Westworld is a Show About Ideas, But What Are They?

westworld

I’ve seen the first three episodes of Westworld, and I’m seriously thinking about not watching any more.

For those who don’t know, Westworld is the new expensive and expansive HBO drama, which has clearly been positioned to take over in the cultural conversation now that megahit Game of Thrones is nearing the end of its run. The show is based on the Michael Crichton movie from the seventies in which an amusement park is terrorized by robot cowboys who suddenly go sentient –Jurassic Park with robots, basically-, only creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher) have flipped the script, and at least in the first few episodes, are telling the story from the point of view of the robots (referred to in the show as “Hosts”) who are slowly but surely gaining consciousness and realizing that they’re basically slaves.

Not only is robot servitude as a metaphor for slavery hardly an original idea, it is basically the only idea people are interested in when telling stories about robots and artificial intelligence. Be it in the now classic stories of Isaac Asimov or in last year’s hit movie Ex MachinaIt makes sense then, that writers -including the creators of Westworld- want to say something deeper and fresher than just pointing out humanity’s constant desire to subject other people (or creatures, or things) to their will. Ex Machina, for example, took a very explicit turn toward the sexual, suggesting that physical attraction could be the way in which robots convince us to be in servitude to them and becoming a sort of parable on gender norms and female liberation in the process. So, my question is: what is Westworld trying to tell us?

The frustration comes when we’re three episodes in and I have absolutely no idea of answering that question, except to wonder and theorize what that may be -as many on the internet are doing- and hoping that the show will reveal some of its thematics at some point down the line. HBO used to say it wasn’t tv. Well, this show wasn’t made for television, it was made for reddit.

So far, every plot thread on Westworld has been drenched in mystery. And when I say every plot thread, I mean every plot thread. Even when we see characters doing things, we rarely know why they’re doing, or even what their goal is. The most egregious example of this is the storyline that focused on The Man in Black (Ed Harris), a mysterious (obviously) costumer who goes around killing hosts willy nilly and whose only explanation for his actions so far is that “there is a deeper level to this game”. Not only do we not know what the deeper level is, but we don’t even know what he means by that. And the same goes for absolutely every other plot thread. I can tell you what every character is doing at any given moment, but you’d need an incredibly obsessive mind to remember what everyone is up to once the episode is over, and an even harder time puzzling out how all of those pieces fit together.

It doesn’t help that the show is overstuffed with characters -there are at least ten plot-lines going on right now, and it’s only been three episodes-, and it certainly doesn’t help that most of the characters are simply not very interesting. The clear exception to this rule is Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the Host who is slowly discovering her own sentience, and the closest thing the show has to a protagonist. Part of the appeal of the character has to do with the quality of Wood’s performance, and with the fact that her storyline is closest one to the “robots as slaves” metaphor, thus more familiar, and easier to follow. The rest of the characters -even the humans- have very little personality and spend most of their time speaking in ominous and oblique terms suggesting a bigger thematic picture for the show, but never committing to what that picture is.

That’s one of the problems with Westworld. You can’t invest in the plot because it’s so hard to follow and you can’t invest in the characters because they are so dull. You want to invest in the themes, because the show so clearly wants to be a show about ideas, only it is unwilling -at least at this early stage- to tell us what those ideas are. But perhaps the biggest problem with the show is that it’s so fucking boring. Everything moves slowly and in a somber, ominous tone. There are hardly any jokes in the thing, and the action sequences are hard to invest in because most of them take place within the virtual reality of the theme park. The show is clearly moving forward, but at such a slow and dire pace that watching is more of a chore than a pleasure.

The slow and boring build-up has become a problem not only in Westworld, but in most serialized dramas on the air right now, (like the Marvel shows on Netflix, all of which I’ve tried to watch and quit after a few episodes out of boredom) and that makes me think the so-called “Golden Age” of hour-long dramas is officially over (and taken over by a “Golden Age” for half-hour shows, but that’s a topic for another time). Take, for instance, a show like Lost, without the success of which Westworld wouldn’t be on the air. A lot of people complain about the lack of resolution to Lost‘s many mysteries, but they fail to remember that watching the show was an absolute blast. And the main reason why it was so rewarding wasn’t the plot and ideas, but its deep bench of fully realized characters. Think back to the best moments in Lost, and almost all of them are character-based. Like the cast aways sailing on the raft at the end of the first season, or Charlie putting his hand against the glass, or Penny answering Desmond’s call in “The Constant”, which has gone on to be regarded as the show’s greatest episode.

For now, I’ll keep watching Westworld. But if things don’t pick up and become clearer, I will stop very soon.

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