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Josh Reviews Westworld Season One!

December 26th, 2016
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I’m a little bit behind on all of my TV watching.  In this era of Peak TV, there is so much great television to watch that I find it hard to keep up!  Being a fan both of sci-fi and HBO, I was of course hugely excited last year as I read about the development of Westworld.  I’ve never seen the original film, written and directed by Michael Crichton, but the premise seemed ripe for a deeper exploration on TV.  I wanted to start watching the show immediately when it started airing on HBO a few months ago, but life got a bit away from me and the episodes began to pile up in my DVR.  Thankfully, over the past two weeks I was able to tear through season one, and I am now caught up with the rest of the world.

Westworld.Delores.cropped

There’s a lot to love about season one of Westworld.  I was very hooked into the show right away, fascinated at the slow peeling back of the onion of this sci-fi/fantasy world and the show’s many mysteries.  The production design is gorgeous, and the show boasts one of the finest assemblage of incredible actors that I can ever recall seeing before.  (Many TV shows have great ensembles, but usually these successful TV shows make stars of their previously-unknown actors.  Has there ever before been a TV show so jam-packed with already-famous, incredibly talented performers?)

The show’s weakness is it’s Lost-like willingness to ask all sorts of questions that it never seems that interested in answering.

I will avoid major SPOILERS as I proceed with my analysis, but I do warn anyone who has not yet completed season one to perhaps stop here and return when you are caught up.

Despite my arriving to the show a little late, I miraculously managed to remain free of spoilers, which was a blessing in a show as filled with mysteries as this one.  I hadn’t expected Westworld to be a show that would have so many narrative mysteries at its core; that was a surprise to me as the show unfolded.  In many respects, I enjoyed the mysteries.  It was fun to try to puzzle out just what the heck was going on with Dolores, Ford, Bernard, the Man in Black, Theresa, Charlotte, and so many of the show’s other inscrutable characters.  Here was a surprising benefit of being late to the show and, rather than watching it over the course of ten weeks, viewing it at a much faster pace over the course of just a week-and-a-half to two weeks.  Once I finished the show, I began reading about it on-line and it became apparent to me that, over the ten weeks that the show aired on HBO, many fans on-line were able to figure out the answers to many of the show’s puzzles.  Alan Sepinwall is one of my favorite TV critics, and I often read his weekly analyses of the shows I love.  But it turns out that Alan and many others on-line were hip to the answers to many of the show’s mysteries early on, and they grew bored with the show’s slow pace at confirming that which they suspected.  Not only was I, in hindsight, very happy to have avoided being spoiled by others on the internet, I also think the show worked better being watched at such a fast pace, as I enjoyed the narrative flow from episode-to-episode, and the show’s slow-burn pace, without growing bored or impatient as others did.

And so I enjoyed having my mind blown towards the end of the season by the revelation that the show I’d been watching had in fact been taking place in several different time-periods.  I didn’t see that coming at all — that wasn’t the type of show I had expected Westworld to be — and so I enjoyed the way those pieces fell into place in the season’s final episodes, forcing me to reevaluate what had gone before.  (One example of many: I’d been wondering how Bernard was extricating Dolores from her adventure with William and Logan so that he could interview her — now I understood that those two events were happening years apart!)

That being said, I found that the show asked far more questions than it answered, and that’s the type of thing that frustrates me.  Lost broke my heart, and now I am very wary of shows that take a similar approach.  Some of these unanswered questions feel like mysteries intentionally left unresolved as part of the show’s continuing story (one can like or dislike that “mystery box” story-telling approach, but at least it was done intentionally), while there are other places where I think the show didn’t realize it was failing to clarify matters to my satisfaction as a viewer.

Watching season one, I had all sorts of questions about how the park works.  The show is, of course, being intentionally vague about where the park is located (is it even on Earth?), and I am OK with that.  But I wish I understood more about the geography of the park, and how all of the behind-the-scenes offices and glass-enclosed workshops of the multi-leveled complex related to the geography of the park itself.  The complex’s many sub-basements lead me to believe those floors are all buried underneath the park, and we do see Ford and a few others take an elevator to enter the park at different locations.  We also see what looks like a huge mesa with offices carved into it, and a lavish swimming pool and bar on top.  Is that another place where guests can stay and enjoy themselves?  Is that connected to the behind-the-scenes work-places?  I wasn’t quite clear on this.

More fundamentally, I constantly found myself asking exactly how exactly the park’s behind-the-scenes staff monitor the goings-on of all of the hosts and guests within the park, and how closely they’re keeping an eye on each individual host and guest.  There were times when the staff seemed to know immediately when a host was going off-script, or breaking out of their usual programmed “loop.”  On the other hand, there also seemed to be plenty of times in which the hosts were acting incredibly erratically (especially Maeve, played by Thandie Newton) and no one seemed to notice.  Now, in  hindsight, some of that erratic behavior might have been happening decades before the “present-day” scenes of the Westworld control center, so it’s hard to tell exactly what the park staff did or didn’t know.  And also, because the show kept Ford’s motives a secret throughout the season, it was impossible to know what behavior was really happening without the park staff’s knowledge and what was actually a part of Ford’s hidden agenda.  Here is where the show’s mysteries started to bog it down, because I found some of these questions impossible to answer which became frustrating rather then enjoyable.

I have other questions: how often do the loops repeat?  Does this vary from host-to-host?  At first it looked like Dolores’ loop repeated every single day, with her coming home to her daddy’s farm (and often getting killed and/or brutally assaulted), and then waking up just fine the next morning.  (Which leads to another question: how is it that these hosts are able to get perfectly repaired from grievous injury every night so they’re ready to go, perfect-as-new, the next morning?)  But at other times we saw hosts go on multi-day adventures along with the guests.  They’d “re-set” whenever they got killed, but what if a host continued for a few days without getting killed?  What if Teddy saw Dolores drop her can in the town square, but then went off hunting with a guest or guests and then returned to the town a few days later, only to see Dolores do the exact same thing?  Wouldn’t that sort of thing happen all the time?  Also, we know a host can’t kill a guest, but can guests be harmed/killed in other ways?  Could a guest shoot another guest?  Judging by how often we saw guests start shooting up Maeve’s joint, you’d think other guests would be at risk of getting shot up themselves constantly.  I feel like if you start tugging at these threads, the whole show will start to unravel, which indicates a weakness of the show’s premise and worldbuilding.

And I haven’t even started on all the questions that it appears the show has deliberately declined to answer here in season one.  How did Maeve gain sentience originally?  (At first it was suggested that the shock of seeing her daughter killed by the Man in Black did it, but later in the season I think it was suggested that someone changed her programming intentionally.)  What happened to Abernathy, stuffed full of code and other critical Westworld proprietary information by Charlotte, in the finale?  What did Bernard whisper to Abernathy when he was first put into cold storage at the end of the pilot?  What exactly was Ford’s ultimate goal, and how aware was he of what was going on with Maeve?

By the way, speaking of Bernard, I loved the shocker that he was, basically, Arnold (as rebuilt by Ford), but how could that be?  Doesn’t everyone know what Arnold looks like?  He was the co-creator of the technology that launched the entire enterprise!  Wouldn’t many of Arnold and Ford’s co-workers still be around?  Even if they weren’t, wouldn’t a board member like Charlotte have access to that information?  This doesn’t track with everyone else on the park staff, including Charlotte who tries to fire Bernard at one point, thinking he is human.

See what I meant about tugging on threads?

Moving on… one might argue that the show has a larger cast than is necessary, with the result being that some of the characters weren’t able to get enough time and attention here in season one to be fleshed out adequately.  I think there is something to that, but the cast is so extraordinary that this wasn’t something that bothered me overmuch.  I loved watching every single one of these actors in his/her role.

Evan Rachel Wood was absolutely extraordinary as Dolores.  She was the heart of the show and, for much of the season, the character who we the audience followed most closely and rooted for most intently.  (Dolores’s importance was lessened in the season’s final few episodes, as the mysteries and revelations about Bernard and Ford and the Man in Black suddenly took on a central focus.  This was a small weakness of the season’s ending, though as I wrote above I did enjoy those revelations so it’s hard for me to complain too much about this.)  Watching Dolores play a huge range of emotion, then shift down into total non-emotion when asked by a park staff-person like Bernard/Arnold for an analysis, was incredible.  This was an acting master class.  Ms. Wood needed to make us invest in an automaton trapped in an endless Groundhog Day-like cycle, and she did it effortlessly.

Ed Harris is one of the greatest actors working today.  (I’ll always cite his work in Gone Baby Gone as one of my favorite performances in a career filled with incredible performances.)  Mr. Harris was called on, here, to embody a character about whom the show purposely allowed us to learn almost nothing until the end of the season, and still make that character interesting.  Mr. Harris achieved this without breaking a sweat.  His Man in Black was instantly iconic and fearsome.

I loved  James Marsden’s work as Cyclops in Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies, and I never felt he was used to his best capacity in any of those films.  It was fun to see him get to play many different colors of Teddy here in this series, and I enjoyed his chemistry with Ms. Woods’ Dolores.  Teddy is one of the characters who I am most interested to see continue to develop in season two.

Thandie Newton was marvelous as Maeve, the madam who early on in the season discovered that her whole existence is a lie created for the amusement of the park’s guests.  Watching her take control of her life and aspects of the park was one of my favorite aspects of the season.  I just wish I understood to what degree Maeve had achieved independence and sentience and to what degree she was still just acting out a script programmed into her by Ford or someone else.  The season finale left me unclear on that point.  (And boy did I hate to see her get off that train at the end… that felt like a big step backwards for the character that left me deflated.)  But Ms. Newton was riveting, particularly in the final run of episodes as Maeve worked to take control of her destiny.  (Also, in a show filled with a lot of nudity, bravo to the beautiful Ms. Newton’s bravery for her unflinching nudity throughout the season.)

Jeffrey Wright has made playing deadpan his specialty (I loved him as Felix in Casino Royale and wish he’d appear again in another Bond film someday), and he was great fun to watch as Bernard.  I’d at first thought that Bernard would be our main investigative hero, working to figure out the truth of what exactly was going on with all the hosts and who was behind it.  I enjoyed the twist in the season’s back half about Bernard’s identity, and Mr. Wright really killed it in those scenes.

That the great Sir Anthony Hopkins was in this show is kind of unbelievable.  He was terrific fun to watch as Dr. Ford, combining a fatherly kindness with a hard edge of evil in a way that keep me guessing all season long.  I just wish we’d gotten to understand this character better.  It looks like this huge movie-star was written out in the final moments of season one, but I hope that Sir Anthony and this character will still somehow be involved in season two.

There were so many other amazing actors in the show.  Tessa Thompson was amazing in Creed and was a lot of fun as board member Charlotte in the season’s second half.  Jimmi Simpson (a familiar face from The Newsroom, 24, and many other shows) did a nice job as William, a wet-blanket transformed into something else by his first-time experiences in the park.  Ben Barnes (from the Chronicles of Narnia films) played smug smarm incredibly well as William’s friend Logan.  Rodrigo Santoro (a Lost veteran on this often Lost-esque show!) played the bandit Hector (who, as an aside, looked so much like Ben Barnes’ Logan that I was often confused in the first few episodes of the season!).  Shannon Woodward was great as the naive Elsie, Bernard’s right-hand-woman on the “behavior” team who, as the self-described only person in Westworld without an agenda, unfortunately bit the dust fairly early on.  (Come on, Elsie, why were you investigating potential industrial espionage in a dark, super-creepy abandoned corner of the park all by yourself??)  Sidse Babett Knudsen was also great as Theresa, the operations manager of the park.  Theresa was presented as a fairly one-dimensional uptight woman at first, though I enjoyed starting to learn more about her as the season progressed.  Her death hurt, not only because it was a shock but because I felt there was a lot more yet to explore with this character.  Simon Quaterman was wonderfully sleazy as Lee Sizemore, the park’s narrative director.  Lee was annoying, but endearingly so.  I’d like to see this supposedly super-smart character actually act a little smarter in season two.  I didn’t realize that a member of the Hemsworth family was playing security head Ashley Stubbs, but as soon as I realized that the actor playing Ashley was Luke Hemsworth (brother of Chris and Liam), I slapped my forehead.  Ashley, like Lee and Elsie and Theresa, was a character who I was interested in and yet who didn’t get all that fleshed out here in season one.  But Mr. Hemsworth’s strong performance, like the work of these other great actors, kept me interested in the character and wanting to learn more.  I’d love to see more development given to Ashley in season two.

I’ve already listed a ton of characters and the wonderful actors who play them, and I’ve only scratched the surface of the show’s many characters.  This show has an incredibly deep bench.  I’d love to see this ensemble of characters continue to expand and deepen in season two.

Westworld was clearly a big-budget undertaking, backed by HBO, and it shows.  The show is gorgeously photographed.  The stunning vistas of the park are staggeringly beautiful.  The show’s robotics-related visual effects are amazing, making the incredible look every-day.  It’s very impressive work.

The show has a lot of very frank depictions of nudity.  It’s somewhat eyebrow-raising, and there’s a part of me that wishes the show went a little lighter on the nudity — sometimes it feels gratuitous, as if this HBO show is feeling the need to keep up with all the sex and nudity on fellow HBO epic show Game of Thrones But I understand the thinking behind the approach.  All of the casual nudity serves to emphasize how the human park staff, not to mention the park guests, fail to consider the hosts as human despite how incredibly life-like they are.  It emphasizes the servitude of the hosts.  It’s shocking at times, which is the point.

Other comments:

* As soon as the pilot tricked us into thinking that Teddy was a guest before revealing that he was in fact a robot, I knew that this was a show in which nothing could be taken for granted in terms of any character’s identity.  I didn’t guess the particular Bernard twist, but I wasn’t too shocked when it happened because I felt the pilot had opened that door.

* I loved seeing Firefly’s Gina Torres in her brief appearance as Bernard’s wife.  Was that character real?  Was that a recording of Arnold’s real wife?  Or a total fiction created by Ford?

* I enjoyed getting a glimpse of the experience of entering the park through William’s eyes in “Chestnut,” the show’s second episode.  I’d love to see more of these fascinating details about exactly how the park works explored in season two.  (Also, since we now know that those events happened decades earlier, I’d love to check in to see what’s changed for a visitor entering the park in the present-day time-period of the show.)

* One of my favorite moments of the season was the horrifying moment in which Maeve realizes that she’s been drawing the same image of a man in a hazmat suit over and over again.  That was an incredible twist, brilliantly played by Thandie Newton.  (Though I have to ask, how was it that none of the park’s staff-people knew that Maeve was doing that?  Or did they know after all…??)

* Why didn’t anyone seem to notice or care after Elsie went “missing”?  Doesn’t she have any other friends or co-workers, other than Bernard, who would notice her absence?  Considering the value of the park’s secrets — and the lengths to which Charlotte is willing to go to smuggle some of those secrets out of the park — wouldn’t someone in charge be at all concerned about the disappearance of a senior staff-member who maybe has absconded with valuable technical information?

I was struck, watching Westworld, how closely the show resembled Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse.  That was another show about mind-wiped human automatons who were used for the enjoyment (usually sexual) of high-paying wealthy clients and who had their memories erased after each excursion.  That show got really interesting when it moved beyond the sci-fi brothel aspect of its premise to explore the catastrophic effects on human society that would occur when that technology got out into the open.  I wonder if this is where Westworld is going, too?  We got a lot of hints this season that the park is only a cover for some other project that the board of directors was working on.  What are their plans for Ford’s technology?  The ability to create life-like robots indistinguishable from human beings… and also to recreate actual deceased human beings as those robots…leads one to imagine all sorts of terrible ways that technology could be misused, even worse than the perpetual raping and killing of the hosts that happens in the park.  It’d be very interested to see if this is the road the show is going to go down in future seasons…

I quite enjoyed this first season of Westworld.  The show has flaws, but I respect its ambition.  There’s a lot more to like about Westworld than to dislike.  It’s fun seeing these sci-fi concepts played out on such a large canvas, with such gorgeous film-making on display and brought to life by such an extraordinarily talented cast.  I really enjoyed these first steps taken here in season one.  My hope for season two is that they leave behind the emphasis on mysteries and narrative tricks, and instead focus more deeply on exploring this world and these characters.  Because this show has the potential to be truly great.  I’d love for that to happen.  It’s going to be a long wait until season two (which reportedly won’t air on HBO until 2018), but I’ll be there.

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