HBO doesn’t have as much riding on its new sci-fi drama Westworld as reports of the show’s calamitous production (which was suspended at one point and ultimately spanned more than a year, where most TV shows finish a season in a few months) might have you believe.
But, boy, it would be nice for the network if the show took off. HBO hasn’t launched a new drama hit since Game of Thrones in 2011, and its recent summer success story, The Night Of, was technically a miniseries, with nobody involved being in a rush to make a new installment.
And there’s something even bigger at stake here. Now that The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have proved that adaptations of much-loved horror and fantasy material could blow up into mega-hits, it’s only been natural to assume the same might be true of science fiction. If HBO can turn Westworld — based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie about a futuristic theme park that recreates the Wild West, then populates it with humanoid robots, some of whom go rogue — into the sci-fi Game of Thrones, the network will have lots of freedom in the years to come.
That’s probably why it tried so very hard to get this one right. And with Jonathan Nolan — creator of CBS’s ingenious Person of Interest — and J.J. Abrams, who likely needs no introduction, involved behind the scenes, Westworld has all the advantages it needs.
But the show is also indicative of just how much trouble HBO finds itself in in 2016. Here are five ways Westworld exemplifies HBO’s biggest strengths and problems.
1) The series doesn’t know what kind of show it wants to be
The Westworld pilot is good, good stuff. It builds nicely. It introduces some cool characters. It has some neat twists and turns. And it even takes a story you already know (the aforementioned 1970s film about a theme park full of killer robots) and tells it from a new perspective. In this case, the robots take center stage, where the theme park visitors were the heroes of the original.
But with every new episode (of which I’ve seen four), Westworld loses a little bit more steam. There are still plenty of interesting things going on around the edges of the frame, but the series slowly but surely develops a severe identity crisis.
Is it a story about oppressed people (the robots) rising up against those who oppress them (their creators)? Is it a revisionist Western? Is it a workplace drama about running a theme park in the future? Is it just a weird rip-off of Lost, with endless mysteries to solve?
That it’s all of these things and more, without ever really committing to one of them, is the series’ chief failing. HBO increasingly creates shows that combine more and more and more things, in hopes they’ll hit on the magic formula that’s made Game of Thrones so successful. But Game of Thrones has two extremely compelling ideas at its center: 1) everybody wants to sit on the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms, and 2) the White Walkers are coming to kill everybody.
Westworld doesn’t have those sorts of extremely compelling ideas. It has maaaaybe the suggestion that the robots will become sentient at some point down the line, and possibly the idea that the theme park employees are stand-ins for modern entertainment creators (more on that in a moment). But everything else is covered in layers of mystery and obfuscation that don’t help convey a story beyond "Things are happening."
2) But the performances and technical aspects are amazing!
Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Dolores, one of the theme park’s "Hosts" (the artificial beings who populate the park), is giving one of the best performances on television, full stop.
TV fans have known Wood was a tremendous actress since her work as a young teenager on the family drama Once and Again, which aired between 1999 and 2002 and where she found exactly the right emotional tug for every single scene she played. But Hollywood has struggled to find a project worthy of her talents since then.
On Westworld, however, she’s mesmerizing. She modulates layers of emotion and levels of awareness and a slowly dawning sentience without ever once making you believe she’s anything other than an artificial intelligence. It’s magnificent work and the best reason to watch the show.
The rest of Westworld’s cast is similarly stacked. There’s Anthony Hopkins as one of the men who created the Hosts. There’s Jeffrey Wright as another theme park employee, and Ed Harris as a mysterious gunslinger who roams Westworld’s wilderness and has a fixation on Dolores. Even the smaller roles are played by tremendous performers, as when the terrific Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen turns up in rather a minor supporting part.
And because the series is an HBO project, its technical aspects are as good as TV gets. A directing team that includes Nolan, Neil Marshall (who’s helmed many of Game of Thrones’ most epic hours), and Vincenzo Natali (one of Hannibal’s chief directors) joins with top-notch cinematography that always highlights the alienness of Westworld to create something special. This is a fun show to look at, if nothing else.
3) But my goodness, there’s just too much going on
The Westworld pilot — without spoiling anything — backs the show into a corner it can’t really get out of. So instead of dealing with the episode’s most vital and interesting themes (particularly as pertains to the Hosts’ intelligence), the show instead spins out a bunch of pointlessly busy plot lines that feel like second-rate rip-offs of Lost. There are hidden clues and ominous portents and everything.
And because Westworld insists on wrapping it all in the aforementioned layers of mystery, the show is constantly cutting between a bunch of storylines where it’s not immediately clear why anybody is doing anything, other than that the plot needs them to do certain things at certain times.
One of HBO’s biggest problems in recent years is that it seems afraid of having any genuine protagonists. Instead, it creates massive, sprawling ensembles that feature lots and lots of potential protagonists. And when all of those potential protagonists have interesting things to do and compelling goals to pursue (as in Game of Thrones or The Leftovers), that approach can work.
But in many cases, that much sprawl leads to a series that’s constantly leaping all over the place, without rhyme or reason. Westworld has a few noteworthy storylines, but it has even more that are hard to care about, simply because they seem to exist just to pad out the running time.
Dolores is by far the most intriguing character on Westworld, but the show seems reticent to build a show around her, even though her character arc — robot slowly waking up to the horrors of her own existence — is an instantly compelling one.
4) The show does have some interesting things to say about entertainment, philosophy, and faith
That’s not to say Westworld doesn’t contain anything to chew on. When it can get out of its own way, the series boasts a nicely heady mix of big ideas and sci-fi concepts.
I was particularly struck by how much of the story is about the faith the characters have in learning the "answers" of Westworld. Even those who know this realm has been created by humans are certain there’s something more to find, some deeper revelation about the mysteries of consciousness.
And for the Hosts, who spend their days executing preprogrammed routines, the slow realization of what reality truly is has even more to say about the relationship between creation and creator.
There’s also a sly commentary in here on HBO itself. For the most part, the stories with the theme park employees are extraneous and unnecessary. (It’s not difficult to imagine an even more powerful story where Dolores or others discovered their "makers" late in season one.) But there’s frequent discussion of how visitors to the theme park want stories where every piece fits together in a satisfying fashion, or how everybody wants a little sex and violence in their entertainment.
Thus these sections allow for an analysis of what we really want from our popular fiction — or what HBO thinks we want. We want things to make sense, but not be too satisfying. And we always respond best when characters are in pain.
5) The story either starts way too early, or way too late
In recent years, HBO has struggled to select the point in the story where its big, serialized epics should begin. (To be fair, this is a common crisis in scripted TV.)
Start too early, and you risk spending a lot of time on repetitive blandness. Start too late, and you run out of plot really quickly.
As a movie that about robots waking up to their reality (in contrast to the human-centric focus of the original film), this new version of Westworld might have packed a punch. It would have been sort of a more serious, live-action version of the genre-hopping madness of The Lego Movie, with Evan Rachel Wood playing the role of the hero. But as a TV show, Westworld isn’t quite at a place where its story is moving forward, and the show knows it.
The argument for Westworld’s story starting too late is in the attention it pays to its various theme park employees. As the employees learn that their robot creations are starting to understand that they are essentially slave labor, it’s easy to imagine this storyline as the end of a far longer narrative about humanity inventing its AI-driven successors, the beings that will replace it on the planet.
But it’s also possible that Westworld opens way too early, at a point that should be buried in the back-story of a tale about the Host uprising, when the show presumably catches up to the killer robot shenanigans of the movie.
Instead, we’re caught in a neither-here-nor-there scenario, and the show spends a lot of its time just laying everything out, hoping we’ll tag along because it’s on HBO, and we have brand loyalty to HBO.
And to be honest, I do. I’ll keep watching for a little while. But even though it’s sleek, frequently thoughtful, and always cool, Westworld’s scattered self never coheres into anything.
It’s a sci-fi Game of Thrones in that its many characters are spread all over the map, chasing after something grand, but it misses what made Game of Thrones work. Here, "something grand" is incredibly nebulous, a figment of someone’s imagination that might not even exist.
We’re supposed to take on faith that the journey will be worth it. And while HBO still commands that amount of faith from most, it’s time to stop testing our patience.
Westworld debuts Sunday October 2 at 9 pm Eastern on HBO.