Westworld, the Next Golden-Era TV Show?


Westworld’s momentum came on fast and strong. Its first season was the most watched first season of any HBO series. That’s high praise considering that puts it above everything from Sex and The City to Game of Thrones.

It’s no surprise the show was popular. Westworld has something for everyone: the existentialism of True Detective, the pulpiness of Tarantino and the girl power of Joss Whedon productions.  If we had wanted it to be funny as well, we’d be asking for too much.

Westworld is the brainchild of Jonathan Nolan (writer of the story behind Memento and Christopher Nolan’s brother) and Lisa Joy, of Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice. It also lists J.J. Abrams as a producer, whose title has recently been upgraded from “co-creator of Felicity and Lost” to “HERO OF STAR WARS.”

The story is based on a 1973 film by Michael Crichton, so its creators can’t take all the credit for the show’s incredibly compelling conceit. What they did do was place female characters strongly at the center, and add roughly 12 hours of musing on the meaning of consciousness.

Westworld drew many comparisons to Lost, probably because of J.J. Abrams’ name and the fact it makes constant allusions to something you read once in psych class. Oh and they both have “a man in black.”

Where they depart is that Westworld is carried by more than an implausibly attractive cast (what are the chances that a plane would crash and such a high ratio of hot people would survive?), and it has a much tighter conceit. Lost introduces more and more antagonists to keep you from noticing that the real mystery is what exactly the plot of the show is. In Westworld, there are a few too many moving parts, but overall the mystery is satisfying and much more focused. It’s just confusing enough to provide fodder for the masses on Reddit.

Westworld does justice to many themes, one of the most compelling being how we actually know another person is conscious — or even if we ourselves are as conscious as we think. When it comes to AI, this exercise is truly put to the test, and the creators try out the same signifiers that we see from people: action, emotion, memory, pain, improvisation, self-interest, intent. It also explores the tension between the everyday “loop” and the dramatic changes that happen over time. It’s here where the main protagonist Dolores is caught in a story reflective of her name, which comes from the Spanish for “Virgin Mary of Sorrows.” (Kinda makes sense with that blue dress she wears.)

The show also espouses the idea that the park is where people come to “truly find themselves.” The park itself seems geared at expressing a very male inner self, mostly focusing on encouraging male visitors to kill, break stuff, rape and drink. This could put female viewers off if the larger plot weren’t about formerly dormant and compliant women becoming self-aware and disruptive. Also, the idea of a wild west where the amoral “id” comes out to play feels depressingly relevant in Trump-era America.

Those are just a few of the trails of thought Westworld sends you down, which isn’t bad for a TV show.

As we process the finale, it will be interesting to see how it will age. Will it be like Inception, which was similarly action-packed and psycho-thrilling, but hasn’t held up well to the test of time? Or will it carry on its momentum into season two, becoming one of the most sturdy and compelling TV shows since Mad Men?

After the finale, Nolan says that the first season was all about order, and the second will be about chaos. Let’s hope that chaos doesn’t run it too far off the rails.

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