Westworld is a fun show with a big budget and a fascinating premise.
I enjoyed watching it, and so did lots of other people. Its multiple timelines and literary allusions had Reddit combing through every episode in an effort to figure out every twist before it happened. References to concepts like the ‘bicameral mind’ spawned countless think pieces.
This instant cult-following gave everybody the impression that Westworld is the second coming, or at least the best thing since sliced bread. But just like its android protagonists appear human but aren’t, Westworld looks like great television but isn’t.
Oh, it has all the trappings – Anthony Hopkins playing every Anthony Hopkins character in history, heaps of sex and violence, a complex plot that requires no small degree of viewer attention – but something is missing.
The first three episodes of Westworld appeared to be exploring the nature of human consciousness and the way the mind works in a nightmarish theme park setting that updated the age-old story of ‘stolen fire’ for a new generation.
It was equal parts disturbing and mystifying. When it did give itself over to old-fashioned HBO physical excess it was usually a necessary part of the story. A bloody shootout choreographed to an orchestral cover of ‘Paint It Black’ took us into the park’s logistical guts and showed us all the moving parts required to create a complex narrative event. When a host woke up on the operating table – a common nightmare scenario, and the flip side of the fantasies Westworld puts forward – we saw a room full of her fellow androids, naked and bloodied, being repaired for the next day.
Even Robert Ford (the show’s devious creator-god) understands the dangers of putting blood and gore before narrative depth. When narrative director Lee Sizemore announces a new storyline that will feature vivisection, self-cannibalism, and something called ‘whoroboros’, Ford cuts him down to size:
“What is the point of it? Get a couple of cheap thrills? Some surprises? But it’s not enough. It’s not about giving the guests what you think they want. No, that’s simple. The titillation, horror, elation… they’re parlour tricks. The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details.”
It’s all very metatextual and fun – you’re watching Westworld for the same reasons, geddit? But this wink-nudge routine also demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the pitfalls of storytelling: sex and violence are not the only excesses you have to watch out for.
In its first three episodes Westworld felt like it was about to explode. Hosts were remembering the horrible things that had been done to them, a long-time guest was on the warpath, and the corporation that owned the park was trying to force its will onto a man who spends most of his day playing god. The tension, if not totally unbearable, was uncomfortable.
But over the next seven episodes Westworld lets this tension unwind bit by bit until there’s nothing left of it. We’re strung out over a series of different timelines that the show refuses to confirm are separated by anything other than a scene transition while Evan Rachel Wood delivers increasingly less-convincing monologues about dreaming and violence and Teddy, always Teddy. It’s a kind of narrative excess: Westworld spends so much time trying to be clever that it forgets to be smart.
There’s nothing inherently interesting in its multiple timelines, nor in the reveal that we have indeed been watching a series of events that occurred nearly 30 years apart. To do something for the sake of storytelling and art is one thing (Cloud Atlas used this format to construct fascinating multi-timeline action sequences) but to obfuscate it is another.
There was no reason that the audience should not know that these adventures aren’t happening simultaneously other than for the sake of a twist that many people saw coming and which was done away with without much fanfare in the season finale. The different timelines are only remarkable for their existence, not for what they do. The reveal that Billy is in fact the Man in Black is one of those parlour tricks that the show smugly suggested it wasn’t going to use.
Twists are twists when they radically change how you view a character or event. Bernard turning out to be a host was an ‘a-ha!’ moment that forced the audience to reconsider their perspective on the gruff but personable head programmer. Finding out that Billy was the Man in Black (which had been a popular theory pretty much from the moment Billy appeared) was just the logical conclusion to a plot line the show had been unnecessarily coy about telling. There were clues of course: hosts appearing in both story lines and quests apparently long retired. But what was it all in aid of?
Well, that sort of thing keeps people coming back for more. Internet forums have become the most compelling part of most HBO shows. They are the endpoint of ‘water-cooler talk’ and help to preserve the serial audience in a time when Netflix is encouraging binge-watching and instant gratification by dumping whole seasons of a show at once.
Shows like True Detective, Game of Thrones, and Carnivàle encourage obsessive viewing. True Detective turned its audience into the real true detectives (sorry) by offering them the clues to decipher its murder mystery. The audience bought into this hard, coming up with outlandish theories about boats and spaghetti and characters seen for little more than a split second. Game of Thrones has an incredible amount of actual myth behind it, and viewers have pored over hundreds of pages of the stuff to figure out whether Jon Snow is a Targaryen.
This approach has reached its peak in Westworld, which is little more than a ten-episode Easter Egg hunt more concerned with the appearance of being profound than actually being profound. Consider this: which part of Billy’s long journey across Westworld in search of a Real Girl couldn’t be compressed into a single flashback or a small conversation that, sans excessive detail, could have been used to deepen the mystique of the Man in Black?
Westworld does not want to talk about its central conceit (that is the nature of artificial intelligence and the conditions for sentience, and the consequences of playing god) in anything other than the most general terms. It also doesn’t want to talk about its world, a place where biological androids can apparently be vat grown in a matter of days and going to a theme park for the express purpose of killing and raping those androids isn’t frowned upon. What it does want is to impress upon its audience the idea that something is happening, even if they don’t know what it is.
Westworld the show is Westworld the theme park. On the surface it looks like something that has a lot going on – ideas, grand designs, something to say – but scrape that surface and you’ll find that it’s as much a façade as Dolores’ false sentience. Westworld wants you to mistake its hosts for humans, its breadth for depth, its parlour tricks for magic. It’s a fun adventure romp, but just like the Man in Black we’re all looking for something else, something higher.
Something that simply isn’t there.