Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Too Much TV: WESTWORLD (2016-?)

For cable series with short seasons (13 episodes or less) I've tried to wait until after a season is over to write a review, but in Westworld's case an uncertainty about what the hell is going on is such an essential element of the show that I feel entitled to write something now, with only six episodes aired so far. HBO's long-in-the-works series is a radical revision of Michael Crichton's 1973 movie, the author's first imagining of a high-tech theme park where nothing could possibly go wrong ... go wrong ... go wrong...Anyway, it follows in the footsteps of the Battlestar Galactica reboot by vesting its androids with personalities, and goes further by making them the most sympathetic characters on the show. As reimagined by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, with significant input from J. J. Abrams, Westworld is a vast playground where guests can take part in storylines with highly interactive "hosts," each with its own backstory. The guests pay huge sums for the ultimate privilege of using the hosts however they please. They can play along with the established storylines and be heroes, or they can go "blackhat" and kill, rape or otherwise the hosts with virtual impunity. Atrocities are routine, but every time a host is "killed," it's taken to the shop to have its body repaired and its memory purged, and then sent out to start its story over. Behind the scenes, employees battle for creative control of the storylines, and sometimes exploit the hosts in quasi-necrophiliac fashion. Ruling over it all is the perhaps too blatantly named Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the co-creator of Westworld who now theoretically answers to the Delos Corporation but seems to do as he damn well pleases regardless of heavy monetary losses and pressure from the Delos board to deliver new storylines.

We'd have no show if nothing went wrong, and the problem evolving as we arrive is that some hosts are starting to remember the traumas they've suffered. A line of Shakespeare, "These violent delights have violent ends," seems to be a trigger phrase activating deeply hidden protocols in the remaining first-generation hosts, thirty years after Westworld's opening was marred by the death of Ford's partner, a man we know only as Arnold, who has loomed ever larger as the series progresses. Two hosts serve as our point-of-view characters to these changes. They represent opposed western archetypes: the rancher's daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and the whorehouse madam Maeve (Thandie Newton). Dolores got the trigger phrase from the host that played her father, and gave it to Maeve almost at random. Both hosts relive brutal attacks as dreams, and both seem to be victimized by the so-called Man in Black (Ed Harris), apparently a philanthropist in real life but a sadistic superman in Westworld. A regular if not addicted guest, the Man in Black has mastered the system so that he's virtually invincible, but continues hunting for hidden levels. He seems to believe that Westworld has not lived up to its potential and seeks to awaken that potential through extreme violence and cruelty to the hosts. He has a privileged status at Westworld ("That gentleman gets anything he wants," one staffer says), and why that should be is one of the show's most compelling mysteries so far. He now hopes to discover a maze that may be Westworld's ultimate level. For the hosts the maze is an Indian myth, but it may be something more than that. "The maze is not for you," one tells the Man in Black, and it may be for the hosts; a test they can undertake with a hint of true freedom at the end.

Dolores seems headed for the maze, accompanied by two corporate guests, one striving to be a good guy, the other a practiced blackhat. She's coached by a voice in her head that has enabled her to override the programming that prevents hosts from harming living creatures. She's also coached in a different way by one of Ford's top aides, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), who breaks one of Ford's personal rules by interviewing a fully-clothed Dolores. Ford prefers that the hosts go naked in the shop to discourage the staff from humanizing them, though he has a sentimental mockup of his own family, including a host version of himself as a child, in an isolated location in the park. Dolores and the Man in Black seem to be on a collision course, unless you buy into the popular fan theory, perhaps inspired by NBC's nonlinear family drama This is Us, that their storylines are actually happening many years apart. Meanwhile, Maeve seems to be figuring things out for herself without the same coaching Dolores gets. She remembers waking up accidentally and seeing the inner workings of Westworld, remembers being shot despite having no scar where the wound should be, and cuts herself open to find a bullet staffers had forgotten to remove. Piecing these details together, she starts getting herself killed deliberately in the hope of waking up in the shop again, and eventually gets her wish. Now, while Dolores continues to blunder toward her destiny, Maeve blackmails some Westworld staffers into explaining how she functions and upgrading her for purposes that remain to be seen. While all this is happening there's evidence of corporate espionage inside the park, and increasing evidence that Arnold hasn't had his last word yet on the future of Westworld and its hosts....

Much of what I could say about Westworld right now remains speculative, but for genre fans that's part of the fun of the show. The show is a kind of mystery or puzzle in which speculation is essential to the experience; if you're impatient for explanations it won't be for you. The game-like nature of the show extends to its soundtrack, which each week challenges you to identify the contemporary rock tune being covered on the player piano in Maeve's brothel. The show exists, as my mom used to say when we asked why too often, to make you ask questions. Who is the Man in Black? How did Arnold actually die, if he's actually dead? Who among the guests or staff might actually be hosts? Any show can beg questions like this, but Westworld's writing and acting make the questions worth asking and trying to answer. When Hopkins first appeared, I thought dismissively that he'd become the rich man's Malcolm McDowell, but he seems to be on his game here, while Harris makes an evilly enigmatic Man in Black. Wood and Newton are the real stars here, as well as our surrogates as seekers after the truth of Westworld, In their contrasting quests they seem more human than human, given the despicable nature of so many human guests in this decadent playground. But there are plenty of sympathetic humans as well -- presuming that they're human, of course. The mysteries of Westworld give the show an expansiveness beyond its massive budget. My worry is that once its mysteries are resolved it will lose a lot of its mystique. It may be better not to know enough than to know too much, but only time will tell one way or another. For now, it's my favorite new show of the fall.


hobbyfan said...

Sounds like this version of Westworld might have some Fantasy Island elements to it. Didn't they try this on TV before, like, a few years after the movie?

Samuel Wilson said...

Yes, there was a very short-lived Beyond Westworld show as well as the direct movie sequel to the original, Futureworld. While I don't see much resemblance to Fantasy Island I will note that Ford occasionally displays a godlike power over the hosts similar to what Mr. Roarke showed from time to time. No dwarves or planes, though.