From the very first episode of HBO’s newest — and most talked-about — prestige series, Westworld, I was convinced of two things. The first thing that went through my head as the closing credits rolled on Ramin Djawadi’s haunting theme music was “I really, really like this show.” The second thing was “I bet a lot of people are going to hate it.” By the time I made it through the second episode, those opinions had crystallized into a hunch that, now that I’ve actually gotten around to reading other critics’ opinions of the show, I now believe with a certainty: the things that I like about it are, by and large, the very same things that a lot of people hate about it.
That’s because Westworld — on its surface a slick, effects-heavy sci-fi action thriller from a man famous for them — is anything but that. Although Michael Crichton wrote and directed the film on which the series is based, this is nothing like his rip-roaring brand of plot-driven adventures; although there are Easter Egg references to it to satisfy the fanboys, the robotic frontier amusement park is a billion light-years from Jurassic Park. Indeed, the action scenes, when they happen, seem a bit perfunctory, as if the creators were just trying to get them over with, and I would be not at all surprised if that were actually the case.
It’s, indeed, a commonality in all the work of showrunner/co-creator Jonathan Nolan. He writes material that is more what you would call action-adjacent rather than action, high-concept science fiction that puts up conflict and competition more as window dressing to pull people in to what he really wants to talk about. Nolan’s real interest in is high-minded philosophical ideas, and while, as I’ve discussed in this space before, that’s a fiendishly difficult thing to put on screen without being boring and/or pedantic, he’s actually astonishingly good at it. He’s helped put together stories that are both intellectually sophisticated and entertaining about things like memory and desire (Memento), obsession and deceit (The Prestige), survival and destiny (Interstellar), and privacy and security (Person of Interest). What he’s managed to do with Westworld is create perhaps the most fascinating treatment of the themes of identity and self-awareness ever shown on television.
But, of course, it’s more than just about that. When I said that the things I like about Westworld are the things a lot of its detractors (and even some of its fans) loathe about it, here’s what I meant: Westworld isn’t just about highfalutin philosophical notions of humanity and the nature of reality. It’s also, deeply and irretrievably, about itself. It’s about video gaming, yes; but it’s also about being about video gaming, and about what being about video gaming means to us. It’s a story, but it’s also about a story, and about the nature of narrative itself and what it means both to the creator and the reader. It’s about what it is, but it’s also about what it’s about. It’s 100% up its own ass, and while I understand that would drive a lot of people completely crazy, one of the things I admire the most about it is that it manages to pull off its own meta-story and meta-meta-story so successfully, without yet being obvious or pretentious.
Which isn’t to say that Westworld doesn’t have problems. It still needs to show us orgies, conspiracies, and shoot-’em-ups to keep the average viewers involved, and it seems apparent to me at times that its heart really isn’t into those elements. While it’s extremely good so far at creating enigmas and creating an atmosphere of mystery and dread, it’s clearly wearing the influence of Lost on its sleeve in that regard, and it may still turn out to have Lost‘s fatal weakness of being unable to bring its many convoluted plot threads together into a coherent whole when the time finally comes. If the theory that the Man in Black is actually a future version of William, that will introduce the element of multiple timelines, which will overcomplicate the narrative and is a gambit that almost never pays off in terms of story. And the tension between the philosophical self-examination and the banal need to move the plot along will always be vulnerable to the structural requirements of television (a problem that, say, novels do not have), meaning that critics — myself very much included — will probably always read more into it than is actually there.
That said, though, what’s there in the first season has been pretty spectacular. It’s managed to make these extremely abstruse philosophical elements a basic part of the thread of the plot; calling into question the nature of reality, the meaning of identity, and the fluidity of time are absolutely woven into its fabric from the first frame. It’s generally a wonderful show to look at, with astonishing locations and inventive effects. The characters tend to be strong, and those that aren’t are lost quickly; and it pulls off the essential conceit that makes it differ from the film — that we are, this time, supposed to identify with the machines rather than the men — with grace and intelligent. It’s got terrifying villains, and it pulls off its big reveals and unveilings with a stunning level of skill; you get the sense that anything can happen at any moment, and the creators have managed to build a surprisingly coherent and rich world while still keeping some of its essential elements a total mystery. And it’s got a number of fantastic roles for women, quite an accomplishment given that half of them are robots.
Ed Harris has aged into playing a sadistic but impenetrable villain and has thrown himself into the role with an alarming vigor; Anthony Hopkins is his usual hyper-competent self, playing the role of an egomaniacal but utterly self-assured God wannabe in with understated menace. Jeffrey Wright is especially poignant as the doomed Bernard, and Jimmi Simpson has shown some unexpected chops as the morally conflicted William. (Clifton Collins, one of Hollywood’s most underrated character actor, works his usual magic as well.) But it’s the women who truly shine: Sidse Babett Knudsen brings a weary uncertainty to her role as a corporate executive, and Shannon Woodward and Tessa Thompson are both terrific as different kinds of dedicated professionals. But the real revelations here are Thandie Newton’s Maeve and Evan Rachel Woods’ Dolores.
It is these two who are forced to play excruciatingly difficult roles — literal machines who suddenly have to contend with the fact that they may be much more than that — and they do it in completely different ways. They must simultaneously express profound grief and sadness, and conceal it at all times. They bear the incredible moral weight of their situation, as well as a lifetime of false memories of the worst kind of degradation and abuse, and yet they are each determined to become their own women, even though they are technically not women at all. Their performances are strikingly different and yet each spectacular in their own way; they encapsulate everything the show is about, both literally and figuratively, and the emotional resonance of their acting combines perfectly with the deeper meaning of Westworld — and that alone will keep me watching, no matter how much further it retreats inside its own shadow.