TVHBO's Westworld Is the New Game of Thrones, and Here's Why
HBO has killed Vinyl and put an end date on Game Of Thrones—which means the network is betting it's future on a series about an Old West theme park. Westworld ho!
Maybe HBO's Westworld will eventually become Lost, a crumbling statue of innuendo and meaningless clues. Maybe it will become a nerd sensation like Battlestar Galactica, much scrutinized and underwatched. Or maybe it's HBO's next Game of Thrones—a detailed, immersive world that millions of us will be spending way too much time in this fall. I'm betting Thrones.
It's just really fun, for one thing—a ravishingly shot sci-fi multiverse populated by human-seeming robots and robot-seeming humans, with increasingly complex rules that you learn as you go. Like Thrones, Westworld—based on the kitschy, unintentionally comic but occasionally lucid 1973 film of the same name, written and directed by Michael Crichton—arrives blighted by years of rumors about the astronomical cost of the show and its stop-and-go production process. For a while, the show served as a symbol of HBO's alleged decline. Now the network is ostensibly so confident about it that it let Vinyl overdose on its own cocaine-fueled excess, set an end date for Game of Thrones, and generally cleared out the dead wood and bad vibes so that Westworld can thrive.
In the original Westworld, James Brolin and Richard Benjamin play two visitors to an Old West-themed, robot-driven amusement park, where guests are free to fornicate and murder and generally indulge their worst impulses at the expense of humanoid robots that are painstakingly rebuilt every night, so as to endure it all again the next day. That film was very much a product of early-'70s nuclear paranoia: a parable about what happens when the dark possibilities of technology meet the dark possibilities of man. (Namely: sexbots who nevertheless refuse to have sex, followed by Yul Brynner, playing a vengeful robot, killing everything still living in the park.)
Cracking Westworld for 2016—a task ably handled by married creators Jonathan (brother of Christopher) Nolan and Lisa Joy, with J. J. Abrams as an executive producer—turns on a clever inversion: Rather than focusing on the humans who visit Westworld, the series is primarily about the robots, called hosts, gradually waking up to the fact that the anonymous sun-dappled utopia they live in is actually a hellscape populated mostly by visiting monsters. “These violent delights have violent ends,” mutters Evan Rachel Wood's southern-belle host, quoting Shakespeare. Enter visiting sadist Ed Harris, somewhat fast, to peel the scalp off of a robot card dealer.
The show also has characters run back bits of Dante, Gertrude Stein, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland—partially because it fits the high Pop Art vibe of the show, and partially because it's thematically relevant. Everyone in Westworld is lost in a story, from the guests, exorcising their darkest, weirdest demons at the expense of their hosts, to the hosts themselves, who are gradually discovering that they might be living a version of The Truman Show, to the scientists and suits who created and staff the park itself, dreaming up sadistic narratives for others to inhabit. Unlike in the original, Westworld isn't just a theme park, it's a mystery, an endless set of possibilities for all involved: As one character says, “There's a deeper level to this game.” Not a bad slogan for good serial television.
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Westworld startles the eye, its grand Old West landscape contrasting harshly with the sterile corridors in which the hosts are made, rebuilt, and re-programmed—a rare opportunity for actors like Wood, James Marsden, and Thandie Newton, who get to play dozens of variations on the same characters (often, it should be said, while naked and/or bloody as they are put back together), living days that are the same until they're different. Westworld features a true ensemble. Anthony Hopkins, in his usual contractually mandated vest and pocket watch, lords over all as the park's maybe not so benevolent creator. Jeffrey Wright, in perfect form here, plays Hopkins's protégé, another creator gone slightly insane with the power of creation.
The show's wry pessimism feels modern, sly: We know we're scum, but maybe the things we make have a chance to be better? In this, Westworld is at once a continuation of something HBO's been doing with anti-heroes for a long time and something thrillingly novel. Difficult men? Nah—difficult species.