — and more importantly, far more entertaining. However cliché these plots may seem, they give us an entry into the world of the show, instead of merely stating its ideas. I wouldn’t mind more soapy shenanigans from Hale and Sizemore — maybe a Thomas Crowne Affair–style corporate espionage rom-com that ends with them double-crossing the company and then each other, not to be too specific — or more scenery-chewing menace from Maeve. Let the humans have fun, and let the robots be human. Most of all: If you’re making a show about pleasure, be sure to provide it, too.

Westworld Is Better When It Starts Having Fun