A quick Q&A in response to the first episode of Westworld:
Where is Westworld?
It is Westworld. It’s a sexy amusement park of pure imagination (so long as your imagination is thematically consistent with the old west).
No, I mean, where is it, like, in the world?
Oh. I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t even know if it’s in our world.
How big is Westworld?
Pretty big? Maybe very big. But definitely at least pretty big.
Who is running Westworld?
The people in the control room. Anthony Hopkins as a big hand in things, but also sometimes just hangs out with robots. Also there’s an angry British writer.
Yeah, but who are they working for?
Oh. No clue.
Who patronizes Westworld?
Some guys who want to bone down on some robots. Also families maybe? Westworld is for everyone! Or possibly no one.
Are the robots going to go crazy?
Anthony Hopkins made the robots dream.
So their fingers would move extra sexily.
Yeah, that seems to be the inciting incident of the show.
Who is the main character of Westworld?
Maybe a robot? We started with Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores both in and outside the park. James Marsden projects generic male lead. They’re both robots, and either of them could prove to be the protagonist. But so could Anthony Hopkins? Or maybe even Ed Harris? I don’t know. I have no answers. NO ANSWERS AT ALL!
My point here is not to criticize Westworld, but to place it squarely in the category of television where the revelation of what the fuck is going on is the narrative thrust of the show. While I didn’t know that’s the sort of show I was diving into, I should have. Westworld is co-produced by J.J. Abrams who mastered the genre with Lost, and showrun by Jonathan Nolan who launched his career by co-writing his brother’s genre-defining Memento. These guys want you to be disoriented inside of their work, and to find pleasure from feeling your way out towards the truth.
And all of that said, I really liked the pilot of Westworld. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Westworld looks fantastic. Both of the primary realms of the show, the wild west theme park and the slightly futuristic control room are beautifully realized. They clearly dumped a ton of money into this show, and it’s all on the screen, which is nice. The geography and scale of the control room was a bit confusing, but I’ll assume that was on purpose for now!
Alas, while it has issues, the mystery box strategy of narrative structure that is Abrams’ go-to thing is really effective. And it fits with the subject matter of the show. Sure it’s a little on the nose to have a plot about robots learning that they’re robots sitting next to a bunch of humans who seem equally contained in the world they’re devising for the robots.
The issue with this type of narrative though is that it doesn’t allow any characters to have rich inner lives. This is as true for the well-drawn humans like Jeffrey Wright’s technician Bernard as it is for Evan Rachel Wood’s robotic Dolores Abernathy. That isn’t to say the performances aren’t good. Most of the leads' performances are technically solid, with Wright, Hopkins, and Marsden standing out. But none of them are given the sort of material where they can really come alive.
Rich inner lives would betray origin or experience, which would give unwanted clues as to what the fuck is going on. This leaves Westworld with a dour tone; not even the humans are allowed to be human, so no one can smile or laugh or tell a story that isn’t leaden with portent. And that’s a bit of a bummer. This is after all a show about an amusement park. I don’t think a joke or two would throw off Westworld’s delicate balancing act of revelation, but the show has yet to risk allowing any joy onto the screen. Hopefully that changes going forward.