Lacking focus, WESTWORLD struggles to captivate

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HBO, 2016.

At the end of the first episode of Westworld, I was enthralled, and so ready to jump onto this adventure. Robot narratives that question the nature of sentience and humanity are hard for me not to enjoy. But when the 90-minute finale concluded on Sunday, it was to a faint and jumbled echo of the thrill I had felt ten weeks prior. In terms of sheer entertainment, Westworld failed to escalate far beyond the excitement that its first episode promised; but more importantly, a story that purported to explore questions of identity suffered its own identity crisis. The show never grounded itself in a moral or intellectual core, instead leaning heavily on the ideas of these things. And when the ideas deflated under their own weight, the story fell flat.

Whether Westworld’s creators struggled to produce sympathetic characters or rejected outright the convention of pathos in their storytelling is ultimately irrelevant, because either way we were forced to slog through ten episodes of emotional sterility. There’s no moral center in the show, no one character the viewer can identify with. The robots that populate the Westworld park, dubbed “hosts,” are essentially immortal, and so we have no reason to be invested in their survival. We see Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) respawn enough times in the first episode to be inured to — and eventually bored by — the prospect of character death. Whether or not we like a host, they’ll be back again tomorrow. 

On top of the hosts’ relative immortality is the garishly illustrated notion that these characters are simply expensive toys designed for the pleasure of the park’s  wealthy visitors. Ed Harris’s Man in Black, one of the more sinister regulars of the park, says it best himself, to an archetypically ill-fated James Marsden in Episode 1: “Winning doesn’t mean anything unless someone else loses. Which means you’re here to be the loser.” If the hosts exist to play supporting roles for the park’s guests and creators, then perhaps it’s those characters we’re meant to follow more closely.

But the guests of Westworld are petty, predictable, uninteresting. The creators and shareholders have some redeeming qualities — Ford, for example, the creative mastermind behind the entire operation, is Anthony Hopkins — but they don’t do or want or go through enough for us to really care about them. Most of the characters simply spend their time trying to figure out abstract cerebral problems centered around the park, problems which the viewer is never really given the chance to explore.

Where Westworld fails to lure the viewer in emotionally, it fails equally to engage the mind. Living side-by-side with humanoid robots — robots who bleed, who have sex, who plead for their “lives” — never brings the existential crises or philosophical dilemmas that the show hints at early on. In the second episode, an attractive host (Tallulah Riley) helps a guest assemble his wardrobe. She notices he’s looking strangely at her, and invites him to ask the question she knows must be burning behind his teeth.

“Are you real?” he asks.

“Well if you can’t tell,” she muses, “does it matter?”

The show endeavors to answer this question through Dolores’ clunky journey of self-discovery (which, as previously discussed, lacks pathos and goes out the other ear), but somehow neglects to explore whether “real humanity” matters in the guests and staff of the park. A brief attempt is made when we learn that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), one of the more sympathetic characters behind the park’s operation, is himself a robot designed by Ford.

When Bernard discovers that he is a host, we expect a delicious and tense fallout. His job, after all, is to interface with the hosts and ensure that their consciousness stays within the realm of controllability. One of the first lines in the show is Bernard asking Dolores, “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” But, apart from a few minutes of heavy breathing and knit eyebrows, nothing comes of his revelation. Ford wipes Bernard’s memory and sets him back in motion, a faithful machine with little to offer the narrative.

Humanity is valuable capital in Westworld — prized by its possessors but never critically examined. Near the end of the season, one of the park’s robot technicians discovers Bernard’s true nature and briefly — briefly — wonders about his own status, his humanity. But the moment passes in an instant. There are more important things for him to be worrying about, like gunfights and naked people.

The thrill of the futuristic robot story should not come from Pinocchio finally becoming a real boy. It should come from Geppetto being forced to question if he is indeed a real man. After setting up compelling philosophical puzzles in the first two episodes, Westworld fails spectacularly to follow through on them, instead preferring to further entangle its park in extraneous narratives, incongruous orgies, and petty infighting.

Overall, Westworld is simply too caught up in all the things it’s trying to be to really do one of those things well. Traditional Western adventures are cheapened by the fact that nobody can die, and shrunk down by the show’s initial failure to thoroughly lay out the scope and structure of the park (even the breathtaking establishing shots that showcase the park’s size fade away by the end of the season). Newer, more cerebral narratives concerning consciousness and cybernetics are tossed into shiny, expensive trash cans.

Worse, Westworld does absolutely nothing that we haven’t seen before. The plight of the sexually fraught heroine slowly picking up pieces of her own brain was explored to much better effect, and with less dependence on sexual violence, in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse in 2009. Artificially intelligent robots overthrew their gods more handily and more suspensefully in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015). And we’ve seen the Western/sci-fi aesthetic fusion plenty of times before now. Just plenty.

Granted, there were a couple of things Westworld managed to get right. Thandie Newton’s Maeve is a marvel: after awakening from her robotic trance, she courts “death” with a fervor that goes beyond simply wanting to leave the park, that touches on something altogether dark and human. And the surprise reveal of dual timelines added a layer of intrigue that had been sorely missed throughout the season. The origin story transformed white-hatted William (Jimmi Simpson) and his aesthetic opposite from reductive tropes into a deliciously cynical character arc.

But William could just as easily have gotten a different story. In Episode 2, he is taken aback by every single encounter with the hosts, every opportunity the park has to offer. But his greasy counterpart Logan (Ben Barnes) holds him back. “It’s all a come-on,” Logan explains. “The girl next door, the town drunk, they’ve all got some big adventure that they want to sell you on.” Westworld the park is in the business of selling adventure, and Westworld the series has the onerous task of selling all the park’s adventures in addition to the intrigues of the characters running the park. The two conflicting narrative arcs add up to more than one show can handle. If Westworld wants to continue beyond a second season, it needs to choose an identity and roll with it.

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