Beneath the scalp of one of Westworld’s robotic Hosts, the Man in Black (the always malevolent Ed Harris) has found a strange maze. He’s convinced it’s a clue that will lead him deeper into what he calls "the game," to the truth buried at its center, and as he slaughters his way through Host after Host in Westworld’s second episode, "Chestnut," he seems to be getting closer and closer. Maybe he has a point.
Within the confines of this Wild West theme park, he says, everything makes sense. All of the little details add up. Everything has meaning. So of course he would expect this maze to lead him to some sort of final reckoning, the answer he’s been seeking for years. (As one of the park’s most frequent guests, he’s become such a fixture of the place — and therefore one of its biggest benefactors — that staff keeps out of his way. "That gentleman gets whatever he wants," one says.)
But as a viewer, I can’t decide whether the Man in Black’s maze side quest, which branches off of Westworld’s main narrative, is intriguing or exhausting. I dig most of what the show is doing otherwise, but the more the series hints that Westworld itself carries deeper, more complicated secrets, the more I mentally tune out.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy this sort of stuff. I typically like a good mystery, and I loved Lost, which seems like an obvious influence on both this storyline and the attempts by Westworld’s head guy in charge, Ford (Anthony Hopkins), to craft an exhilarating new storyline that will get his board off his back. The combination of weird symbols and strange portents has Lost written all over it.
No, my problem here is that the "bigger, deeper mystery" stuff, at least so far, feels like a weird distraction from what I really care about: the series’ larger questions about how consciousness begins. The problem is that sort of philosophical rumination probably can’t sustain a narrative for very long.
Westworld’s tales of growing robotic sentience are stuck in a loop right now
The dramatic meat of Westworld concerns the Hosts themselves. A few of them — most notably Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) — are slowly becoming aware of the nightmare of their existence, where they can be used and abused pretty much at will by the park’s visitors, known as guests.
It seems that Dolores, in particular, is slowly building a series of reminders for herself that will help her realize her truth more and more quickly after her programming is reset and her memory wiped to start each new day. But Maeve, too, is waking up. In episode two’s most horrifying sequence, she stumbles into the "backstage" area where Hosts are repaired and recalibrated, their bullet holes patched over and the blood washed off their forms.
The most consistent complaint I’ve heard from people who didn’t like Westworld’s (generally excellent) pilot is: "Why do we know Dolores, et al., are robots, instead of learning right alongside them?" And I’ll admit it’s kind of fun to imagine a version of this story that slowly teased out that idea over the course of a season or so.
But Westworld likely never could have done that. For one thing, the show’s title is a dead giveaway; the 1973 movie of the same name was about a Wild West–themed amusement park filled with robots. And for another, the "birth of consciousness" story that series co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy want to tell requires, in essence, some level of dramatic irony, where the audience knows more than Dolores and her Host counterparts.
Thus, by necessity, we have to know they’re artificial beings, and we have to know fairly early on. But that leaves Westworld caught between two problems.
On the one hand, you can’t keep the audience in the dark, because it shoots the show in the foot. On the other hand, you can’t rush the birth of consciousness, because then the story accelerates so rapidly that it jumps all the way into future seasons of the show, when the narrative will likely settle into a more conventional "Hosts work to gain their independence" storyline.
Consequently, season one must involve a lot of busywork, just to give the show’s sprawling ensemble something to do. And that busywork is the least interesting element of the show.
Westworld struggles when it has to kill time
Most of HBO’s sprawling ensemble dramas have started out very, very small.
The Sopranos begins with a typical few days in Tony’s life. Deadwood focuses on Sheriff Seth Bullock’s first day in town. The Wire chronicles one cop’s frustration with how little he’s accomplished. Even Game of Thrones is basically a family drama in its first few episodes.
But Westworld wants to be about everything from the word go. And while the pilot mostly managed this task, the second episode keeps piling storylines and ideas on top of one another until it sags beneath their weight.
"Chestnut" almost functions as a second pilot, a more conventional one focused on the experience of the guests who visit Westworld (here represented by two workplace buddies on a Wild West getaway, played by Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes). We see how they choose their gear to enter the park, then how a seemingly nondescript room becomes the train that transports them into the little town at the heart of Westworld. And then we watch as they interact with the various Hosts.
It’s probably important for us to see the guests’ side of things. If Westworld is eventually going to catch up to the story of the movie (where Hosts on the fritz started killing guests), we’ll need a few guests to care about. But at the same time, devoting time to guests further diffuses Westworld’s narrative at a time when the series is already juggling about five protagonists (Dolores, Ford, the Man in Black, Jeffrey Wright's Bernard, and James Marsden's Teddy, in rough order of importance).
It also dilutes Maeve’s storyline. Maeve is an interesting parallel to Dolores’s slow awakening (here expressed as a mysterious voice in her head telling her when and how to perform certain actions — which results in Dolores finding a gun buried in the dirt outside her farmhouse). But at the same time, her story feels a bit like a rehash of that basic idea. The show is trying to offer up something new by looking at what happens when Westworld staff decide to decommission Maeve (who’s no longer earning her keep), but it doesn’t really go far enough.
I’m saying this not to complain about the show but to express my concerns that it’s not really sure where its center is, and is trying to distract us from that fact. Westworld has too many characters whose ultimate goal seems to be "They want to do ... something." That’s fine for one or two of them, but then there have to be others with more or less concrete goals.
Going back to Lost for a second, many of the characters on that show just wanted off the mysterious island they’d crashed on, while John Locke was the guy who longed to explore the island’s mysteries (for very good reason — he’d been paralyzed before landing on the island). That tension was enough to get the series to the point where the other characters were just as interested in what the island had to offer as Locke was.
But Westworld has yet to quite manage this trick. I’m engaged with some of what’s going on and couldn’t care less about, say, the Man in Black’s treasure quest or Ford’s subordinates pitching him an elaborate new narrative for the park and Ford ultimately shooting it down. The series often feels like it’s constructed entirely of subplots, and that’s rarely a great look.
Of course, maybe I need to just listen to Ford. When he shoots down that subordinate’s idea, he says it doesn’t work because it won’t tell the park’s visitors enough about themselves. It’s just a narrative on the rails, with some fun twists here and there but little in the way of self-reflection. Maybe Westworld is trying to teach me something about myself, and I just haven’t realized it yet.
Or maybe it’s just trying to teach me how little I like endless arrays of subplots.
"Chestnut" is already available on HBO Now. It will air at 9 pm Eastern on HBO Sunday, October 9.