Westworld, HBO, premiered October 2016
HBO’s latest foray into big budget, “prestige” TV drama comes in the form of Westworld, based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. Created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show revolves around a futuristic theme park inspired by the American frontier. The park’s full-time inhabitants are lifelike robots, dubbed “hosts.”
These hosts exist for the pleasure of the park’s guests (i.e., humans) and are regularly raped, beaten and murdered by them (along with a few slightly less evil things). Park technicians swiftly repair any “slain” robots and mosey them back out for another round—mercifully not before wiping their memories. But after park creator Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and lead technician Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) update the software, some of the robots begin remembering past injustices inflicted on them by guests.
Chief among the hosts are Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton). The robots are programmed to follow strict narrative loops, playing roles often plucked from the Western genre’s vast stock character library—the rueful Civil War veteran, the roving bounty hunter, the whimsical bartender, etc. But Dolores, an irreproachable farm girl, and Maeve, a cynical brothel owner, break out of their respective narrative loops as they grow increasingly self-aware.
Westworld is very much a show about how video games operate. Conceptually, the park takes the form of an open-world, sandbox-style game in which various NPCs (hosts) offer you, the player (guest), missions and story lines to undertake. The farther you venture from the park entrance, the harder “the levels” get, and, as in a video game, you can choose to be as virtuous or immoral as you like in Westworld without real world repercussions.
The audience is often left without basic narrative information, such as whether a character is a human or robot. But the show boasts a clear vision and superb acting and will have a season two.