I watched the entire first season of HBO’S Westworld, plus the second season opener, just to give it a thorough chance. This show is not for me. It’s not only not for me, I don’t see why the fans who love it find so compelling. I know that nothing pleases everyone, but geez, you guys. Really?
Ultimately, I think, a big problem with Westworld, for me, at least, came down to one or two crucial characters. Particularly, I believe that you have to engage with Dolores in order to accept everything else that happens in Westworld, and she was least engaging character. I said this on Twitter and several people leaped in to say, “Well, you don’t have to like a character…” etc. The question is not likability. It’s engagement. Dolores was not compelling.
Because I wasn’t compelled by Dolores, and because the story of William was so predictable and cliched from Episode Two, that gave me time to look around and notice all the stuff that wasn’t clear, that was inconsistent, that was lazy world-building. As Season One progressed things started seeming strangely familiar, and not in a good way. The show started reminding me of a TV show I had loved that completely fell apart over the course of five seasons. Westworld is everything that went wrong with Lost, only with robots. To Lost’s credit, it’s going wrong with Westworld much faster. There was at least one good season of Lost.
Before I get to Dolores, Bernard and William, let’s talk about a few other tiny problems that make Westworld implausible from in-world. First, a summary of the overarching storyline.
Westworld is one of six super-high-end theme parks, “peopled” with nearly-human robots called Hosts. Hosts are programmed with narratives, backstories and little personality quirks, and programmed not to kill people their code reads as human. They can be killed, though. They can be killed, tortured, raped, disfigured and so on, and of course that’s what many billionaire humans come to Westworld to do. (It’s a metaphor!) The Hosts are rebuilt and their memories wiped after each “narrative;” but somehow, some of them are beginning to remember.
There were two scientists who created the Hosts; Robert Ford (an infamous Western name) and his partner Arnold. Arnold is dead* in a not-mysterious way, but Ford is still around, tinkering with his creations and “improving them,” although members of the Board of Directors of the Delos Corporation who own the parks are uneasy with his improvements. And those improvements are resulting in the anomalous behavior that is disturbing some of the Guests.
Hosts can be killed, and the guns the Guests are given are real guns with real bullets but they are also programmed not to kill “humans.” Rocks, knives, clubs and garrots are not so easy to program, however, and it seems like human-on-human violence/murder would be a big deal at this park. Who would ever insure this place? No one cares, however, because Ford’s tweaking with the Hosts has awakened a number of them to their “true nature.” We should all be getting a bad feeling about this.
(In case you missed it; the slaves are uprising, and they have guns. Guns whose programming can be changed. Ooooooh! Look out, rich people. The Hosts are coming, and they are pissed.)
What didn’t work in Season One:
No Surprises: In Episode One we meet Bernard, the head of Behavioralism. In Ep Two, something about Bernard is billboarded to the audience. At least, it seemed like a billboard to me. I assumed that everyone in the park knew this thing about him, except him. In fact, I thought the fact that he didn’t know was the Plot Twist. But no… in Episode Eight the perfectly obvious thing is framed as a Reveal. To my credit, I didn’t yawn. Another not-surprise; the identify of the dreaded (human) Man in Black. Once you realized where William’s story was going, and that was obvious pretty quickly, it became pretty clear who the Man in Black would be (and it’s not Johnny Cash).
Non-Linear Storytelling: The only way they can make Dolores’s story work is to tell it in a non-linear fashion without us realizing it was non-linear. To some extent, that worked for me, except by about Ep Seven I was going, “Well, when did this happen? Is this another one of her fugues/flashbacks?” So not completely successful. Once again, the Dreadful Secret of Dolores (she did a thing Hosts can’t do!) was increasingly obvious and thus fell flat.
The Not So Secret Project: Nobody would ever insure this train wreck of a theme park, but the Delos Corporation doesn’t care because it’s really using the Hosts and the Guests to gather data for A Secret Project! Uber-wealthy humans! Programmable robots who are indestructible (or at least rebuilt); capable of human interactions and emotions! And memories! I wonder what the secret project could possibly be.
Bad Writing: Look no further than William’s guide through Westworld Park, Delos scion Logan. Logan exists solely to render into text any possible subtext the tale might have. “Of course you can rape her! She’s a robot! It’s what she’s here for!” and, “You can do whatever you want here, that’s the fun!” or, “Oh, dude, you’re falling for her. She doesn’t love you, she’s just programmed that way.” You know, in case we missed any of that.
Or, look at the two lab-nerds who agree to help another host, Maeve, and how paper-thin their motivations are. Or better yet, don’t look. Look away.
And then, Dolores. Dolores is the oldest Host in the park, the first one built, the brainchild (like Athena) of dead Secret God Arnold. You wouldn’t know it because she looks about twenty-four and is the Rancher’s Virginal Daughter. We know she’s Virginal because half the time she wears Virgin Mary blue. I was talking about the show and my friend Margaret said, “Is she the one who’s raped all the time?” and I had to think about it. “I think she’s only raped on screen a couple of times, but they keep showing it over and over,” I said. We do know she’s raped off-screen. All the time. Because, you know, she’s pure and virginal.
However, Dolores is… awakening. (Cue the dun-dun DUUUUUUN music.)
It might be the actress, but Dolores is wooden to me. I know she’s a robot, but she isn’t supposed to be robotic. When she starts to Awaken, or whatever, she intersperses her boringness with moments of passionate… something. Questions, I guess. Existential angst. Whatever.
Maeve, another character, who occupies the role of (wait for it…) whorehouse madam, is also awakening. It may just be Thandie Newton, but for some reason Maeve’s awakening is more compelling. With Maeve, I’m with her when she is sitting on a train looking at a human mother and her child. Is Maeve a product of her programming? Are we all just projects of our programming, even our biological programming?
(And what kind of a parent brings their child to a “park” where people kill people for fun?)
What worked in Season One:
Sets and scenery: I had lots of time to admire the scenery. It’s mostly filmed in Utah, and the sweeping vistas and red rock formations are lovely as always. The mesa –Park Central– is clever.
Elsie: For the five minutes she was around, I liked Elsie. I hear she’s back though.
Costumes: Wow, those dirt-cheap frontier prostitutes rock some pretty nice gladrags, and great jewelry! And strangely-spiritual bandit Hector Escaton (notice how close that is to “eschaton?”) has the world’s best hat. I’d love to cosplay him just for that hat.
The music: Hands down, the music is great. I love the various themes.
Acting: Anthony Hopkins and Thandie Newton can’t save the show, but hey, points for trying.
The show claims it is trying to answer, or maybe just ask, the question “who is a person?” They’re trying to do something different, maybe. For me, their effort results in a epic fail. For me, it’s not “What makes a person?” It’s “If these guys are people, why should I care?”
If you want a piece of fiction that explores “who is a person?” much more thoroughly, read Annalee Newitz’s novel Autonomous, and skip Westworld.
*Or is he?