Styling itself as HBO’s next big successor to Game of Thrones, Westworld arrived ten weeks ago shrouded in secrecy. While we knew that this was going to be an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s cult film from 1973, very little was revealed from the trailers, most of which played more as teasers – an astonishing and surreal juxtaposition of images – rather than as any kind of extended narrative exposition. Part of the pleasure of Westworld, then, has been the surprise – both the surprise of seeing how it deviates from Crichton’s original vision and the surprise of seeing how it unfolds from week to week, leading to some of the biggest online fan communities and some of the most extravagant speculative theories since Making a Murderer. In that sense, it has certainly matched Game of Thrones at the level of hype, although whether it manages to envisage a world as expansive and reticulated as Westeros remains to be seen.
From the very first episode, it was clear that there was one critical difference from Crichton’s Westworld, which took place in a Western-themed amusement park peopled by robots that, over the course of the film, started to turn against their hosts. In HBO’s Westworld, it is the robots – or “hosts” – who are the main characters, with the traditional “humans” taking more of a backseat and – often – playing more unsympathetic and less humanistic roles. While the original film certainly questioned the distinction between human and cyborg, as well as leaving open the possibility of sympathetic cyborgs, there is much more of a continuum in the HBO version, not least because the park, as we encounter it, has been operating for what appears to be the better part of half a century, meaning that it is populated by multiple generations of hosts, some of whom are clunkily robotic (and so assigned to side parts or limited narrative loops) and some of whom represent the latest developments in cloning technologies.
With that continuum between cyborg and human, host and guest, comes another critical difference from Crichton’s version – we never leave the park. Whereas the original Westworld envisaged a world beyond Westworld, an “outside” against which the park could be measured, here the entire series alternates between the massive expanses of the park and the back office, which is housed in a Monument Valley-styled precipice overlooking it all. While we do originally see fleeting images – photographs, news broadcasts – of the external world, and while the guests themselves refer back to the external world, everything outside the park and its operations is relegated to a hazy distance, not least because the dimensions of Westworld are so enormous that no amount of physical mapping or conceptualisation is possible. While soaring establishing shots (usually shot from drones) abound, they tend to work more to suggest the impossibility of condensing the park into a single image, not least because the scale of Westworld means that it picks up something the curvature of the earth as well, which defies any static visual representation and induces the back office to to alternate between scale models and digital topographies that can only provide a fleeting glimpse of the complex networks and narrative patterns operating at any one time.
In that sense, the topography of the park is not unlike the topology of the hosts themselves – uncannily, almost unbelievably organic – which is perhaps why the series is never quite willing or able to set bodies against vistas with quite the same conviction as the classical Westerns from which it so conspicuously draws. Every time a host strikes a heroic or noble or emphatic pose, the action once again closes around him or her, collapsing the surface of the body back into the surface of park, usually by way of some narrative glitch requiring the maintenance of both. However, it’s a very different story for the guests, who arrive by way of a train that departs from the Westworld headquarters, depositing them in a town in which all kinds of narrative possibilities are available, the most challenging, enduring and entertaining of which always seem to allow them to strike just this noble posture, and to emphasise this triumph of the human over the environmental, that remains so unavailable to the hosts.
As might be expected from such a series, most of the forward momentum is driven by the interface between the park and the back office and takes place by way of a series of mysteries, or intrigues. First and foremost there is the mysterious character of Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the founder and creative director of the park, whose experiments with newer forms of cloning and murky relationship with his original partner Arnold, now apparently dead, drives a great deal of the action. Then there is Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) and Teddy Flood (James Marsden), three hosts who all, in their different ways, start to question their identity when Ford’s latest innovations cause them to remember incidents and episodes from previous narrative loops. Back in the office, there are Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) and Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth), who work variously in security, operations and technological development, and all start to suspect that what is going on at Westworld is not merely a tourist attraction. Finally, there is the “Man in Black,” (Ed Harris), a longtime, Lynchian (and frequently lynching) guest who is determined to travel to the very fringes of the park.
Of course, that just scratches the surface of the narrative complexity, which often feels as if it is operating according to multiple timelines and can frequently only be pieced together retrospectively. What unites all these threads, however – and what partly distinguishes the series from the Crichton film – is the way in which an aesthetic of digital gaming is brought to bear on the action, and especially upon the behaviour of the guests, who frequently feel like gamers more than tourists per se. Key to that gaming approach is the way in which Westworld conceives of the Western as well – few other cinematic genres have struggled so hard to find their feet and reinvent themselves over the last decade, if only because the horizon, as a spectacle, doesn’t really ramify in the same way in an era in which big screen experiences are on the decline, while cinema itself is no longer a real media horizon either. If anything, the strongest and most cinematic Westerns have probably been games along the lines of Red Dead Redemption, in which the connection between the impermeability of the Western horizon and the invulnerability of the Western hero is give a new, digital twist.
That same twist occurs in Westworld, which might be described as an extended film organised around the logic of gaming – a film, not a television series, since I can’t think of another HBO outing I’ve seen (including Game of Thrones) that is so anxious to construe itself as a cinematic event. Not only do many of the park’s narrative loops boast quasi-cinematic titles (“Odyssey on Red River”), but the pleasure, for guests, is conceived of in terms of a cinephilic attachment to minute, fleeting, transitory phenomena, or what Christian Keathley has described as “cinephilic moments”: “The guests don’t return because of the garish things we do…they come back for the subtleties, for something they imagine nobody has noticed before.” Splitting the difference between cinematic and gaming distraction, between focusing on something on the fringes of the screen and wandering away from the fringes of the prescribed narrative, Westworld’s intended audience is not so much avid gamers but people – like myself – who love to watch avid gamers play as if they were sitting down and watching a film. As a game that effectively plays itself for the viewer, then, it’s not surprising that Westworld has generated – and is virtually inextricable from – a vast swathe of online commentary, which exists in relation to the series much as online forums, easter eggs and user tips exist in relation to a more traditional game. Envisaging the West as an artificially constructed aesthetic world rather than a naturalised cinematic genre, Westworld lies in a strange space between cinema and gaming that corresponds to the gaming genre of the LetsPlay – videos in which gamers detail and comment upon moves and demonstrate all the official ways in which a sandbox world can be unlocked, expanded and pushed to its very limits.
Of course, the twist of Westworld is that we are not merely watching a game unfold, but a game in which some of the characters are themselves gamers, which is perhaps why the guests seem to be differentiated on the basis of their gaming expertise – and, more specifically, their prescience of the multiple levels of gaming that are occurring. At the very top of the ladder is Ed Harris’ Man in Black who, more than anyone else, seems prescient that the game is playing him, or that he is merely a figure in a game that exists for the benefit of the park as a self-generating, self-sustaining and quasi-sapient (or at least quasi-sentient) entity in itself.
At the same time, that gaming dimension allows Westworld to draw upon the mythical temporality of the Western in a new and digital manner – with every day restarting all but the most elaborate narrative loops, the hosts all inhabit a dreamy space that is marketed to guests as “someday,” as if to emphasise that even the grittiest and most naturalistic Westerns take place in a hypothetical West that never really was. Ironically, the artificiality is exactly what’s required for the park to produce the mythical figures of the classical Western, since most of the main hosts don’t exactly possess “character” in the traditional sense, but just broad character directives and affective zones. For all their psychological and physiological verisimilitude, each host is drive by a single “passion” that exceeds them – a vague sense of “longing,” “love” or, in one case, “a formless guilt that you never managed to atone for” – that seem directly modelled on the broad, archetypal patterns of characterisation typical of the grand old Hollywood western. Perhaps that’s why the park often seems to be as much about recreating a cinema effect, or recreating the cinematic world of the old West, as the old West itself.
As a revisionist Hollywood gesture, then, it’s perhaps not surprising that some of the finest moments in Westworld recall the grand, mythic, visionary characters of the revisionist Hollywood Westerns of the 50s and 60s – and especially Anthony Mann’s collaborations with James Stewart, with 1955’s The Man From Laramie, and it’s wandering, dream-haunted protagonist, feeling like a particular touchstone. Here, as there, the “characters” are haunted by the sense that their traits may be determined and driven by mythic forces greater than themselves, displacing them from their trajectories and subsuming them into the landscape surrounding them – a process that is only enhanced by “the reveries” (even the term could be the title of a Mann film), a cutting-edge process developed by Ford to give the guests limited access to their previous loops in order to build an authentic sense of memory, melancholy and the inchoate passage of time, so elusive in a narrative structure built largely around one-day trajectories. Like John Ford before him, Ford’s innovation – taking a Western narrative template and imbuing it with a new sense of historical time – is largely discredited by his peers, although it feels as if it will play more of a role in subsequent seasons.
For all the thrill of the park, though, the series is always at its most powerful when positioned at the interface between the park and the back office (or when that interface makes itself felt). Whereas Westworld proper is founded on lavish, lush and expansive vistas, the back office is largely post-spatial, a disorienting array of interfaces and blank voids that is all the more disarming for the fact that the technological and logistical aspects of the interface – how bodies are transferred from the park to the office, for example – are never fully clarified. If one of the biggest incentives to visit Westworld in the first place is the promise of orgiastic sexual and violent frenzies, then the back office presents the kind of world that might give rise to those fantasies in the first place: suffused with sexuality (there are naked bodies and genital organs in nearly every scene), but strangely desexualised at the same time. Whether the series is set in the present or the future, and whatever the nature of the world beyond the park, the structures of feeling prevalent in the back office feel very much of this contemporary moment, symptoms of a world in which depictions of sex have become omnipresent in everyday culture but in which eroticism has waned and diminished as well.
Perhaps that’s why the park employees frequently feel so robotic themselves – and, for my money, one of the big narrative missteps is the “reveal” that an employee turns out to be a host, since that twist already feels assumed by the way in which the back office is painted. Instead, I enjoyed the performances that best managed to capture that uncanny space between the clones and the outside world, with Sidse Babett Knudsen, in particular, putting in a brilliant depiction of an operations manager who has started to take on some of the robotic characteristics of the assets she is overseeing. While I’ve seen Knudsen in several of Susanne Bier’s films, as well as Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, it’s her role in Borgen that has come to define her in my mind. There, she plays a character of such organic and immediate warmth that it’s something of a shock to see her couched in the cold, inhuman persona that she adopts for Westworld, a situation that’s only enhanced by hearing her speak in English, and the steely uncanniness that the Danish accent, in particular, brings to her corporate pronouncements.
At the same time, however, those aspects that make the back office so compelling – abstract voids of space, quasi-robotic delivery, technological and logistical procedure – also contribute to Westworld’s fatal flaw: its unbearably expository screenplay. While I love the premise, style, imagery and story, the continual and escalating monologues – some relaying the story, some relaying the philosophical reference points for the story – gets pretty exhausting, culminating with what amounts to a thirty-minute monologue by Ford at the conclusion of the penultimate episode that pretty much undoes all the surprise and delight of the twist that it is designed to explain. Granted, Hopkins is about the best contender for inane monologues, not just because of his Shakespearean diction and delivery (and the shades of Hannibal Lecter, his greatest Shakespearean character, are quite strong here), but, more specifically because, as his bid for quality television longevity, his role in Westworld inevitably feels filtered through the adoring and endearing fan letter that he wrote to Bryan Cranston in the wake of Breaking Bad. Seeing Hopkins do “intensity” is always fun in a cheesy kind of way, and the sense that he is drawing upon Cranston gives Westworld a cheesy, inane kind of pleasure as well.
Similarly, you could argue that the expository nature of the series speaks to its inextricability from all the exposition and commentary that has emerged around it, to the point where it is really questionable whether Westworld really works as a stand-alone thing or instead needs to be fully plugged into the multifarious and extravagant Reddit thread to really make sense. And, at the end of the day, that may be the best way to watch it – as part of a wider tissue of texts – just as the various guests that inhabit the show gradually come to realise, to a greater or lesser extent, that their narrative threads are meaningless in isolation from those of the park as a whole. Still, I can’t help but hope that the screenplay picks up next season – for me, it managed to turn whole episodes into a miasma of boredom even or especially when the narrative and style were most gripping, a bit like a Nolan brothers high concept piece that didn’t quite have the vocabulary to conceptualise itself in the first place. If Westworld can manage to find that vocabulary next season around, it will be one of my favourite shows on television, but, as it stands, I struggled to make it through the ninety-minute finale without simply reading the plot synopsis online.