With six of Game of Thrones’ eight seasons now behind us, the question of the influence it is had on television is becoming more and more ripe for the asking. In many ways, Westworld – the new HBO show filling GoT’s timeslot until season seven begins – is the simultaneously enthralling and frustrating answer to that question. Game of Thrones and Westworld share a lot in common, including their composer and the way they tell their stories. That is both a good thing and a bad thing.
Westworld centers around a near-future Wild West-themed amusement park populated by nearly-human robots called hosts. Think the Frontierland section of Disneyworld, except that instead of Mickey Mouse greeting you at the gates, it is an attractive young man named Teddy who will help you find nearby bandits for a good bounty hunt. Once in the park, guests can pretty much do whatever they want with only minimal consequences: guests can be hurt but not killed by hosts, freeing them up to do essentially anything they desire.
Without saying too much about the plot (this is the kind of show where you really should not do that), Westworld follows several park administrators, maintenance workers, hosts and guests as the park’s creator, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), plans an update to the narratives and host behaviors in the park. Long story short, things get strange when some hosts in the park, including a simulation of a young woman named Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), begin behaving strangely, exhibiting signs of cognition outside the parameters set by their creator. At its core, the question Westworld asks is an ontological one: what does it mean to be conscious or sentient?
Considering the age we live in, this question is crucial. We interact more and more with artificial intelligence in our daily lives, and Westworld wonders at the point of delineation at which those intelligences cease to be artificial. This thought, of humanity having created something it can no longer control, is enough to keep me interested in Westworld, just as it was for films like Ex Machina or Her. But that does not mean Westworld is without its problems.
If your main gripe with Game of Thrones is the flurry of storylines unfurling in a number of separate locations, then you should know that Westworld is little different. Between park workers, hosts and guests, there are lots of perspectives from which to tell this story. As a result, Westworld jumps around a lot, which can get a little annoying when some scenes or stories are clearly written with significantly less care than others. At times, the show’s dialogue is quite strong; any conversation between Dolores and Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard (a human in charge of overseeing host behavior) is sure to be as interesting as it is chilling. At others, the dialogue is almost unbearably cringe-worthy; I had to take a five minute break while watching last week’s episode when one character said the line “you are a butcher and that is all you’ll ever be.”
Another issue I have with Westworld is that, halfway through the show’s first season, it has asked a lot more questions than it has been willing to answer. Five episodes in, we have a sense that something is going on, but that something never seems to get much closer. For instance, viewers have known about “The Maze” from the first week, but we are still waiting for characters to find the entrance. We have the sense that Ford is up to something, but we are no closer to figuring out what that is than we were five weeks ago. Westworld is setting up all these big finishes without giving us the information we need to remain invested in how the characters get there.
And yet, these problems have not yet stopped Westworld from being a great show worthy of your time. The show has the next few weeks to sort these problems out, and I am hopeful that that will happen, if only because the notion of this show going one full season without providing any payoff from any of its “something-strange-is-afoot” narratives would constitute a true waste of my time. Besides, there is still a lot to like about this show: the soundtrack is engaging, the themes are well worth pondering, the acting is good when the script isn’t holding the actors back and Westworld is as well-shot as any television show I have seen. Whether it can overcome its inconsistent writing remains to be seen, but until then, I would say Westworld is more than worth a look.