Westworld is, above all else, a show for the ten people who actually thought HBO would be in trouble after Game of Thrones ends. While this newest hit is thematically different, the dystopian Matrix-Disney hybrid acts as a spiritual successor to the king of modern television. Just like Game of Thrones, Westworld feeds on our desperate need to know what happens next. That level of week-to-week buzz is why many argue TV is in a better place than movies right now — whether that’s actually true or not. Instead of just repeating how amazing #Westworld is, which I promise we’ll discuss as well, this article aims to explore what makes the sci-fi thriller such an instant phenomenon and a worthy successor to our tale of ice and fire.
Most shows center themselves around a concept, and appear to figure the rest out as they go along. The Blacklist follows an infamous criminal as he helps federal agencies track down villains-of-the-week on his literal list of bad guys; try to imagine a 4+ season plan for that concept once the shallow, overarching mysteries are stretched beyond the limits of our interest. Try adding layers to Pretty Little Liars after they reveal who’s under the damn hoodie. These sound more like movies than any durable series.
I sometimes worry about Westworld’s long-term plan, but the many late-season reveals and rewards have barely scratched the surface of what this concept has to offer. They left a dozen loose ends without dragging anything out, delaying too many answers, or leaving viewers with a sense of wasted time. Supposedly, the writers have the entire series mapped out already, which delayed the initial release. Only time will tell, but Westworld seems to have a concept built for quality television.
Once a show nails down a solid concept, the most important piece is a set of characters. Opinions may vary here, but fans often care more about the characters they’re watching than the plot itself. Seinfeld, for example, is about literally nothing, as are many sitcoms, but they survive by the strength of their characters. Westworld may be the furthest living thing from a sitcom, but the prioritization of character is clear. The plot requires patience, so all you have to enjoy until the more meaningful developments are the many characters we meet, whether they were born or made. While there is certainly a steady feed of information from one episode to the next, each one revealing more of the big picture, the pacing is primarily made enjoyable through careful character development. Without Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores carrying one of TV’s better leading roles in recent memory, we might’ve found ourselves twiddling thumbs between big moments.
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Again, much like Game of Thrones, Westworld’s “lead” doesn’t eat up all that much time on screen. As an ensemble series, they had a lot on their list to get right. And they nearly do so for each character across the board. I felt that some of the humans, ironically enough, were a little one-dimensional. Tessa Thompson (Creed) is a fun up-and-comer who I’d like to see more often, but her character Charlotte felt a little too much like the prototypical corporate figurehead we’ve seen a thousand times. Naïve and arrogant, her late debut in the season presents a jarring shift from layered morality disputes to the park’s inevitable downfall. Her lack of nuance may blend in with a lesser show, but distracts from the more complicated characters around her.
Maeve was a strong, exciting character who, alongside Dolores, deserves award recognition this season. However, her Tweedledee and Tweedledum associates tested the limits of just how stupid human characters can be. In a season filled with plot developments that felt organic and unforced, Felix and his idiot friend clearly acted the way they did because the show had to go on, and the story had to move forward. Felix reminded me of a WWE star that inexplicably stands there letting his opponent perform insane, elaborate and easy to avoid things to him. You’re wondering, why is he just going along with all this with that dumb look on his face? Then you remember. It’s acting.
Those few exceptions aside, this is an outstanding cast that perfectly blurs the lines between right and wrong. James Marsden takes a page from his Enchanted playbook, oddly enough, turning hopelessly naïve into bizarrely endearing. Ed Harris’s Man In Black (no relation) and Anthony Hopkins play opposite ends of a crazy spectrum that arguably defines the show. I’d love to listen to them explain their own warped moral compasses. Ford is actually my favorite character — favorite to watch, at least. I had never seen the God complex taken so literally, and Hopkins’ predictably fantastic performance dodged what could’ve very easily been that of a simple megalomaniac. Westworld has a great lead, but doesn’t use her as an excuse to get lazy with everyone else.
With a great concept and characters locked down, all that remains is a dynamic plot that can keep those elements fresh. Westworld is intentionally ambiguous, often skimming over specific details that might clear up any viewer confusion. I still have no idea how the bullets work: they can light up a train or wreck a saloon. Hosts that are built almost identically to humans explode on impact, yet Ed Harris can still look like Superman in front of a firing squad. You might have to overlook a few nitpicky thoughts en route to fully experiencing what Westworld is trying to say. For a show based around science, most of the fiction is more philosophical as they explore the ideas of free will, sentience, and what it means to be alive.
The ten-hour journey is worth the effort, and of course things get crazier and crazier as we approach a worthy finale. Spoilers ahead, so if you’re crazy enough to read a Westworld review without having watched the show, maybe come back to this later. For a change of pace, this show actually begs the question: is there such a thing as too many plot twists? Granted, in a world where nothing happens on your favorite shows for weeks at a time, this is a beautiful problem to have. But I think Westworld would’ve benefitted from one fewer narrative crescendo. Here they go — you were warned.
The initial Bernard twist was perfectly executed, and kick-started the season’s third act. The William reveal felt earned, and showcased what this world does to human beings. I’m not sure if the Bernard-Arnold connection, or much of Arnold’s character, was entirely necessary. It overcomplicates the show’s history for a payoff that dilutes some of the more poignant “wow” moments. Let’s not forget the additional twists to round out both Dolores and Maeve’s respective storylines. That is a surplus of surprises. It’s another nitpick, but one that could improve the series if someone important feels the same way. The second half of this season felt like someone was looping that surprised chipmunk video.
Westworld’s tone might be the not-so-secret ingredient to the show’s immediate success. Entertainment has become cheeky, and most major franchises take the easy jokes with the widest possible appeal. In a game of dollars, I suppose that makes cents (sprints away in humiliation). For every mom trying to sit through Doctor Strange, I’m sure these crowd-pleasing tactics are much appreciated. But Westworld is unapologetically bleak: I don’t think there’s a single attempt at humor. That’d typically be a negative, but the current lack of darkness in our entertainment opens the perfect window for this humorless beast to stand out. In fact, #HBO’s entire game plan doesn’t seem too concerned with the widest possible appeal.
Game of Thrones targets a surprisingly narrow audience, but the average viewer opened his and her mind to the idea of White Walkers and dragons. Before you know it, Thrones took over the world. It took time, but word of mouth and great television got the job done. Westworld targets a similarly narrow audience, one that’s ready for hardcore sci-fi and violent delights. In today’s day and age, quality shows don’t stay hidden, so there isn’t really a need to play to a lowest common denominator. Just make your show, make it great, and fans will appear. “If you build it, they will come” type stuff. People don’t need laughs, or any one emotion. They just need great a strong concept, memorable characters, and great storytelling — all things Westworld has in abundance.
What did you think of HBO's Westworld?