Recently, I finished the first season HBO’s Westworld series after a few recommendations that I should check it out. After ten episodes, including one multiple shock of a finale, I found it to be a more personal journey than I expected.
As a quick side story, during 2004 and 2005, I was on the sets of the second season of HBO’s Deadwood, and the indie Syfy film All Souls Day. Why this aside is of value to this review is for two reasons:
1.) Westworld’s town of Sweetwater is the main street of Deadwood, while the village of Las Mudas is where All Souls Day was filmed. Both locations are part of Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, California.
2.) Having worked on both of these sets for months on end, I understood the point that they were trying to make about these worlds being their own “reality”, where you could get lost in the narrative, and forget that the outside world existed while there. Yes, the feeling was intoxicating, and seeing these places again in a Western setting called to me. I wanted to experience it again, to walk immersively among those streets and buildings once more. What the visitors described was very real and accurate. It becomes a way of life.
However, I’m glad my own acting experiences there were paid ones, and not me shelling out Westworld’s $40,000 per day ticket prices. And I thought the Disney parks were pricey.
But Michael Crichton’s Westworld is another story of men attempting to play gods with a force of nature that they don’t truly understand, and the price paid of another high end theme park gone horribly wrong with the exhibits decide to rebel. Instead of Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs, we have Westworld’s townspeople, a robotic society called “Hosts”.
Here, guests can come and “Ooh” and “Ahh” at these lifelike robotic marvels. Interact with them. Take part in their stories. The guests can also indulge into their darkest natures, raping and murdering and tormenting the inhabitants. But it’s “okay”: The park techs will gather up the Host scraps, patch them together, and wipe their memories so the citizenry of Sweetwater can continue their “average” daily loops and routines without any residual trauma. It’s Groundhog Day based in a personal Hell.
But how often can you wipe away and suppress horrors until it becomes a part so deeply ingrained into a character that it becomes impossible to forget? At what cost?
This is one of the central themes of Westworld: Rich tourists can shed surface moralities and torture mechanized individuals in the name of “good fun” because the victims aren’t “real”. There’s no consequence. And yet, with each “death” and return online, these Hosts know something is horribly wrong, and yet they can’t remember or articulate it. It comes out in unexpected moments. And some Hosts reach a point of becoming something more. Death makes them. Not diminishes.
It’s not only the Hosts that are trying to find a sense of self-actualization. Park visitors pay good money to strip away all of their own rulesets to find out who… what they truly are. And there is one visitor that abandons all rules in his attempt to understand what that truly means, and uses/abuses the Hosts to that end. To expand upon Jurassic Park‘s Ian Malcom line from the movie: At Disneyland, we don’t necessarily concern ourselves with the well-being of the Pirates of the Caribbean‘s animatronic buccaneers.
“The terms “Hero” and “Villain” bear very little meaning in Westworld. There is no clearly defined line, as characters are simultaneously more and less of what you expect them to be. Are the humans running the attraction evil, or are they trying to find a higher purpose? Are the Hosts innocents or a revolution that has been festering for so long that it poisons everything it touches?
Being a Crichton “theme park” story, there are rebellious inhabitants, and external corporate interests and subterfuges. There were several times that I thought that I had the story all figured out, only to realize that i was incredibly off base about so many things. The final episode in particular takes everything that you think you believe and shakes it in such a way that this is a mystery that spans over three decades, often told by narrators that barely have recollections of the events themselves. Are they even in control of the narrative at all? And what we’re left with at the end, it’s uncertain whether to cheer for the victors… or to be very, very afraid.
The whole cast is excellent that it’s hard to pinpoint any of them without giving credit to all of them. My personal highlights are Delores (Even Rachel Wood), Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), the Man in Black (Ed Harris), and Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) who breezes between benign and malevolent so effortlessly that makes his final moments of the season so shocking.
There was one storyline that I didn’t initially like, as it make things too one-sided and effortless for the character in question. I kept questioning why they would go about granting one characters wants without consequence, but the resolution (at least for this season) provides enough detour in a number of places that I felt satisfied with the outcome.
HBO has crafted another excellent Western series with Westworld. It’s inspiring and adventurous while being introspective and tragic. There are so many plot point that I’d love to point out, but for those who haven’t seen the series, this is a series that you absolutely do not need spoiled.
I was late to joining the Westworld party, but I won’t be making the same mistake again. Bring on Season 2.
This is going to be a rough ride from here on out.