HBO’s Westworld: A Trip Worth Taking

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Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty, to believe there’s an order to our days, a purpose. I know things’ll work out the way they’re meant to. – Dolores Abernathy

If you had the chance to live out your fantasies, or perhaps indulge in your vices, what would you do? If the consequences within that world had no effect on what’s real, would that change your agenda? What if you could exist, for a time, in a man-made universe, where the only ramifications are those created inside your own mind?

You could murder others in cold blood, rape and pillage with no fear, and sleep with perfect-looking women every single night. It would be a dream world, and, as with any concept of imagery while asleep, it can be unpredictable. You could be guaranteed adventure, sex, alcohol, or you could take your family on the greatest amusement park ride of all time. You could also cheat on your husband or wife, and you could also take part in every possible form of debauchery imaginable.

Think for a few seconds what would be on your list, and then contemplate the truths that this world would reveal about who you are as a human being. Are you a good person? Are you evil? Are there shades of gray lying beneath the surface you show to everyone in your life? Would you enjoy the chance to explore the depths of your soul, or would you be afraid you might actually discover your capabilities in those arenas.

Outside of the gorgeous visuals and Ramin Djawadi’s epic, sweeping score, it’s these questions that HBO’s Westworld will challenge you to answer. An adaptation of the film of the same name, both based upon Michael Crichton’s 1973 story of a new age of entertainment and immersion, Westworld tells the tale of a theme park of the future, set in the past. In the four episodes provided to critics, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy introduce us to the new-old west, inhabited by a wide variety of classic characters, from the farmer’s daughter, to the town drunk, to the surly barkeep, the madam, and the many bandits, they’re all here.

Westworld is comprised of hosts, artificially created beings programmed to participate in various narratives, each built to appeal to the various whims of the park’s customers. These patrons, who pay a pretty penny to take the experience, are called guests. These are the two main classifications in the series, along with those who help build, maintain, upgrade, or manipulate the park. Think of Gamemakers in The Hunger Games, but add far more attention to detail. Rather than sell the park to a large viewing audience, Westworld’s design must appeal to the desires of each individual who takes the red pill.

The initial pull of Westworld is in the juxtaposition of the Wild West with the post-modern setting of the company’s headquarters. Heroes and villains can be found in the fictional construct, as well as what’s real, or at least what we think is real. This is the kind of show that could eventually reveal itself to be a Russian nesting doll of sorts, where each level is only as real as the perception that THESE PEOPLE are the final deciders.

There’s so much to unpack with this show, but unlike many sci-fi failures, Nolan and Joy never add so much that it’s overwhelming. Within the first half of “The Original,” the hook is cast, and at least for me, I grabbed it immediately. I do hold Nolan in high regard due to Person of Interest, but this concept has something extremely important going for it from the outset:

Anything could happen here.

Some ideas seem to limit the potential for storytelling and leave you wondering exactly how much is really there to be told? How many episodes do we have here before it gets patently absurd and loses its charm? I like the idea of Designated Survivor, and I’ve enjoyed the first few episodes, but I continue to wonder how long this show can go before it starts tripping over itself.

Not just because Westworld itself is a programmed reality, but also because of the mix of past, present, and future within the plot, the possible directions are plentiful. As you assuredly have already guessed, the hosts follow instructions, but the cracks begin to show. Very early in the opener, you notice glitches in the machine, and the humans in control begin to question a recent system upgrade that may have left their creations in a state of confusion, or at the very least curious why their lives seem to replicate Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Imagine finding out everything you know is complete fiction.

While this isn’t leading to The Terminator (probably), there’s definitely a feeling of self-awareness and the dangers of the hosts discovering their purpose or the complete absence of an actual life. Memories of encounters with the guests remain, and even though these thoughts overwrite, just as with any upgrade, sometimes remnants linger and cause complications. In those cases, the humans then must deal with how to retire the machines that have gone haywire. It’s a process that leaves emotional scars on the real people, maybe even more so than the creations being decommissioned.

Westworld’s cast is unbelievably loaded, from Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Hopkins to Ed Harris, James Marsden, and Thandie Newton. These are all motion picture actors with name recognition, put together at the right time and at the right place. Without listing them all and exposing details too soon, know that the talent is strong, and you immediately get the feeling that this is the kind of show that could end up in the first paragraph of many of these people’s obituaries. In particular, Wood and Harris are just superb in the early going. Those two characters are tremendous, as are the performances.

This is a story that Hollywood wanted to remake as a movie in the not-too-distant past, but couldn’t get it done. CBS tried to do the series as well, but it was nixed after three forgettable episodes.

HBO’s belief in creative freedom, leaving writers and directors to their own devices, has always been essential to its success in original programming. It’s not a network known for pages and pages of notes; instead, the men and women in charge have always backed their original choices. If I hired you, I saw something in you, and I want to nurture your process, not stunt its growth. Westworld’s story is so utterly massive, so intricate, and so carefully constructed, that the trust must be implicit between executives and those under their employ. Never could this show work on one of the big four. The budget is heavy, the risk of an audience not “getting it” great, and the required leeway gigantic, but because of that, when everything works, the rewards are equally enormous.

The hype surrounding Westworld has been huge, and it’s been a show we’ve all heard about for years. Sometimes, the finished product doesn’t live up to the hopes of fans that buy into the premise or those attached to the project. The first four episodes are very good, extremely intriguing, and filled with entertainment. And, it’s obvious as a viewer that we’re just scratching the surface of what the show might be. The first thought I had after first watching The Original (I’ve now seen it four times) was, “God I hope this is on for a while.” That’s the feeling you want as an entertainment consumer. Your time is spent wisely, to the point you’re ready to hand over more of it to an entity that satiates your cravings.

So many fun things are there to find and enjoy in this show, and while I won’t spoil them all for you, I do have to mention the music. In addition to Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones, Person of Interest), who is truly at the top of his game right now, there’s a saloon-whorehouse piano, and in the premiere, you’ll detect Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” and later without the piano, The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” in a unique configuration. The second episode of the series finds the saloon belting out some Radiohead. This is hopefully something that will continue as long as the show remains on the air, because it’s a subtle, interesting easter egg to hear. You’ll first hear the song, you’ll realize it’s familiar, and then you’ll eventually remember what it is.

I’m not going to talk about who’s good, who’s bad, and otherwise, at least not today. Each week, hopefully you’ll join me right here to discuss the night’s episode, and in those articles, we’ll spoil everything and speculate about what’s next in the story. For now, I just want to tell you that if you’ve been excited, as I have, for Westworld, raise a fist in the air. It’s not going to let you down.

This first batch of episodes is solid, engaging, and addicting. I gave up sleep I desperately needed to plow through the four HBO made available to me, and while I know it’s going to get better, and there are a few things that need to be tightened up, Westworld is undeniably one of my favorite shows of the year.

The question HBO has struggled to answer in recent years has been what show can keep the network relevant once Game of Thrones, Veep, and Silicon Valley end their respective seasons. While I can try and convince you that The Leftovers was always the answer, with Season 2 arguably 2015’s best drama of any kind (not named Fargo), the ratings haven’t backed it up. One more season of that show remains, but HBO needs a strong future. Vinyl flopped, even with a rather promising pilot. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have changed the game. Today, FX is “real” television’s best network, and AMC has at times dwarfed HBO in overall quality.

Westworld is the missing piece. It’s unlike anything else, but with bits and pieces of a great many things you know and love. Ex Machina fans will love it. Deadwood fans may well love it. Game of Thrones fans should love it. Its genre crossover enables the show to cast a wide net, and all that might hold it back would be shoddy content or vapidity in execution. Nolan and Joy, not to mention the cast, from very early in the premiere, prove those are not reasonable concerns at this point.

This is a thrill ride, but one filled with heart. I can’t wait to talk more with you about it.

I’m @JMartOutkick on the tweets. Follow me there, but for now, may you rest in a deep and dreamless slumber. (You’ll understand soon enough.)

Written by Jason Martin