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The Low Stakes and Lack of Emotional Connection of Westworld

On this here blog I posted reviews of Westworld episode one and two, with the intent of continuing forward and doing those weekly. The week three review is half-finished and has been sitting there, unfinished for well over a week now and I just watched episode four last night. Newborn twins are tough at times and finding time to watch a show then sit down and blog about it isn’t always easy. Plus, nobody really cares about Westworld in the face of The Walking Dead coming back, which, yeah, I won’t even get into that.

Anyway, what’s the matter with Westworld? We’re four episodes deep and there are fan theories, subreddits and comment sections degrade to obsessing about the minutiae of detail that is buried beneath the surface of this Jonathan Nolan-based show. I’m tossing in brother Nolan’s name because I feel like the work that he and his brother have done is important to understanding Westworld and why it’s just not that engaging.

Westworld isn’t very good. I really want to enjoy it, to find it to be the most awesome thing around and get obsessed with it. The thing is, I’m older now than I was when Christopher Nolan was churning out high-concept movies with big twists and I’ve grown a lot as a writer. This means that things stick out to me more now than they did back then. Where I would’ve been one of those people on an easter egg hunt prior, instead I’m saying, “Okay, but what about the plot? What about the characters?”

Because those are the things that matter. I’ll ask you this; which character do you care about the most now that we are about halfway through season one? Is it Teddy? William? Dolores? Maeve? The Man in Black? Bernard? If your answer is none of the above then we are in agreement. The problem with doing multiple point-of-views in writing is that in the beginning it’ll be difficult for the audience to really latch onto anyone and form an emotional bond with them.

Westworld has eschewed having a main character for having like eight main characters, which wouldn’t usually be a problem, except for that fact that this is the first season and there hasn’t been enough time to form an emotional bond with any of the characters. Maybe Dolores? I’m not sure, because she gets screen time, but in this last episode it felt minimal. Here’s the thing, you can absolutely build a story around an ensemble crew of protagonists, it’s been done before, but without an emotional hook it simply can’t work.

Let’s compare to HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones, the show that HBO is desperately hoping Westworld can replace. Game of Thrones follows a ton of characters and we care about just all of them at this point. The thing is, how did we get to this point? The answer is simple; Ned Stark was our anchor in season one.

Think about it for a minute and reflect on that first season and how Ned-centric it really was. The whole first season was about Ned being visited by the King, Ned being named the Hand of the King, Ned moving his family from their ancestral home to King’s Landing to serve his good friend, the King. Much of season one is the Stark family on the road to King’s Landing learning just how shifty and shitty the Lannister’s are, getting a lay of the land on some of the politics involves and growing to see Ned Stark through his own deeds and through the eyes of his children, friends and adversaries. That’s why near the end Ned’s (THIS IS A HUGE SPOILER, OBVIOUSLY) execution is so amazingly jarring; he was our anchor and guide to Westeros, he set out expectations, introduced us to a set of values and endeared the audience to his way of life.

It’d be like if Rick from The Walking Dead died before the end of the first season. Since that first season we’ve all had time to adjust to the lack of Ned, even saw Robb as the replacement Ned that we pulled for only for it to go horribly wrong, all the while the other characters and the world had been firmly established and there was no way that we’d stop reading or watching just because we lost our precious Ned. We had his family still, we had Dany and her dragons, we had the sharp-tongue Tyrian and the conflicted Jaime.

All of this because we were slyly focused on Ned Stark for most of the first book/season. Hell, I think of James SA Corey’s novel series (and now television series) The Expanse and how the first book focused just on two characters; Miller and Holden. Later on it branches out into a whole ton of different characters, including the crew of the Rocinante that have been established throughout the series.

You could make the “slow start” argument with Westworld, as shows like Breaking Bad for sure had a very slow start. In fact, while that show went down as one of the best in history, the entire first season is just a bit, well, whatever. The thing is, Walter White was your established protagonist early on and you were given reasons to care about him; he’s dying, he wants to provide for his family, he’s desperate. While the story moved slowly, there were still emotional hooks to keep the viewer somewhat engaged.

But none of that exists in Westworld. There is an ensemble of characters, but we see such little glimpses of each that their struggles, emotions and quests have no real value. So, the Man in Black wants to solve the puzzle, to find the “end game” of Westworld, but apparently all that we’ve learned about him over four episodes is that he’s sadistic inside of the park and that he’s incredibly wealthy and his company was involved in saving lives. This is all that we know, but the concept of the puzzle that he’s trying to solve is supposed to be the hook.

The Nolans have a history of style-over-substance and the whole, almost comical M. Night Shymlalan-style plot twist that is meant to BLOW YOUR FUCKING MIIIIIIND, MAAAN. That’s fine, plot twists are a real thing, but at a certain point it’s a gimmick. The whole reason that Christopher Nolan’s movies have done as well as they have is not only the MIND-BLOWING TWIST, but also that there is a story built there as well. Inception was all about the mind-fuck of dream-inside-of-a-dream and “what is really real,” but you had some reason to care about Leo’s character and his losses.

The same can be said for the rest of his movies, even Interstellar was based around the relationship of a father and daughter. But what is Westworld’s hook? There is a lot of meta-game sort of stuff buried in there, for sure. Everyone is talking about Dr. Ford’s ability to stop the hosts with a seemingly hidden trigger, debating if his little finger movement was the trigger, if it was a set of words or if it was telepathy. Perhaps there are trigger phrases and perhaps these have caused the androids having awakenings? While that’s great and all, it’s a trail of breadcrumbs that is meant to give deeper meaning to the world while there is absolutely nothing but surface-level stuff in the show.

This is HBO, which means ten episode seasons and we are halfway through. There’s nothing, no stakes, no characters to latch onto, no main story arc that matters. The story that has been established is that the hosts have a consciousness, even if they aren’t supposed to, and that there is inner turmoil within the park’s staff that may or may not be affecting all of this. Writing is not easy, especially when expectations are this high, but this is stuff that could’ve been established within an episode or two, not four.

So while everyone is so focused on finding the secrets of Westworld, they are missing the fact that there isn’t anything else beyond those secrets, just a thin veneer of a show without much going for it, much like Westworld the park, which is just a bunch of androids there for amusement but can’t actually have any impact on the guests whatsoever. Maybe that was what they were going for, but I sincerely doubt they’d invest this much money on a show that was meant to be worthless.

Westworld Episode Two: Chestnut; or, Introducing Another Protagonist

I’ll be the first to admit that my initial review of the first episode of Westworld was a bit on the brutal side. Truth be told, I wasn’t trying to tear the show apart, but I felt that analyzing a lot of the shows, movies and books with similar content was important to understand what HBO’s latest big-budget hypefest needed to live up to. Originality isn’t a must when it comes to a new piece of media, because, really, just about everything has been done before, it’s mostly about execution and the content itself.

The whole concept of Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire) isn’t exactly wholly original; a high fantasy epic featuring multiple families and interwoven storylines. That isn’t new, it’s been done and it’s been done a lot. Hell, Martin’s inspiration for the show was history, it was the War of the Roses. Yet, he created rich, interesting characters, engaging storylines and the show built off of his work in the books and became a cultural phenomenon.

Westworld is at a disadvantage in that they are building this whole, huge world-within-a-world of a show with multiple protagonists and story threads while the original film was quite a bit more compact in scope. Make no bones about it, they are trying to create a new Game of Thrones for HBO and it’s not entirely clear yet if they’re stretching or not. All of this is happening without a¬†backbone of a series of in depth novels to serve as a guide into this world.

This episode finally introduced what would be the original protagonist from the first film in the apprehensive visitor along with his over eager friend, William and Logan. The main character of the show is still probably Dolores. Probably. I don’t know. That’s a part of the issue here; they keep zipping between characters without giving them much room to breathe or develop yet. The first episode endeared us Teddy Flood and while he was a part of this episode, most of what he served as a guttural reaction to him being shot point-blank by a guest for no reason outside of pure fun before seeing his mangled, bullet-filled corpse in one of the diagnostic rooms afterwards.

In the first episode Ed Harris’s man in black was painted solely as a villain, but his quest to delve deeper into the inner-workings of Westworld and find this mysterious maze paints him in perhaps a different picture as a sort of antihero. Why? Because the park is, in and of itself, an oppressive apparatus that is holding back our dear hosts from being fully-actualized, sentient beings. They are there to be raped, murdered and berated before having their minds wiped. Sure, Ed Harris is killing them and being a sadistic asshole, but they are being wiped anyway, right?

The park overseers don’t want to get in his way, either. In fact, one of them even says “That man can do whatever he wants.” We continually hear that he’s been going to the park for over 30 years and that he’s seen and done it all, that this maze is his last secret to unlock. What they are trying to say with his character still isn’t entirely clear yet, but I’m still not ready to say that he’s anything but a sadistic asshole on a park-built adventure, the only kind that could interest a guy who is running around as an immortal being of sorts just killing and raping whomever he wants without having to worry about any danger at all.

Oh yeah, and the androids are becoming more sentient. Maeve put herself to sleep, then woke up on the operating table with everything in tact. This still seems like the main plotline, with Bernard and Dr. Ford believing themselves to be gods of some sort. Dr. Ford hints at the most immersive storyline to date at the end, with everything fading out to a cross. Is Ed Harris involved in this secret plot? Does Dr. Ford’s shunning of Sizemore’s latest hedonistic, sadistic, yet cookie-cutter adventure lead to more tampering with the AI’s?

The seeds have been planted for what will be going haywire in the coming episodes and chances are we’ll see everything converge by the eighth episode or so, but here’s hoping to not introducing any new characters or plots next week. They need to get these main threads moving or else who cares where they are heading?

Westworld Episode One: The Originals; or, Do Androids Dream of Flies On Cheeks?

For the past few months I had a big ole’ platform to write about stuff like pop culture, entertainment and news. Since I no longer have that platform (along with quite a few of my former coworkers), I don’t have anywhere to talk about the debut of Westworld. Sure, I’d probably only sneak in a little fragment of a thought here and there, but it would still go somewhere. Westworld is one of those shows that had some hype behind it, trailer-after-trailer, interview-after-interview with the anticipation growing.

Westworld is based upon the ’73 Michael Crichton film that he both wrote and directed. Needless to say, while Crichton has a place in pop culture due to film adaptations of his novels, I’m not sure that Crichton should be considered one of the masters of science fiction by any stretch of the imagination. A topic like artificial intelligence is one that has been hashed and rehashed so many times that it’s increasingly rare for anything to actually be worth consuming.

Yeah, we get it, the stuff that we build rebels and is our sad reflection. Cool. These androids can also have internal struggles that mirror the struggles that certain groups of people go through. We’ve seen that, as well.

Even by ’70s standards I’m not sure that Westworld has the same level of depth that we’ve come to expect for such a topic. To wit, in 1968 Philip K. Dick published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which explored the concept of artificial intelligence, human empathy and our own existential grief. Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robots had existed for over twenty years at this point. What I’m trying to say is that it had already been done and done better prior, which isn’t a bad thing, just a fact.

The premiere episode of HBO’s Westworld was a 72-minute long slog through a muddled retread of a narrative concept, but with that HBO shine. Perhaps it’s simply how HBO shows are; they show promise, show slick production, big names are attached to the project, then the show flounders on its own until HBO decides to pull the plug. While I know some fans of Boardwalk Empire, that show was the perfect example of that HBO bloat, and recently Vinyl is probably an even better example of that.

It isn’t that Westworld is inherently bad — or not interesting –, it’s that the very core of the concept feels dated. By now we’ve seen the Terminators rise up against humanity, we’ve seen Wall-E be the sad little robot on a destroyed planet, we’ve seen the Reapers wipe out humanity in cycles when humans get too advanced in AI and we’ve seen Replicants try to extend their lives.

In a case like this, the marketing and presentation only helps to make this show seem more important than it really can be. Recent films like Her and Ex Machina did a stellar job of taking a different approach to artificial intelligence, while still touching on those core chords of human fragility reflected in its need to play god and recreate itself. Westworld is presented as something important, like a television event, when it wasn’t.

I’m not entirely sure what purpose this episode had outside of making eyes roll. They established about a million characters, hinted at the park’s true nature earlier on before revealing all, made allusions to things about to go haywire and showed the evolution of a few of the characters within this animatronic world. But the worst sin is that it dragged on. We get it, Ed Harris is a bad, bad dude, but his character is borderline comical within the framing of this episode.

Anthony Hopkins is creepy and just wants his creations to be more and more real, Liz Lemon’s husband is actually a robot but he’s got those feeeeeeeels and his girlfriend — who was programmed to never harm a living thing — can hurt a fly now. It was as boldfaced of a plot point as there could be, with the sheriff malfunctioning earlier on in the episode because a fly landed on his cheek and he was unable to kill it, so he just twitched until the patrons took off.

The thing is, not everything needs to be new and exciting, conceptually. The film 28 Days Later took one of the most tired and trite genres in modern day entertainment that is the zombie film and owned it. The follow-up, 28 Weeks Later was the polar opposite and settled into the mundanity of the genre conventions, helping to drive what could have been a franchise into the toilet. Ex Machina touched on a lot of the conventions that come up with AI stuff, but focused so much on intimate, human emotions over blockbuster action that it felt fresh in the face of this convention.

A show like Westworld could embrace the pulp of being a western along with the retread sci-fi allure of rogue androids — and perhaps it will — but instead this first episode felt like they laid out a rather clear road map for where the show is headed and that it’ll just be another one of those shows that will get hyped early, only for viewers to lose interest after a while. All of it neatly packaged with big names in the credits, a few familiar faces on the screen, a whole lot of tits and even more blood and gore.