End of Season Report: Westworld

14 Dec

Westworld

Westworld was a welcome new series in the peak TV landscape not because it was perfect right out of the gate; it wasn’t by any means, but because what it specializes in delivering is something that is very difficult to deliver on TV successfully, and what very little else currently is.

I’ve been sucked into, or wanted to be, into many a serial supernatural or sci-fi series over the past decade, and the series, often on broadcast television, have always without fail disappointed, usually sooner rather than later, from Heroes, to Terra Nova, to Revolution. It’s taken HBO to finally make a series in this vein work. Westworld has managed the difficult task of creating a brand new world with endless complex rules while at the same time weaving a relatively tight narrative that keeps us entertained and satisfied through smart and gradual twists and turns.

Even for someone who wouldn’t place visual effects near the top of his list of the most important aspects of a film or TV show, there are aesthetics that a big budget major premium cable television show can bring, transporting us to another world with this high-concept science fiction, that is such a pleasure when it works, because virtually nothing else on television fills that void (Game of Thrones is the only contemporaneous comparable I can think of). I love Rectify, and there can never be too many small shows of such quality, but one episode of Westworld probably cost more than the entire run of Rectify, and that look in Westworld really goes a long way towards selling us on the world that creators Christopher Nolan and Lisa Joy envisioned and making us feel and understand the position of visitors, hosts, and employees.

Lost is an obvious point of comparison for Westworld, a magical world of complicated and unknown rules and characters set in a limited geographic range. One article compared Westworld negatively to Lost, citing the lack of deep characterization in Westworld, a fair point, and the biggest weakness of the show. But I’d like to first make a positive comparison. Lost lost itself in its own complex mythology and contradictions. Before it knew what hit it, there are so many answers it needed to supply in a satisfying manner to reach a satisfying conclusion. By the end, either there were no answers, or the answers supplied were random and came from out out of nowhere, largely because they had to be; Lost had no plan.

Westworld has largely avoided this problem; not merely by plotting its first season carefully so that the reveals are grounded within earlier episodes of storytelling, but by keeping questions contained so that the first season finale feels like it could be a series finale, rather than a season finale. There’s plenty of mystery in the world and potential room for explanation, but there are no burning out-there questions that absolutely have to be answered, or the show is inherently not successful in one of its central premises. Being able to end a season with that sense of potential finality is a plus, rather than a minus.

There’s a clinical sense of detachment of from the characters, particularly the humans, that can be a problem in science-fiction shows in general, and particularly here, where so much work has gone into making sure we see at any given time only what the creators want us to see, limiting character interaction and character building. And if there’s some grander sense of the great paradox that the hosts are perhaps more human than the humans, it’s reinforced by simply not having a bunch of deeply developed humans. Despite making up half the cast, most of them couldn’t be ascribed with any qualities by viewers, and those that could be felt like everything about them existed more for plot than for anything else. This is a problem, and it will be a problem going forward, especially as Anthony Hopkins, potentially the most compelling human character in the entire show appears dead, and the second most interesting human character, the Man in Black (like Lost again!) could be (though he wasn’t shown explicitly as dying, so based on the rules of these type of shows, he’s probably alive). Everyone feels like they are primarily in service of the plot, rather than the character (unlike 21st century sci-fi standout Battlestar Galactica, which attempted to focus occasionally on character, but was terrible at it – Westworld just doesn’t bother try much at all). There’s a lot memorable about the show, but there isn’t a lot to dig in on the characters. The most talked about, like Dolores and Maeve are primarily talked about in sci-fi philosophical terms due to the battles between their programming and free will.

That said, if you can have a successful show without largely having successful characters, Westworld definitely did it. This sounds like a paradox but it doesn’t have to be. This may prevent Westworld from being among the absolute best shows, but it doesn’t prevent it from being quite good because it hits on a number of areas that other shows can’t and don’t.

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