Half a season is not often enough to determine whether a heavily-serialized show is worthwhile or not, but in the case of Westworld, it’s even less telling. At the very least, HBO’s latest foray into “genre” television is intriguing, placing its moral quandaries front and center and trusting audiences to put its narrative pieces together. There are loads of elements to break down and discuss, and the myriad of puzzles and mysterious references should be enough to make the show a watercooler favorite for the remainder of the season. What is a little less clear is how emotionally engaging the series can be, an important factor in the success of mega-hit Game of Thrones.
First things first: Westworld deftly presents its themes by placing them in recognizable contexts. Westworld itself is a Western-themed amusement park for the extremely wealthy, with a cast of highly-realistic robots, or “hosts” who act out storylines and engage with the guests, or “newcomers.” While nothing like this exists in the real world, the general make-up of the park is very similar to that of an open-world video game. “Hosts” are what are known in the gaming industry as “NPCs” (or Non-Player Characters), and “newcomers” are the players themselves.
Even the terminology thrown around by the staff and clientele sound familiar to anybody who plays video games. In the first episode, a newcomer on the train tells his friend about how he went “straight evil” on his last visit like a gamer describing his most recent playthrough of KOTOR. In the second episode, one of the park’s writers creates a new storyline for players to engage with, but park creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) shoots it down, suggesting that such tightly scripted narratives prevent users from experiencing their own, unique stories within the world. The scene should be quite familiar to gamers familiar with “emergent gameplay,” or Warren Specter’s feelings about “high expression” games.
But where Westworld differs from your standard open-world video game is in how its hosts, or NPCs, are portrayed. It’s easy for people to distance themselves from their actions in a video game because the people affected aren’t real. They’re bits of programming meant to appear, at a glance, like real people, but the facade is quite clear. In a game like Grand Theft Auto, pedestrians simply walk around with no real goals, repeating lines of dialogue that the player is likely to hear again and again. They don’t have families, or careers, or thoughts, or anybody who depends on them. When players run over them with cars, or shoot them, or blow them up with rockets, it’s amusing because of the sheer anarchy of the situation. It’s ridiculous, and it usually ends in (virtual) death, but it’s harmless.
Westworld, however, explores the morality of such inclinations by muddying the waters via the hosts’ self-consciousness. They’re still not “real,” necessarily; their consciousnesses are the result of layers of coding, they reset each day, and as the show’s mysterious “Man In Black” says, you can begin to “see through the cracks” of their reality after a while. But Westworld makes the hosts far more real than not, prompting some uncomfortable questions in the minds of viewers. What if the hosts, or NPCs, could recall the past horrors that they have been through? What if they began to think for themselves, to chase their dreams (dreams programmed into them, but dreams nonetheless), even if it meant the destruction of their status quo? If these beings are capable of real thought and emotion, and they are burdened by the tragedies in their past, then that significantly changes the morality of the newcomers’ actions.
Or does it? Given that the Westworld park aims to create a completely realistic world for visitors to lose themselves in, are the joys that they derive from it any less morally damning? Does it really matter if the victim in a crime isn’t real if the perpetrator is doing it for the pure pleasure of inflicting pain? And is the amusement that we get from the chaos of a game like Grand Theft Auto that far removed from that of a real killer? Westworld doesn’t preach one way or another, but by imbuing the hosts with real emotion and spending so much screentime with them, it certainly intends to make viewers consider these moralities.
The moral ambiguity and the mystery of the parks’ inner workings is the biggest reason to watch Westworld for the time being. The biggest reason to be concerned, though, lies with its lack of character growth, at least so far. While it’s exciting to see the robots become self-aware, and we can see the sparks of a revolution forming, it’s simply hard to be emotionally invested in beings who have no real continuity of thought or emotion, and whose deaths and revelations will inevitably be erased the next day. Fortunately, as the season has progressed, there has been less emphasis on the park “resetting,” and major plotlines (such as Dolores’s time with sensitive newcomer William) have covered multiple episodes of story while still existing within one “cycle” of the park.
However, even if the show’s resets become infrequent or irrelevant, the audience is still kept at arms length because of how much the writers are hiding. Many details, including character names (or, in the case of park co-founder Arnold, faces) are intentionally being withheld, character motivations are fuzzy at best, and I don’t believe that there is a single plotline in which the show is being completely open with the viewer. Hopefully by the end of season 1 we’ll have a clear picture of what’s happening, but hanging so much weight on the mystery of the show could lead to a narrative collapse. If the mystery fails to satisfy viewers, or is dragged out for too long, then there will be little for viewers to appreciate in the moment.
For now, though, Westworld is one of the most ambitious shows on television. HBO deserves credit for putting serious resources into such a risky concept. I don’t see Westworld as the next Game of Thrones, but if the writers can pull off the transition from mystery to character-driven drama, it can be a huge success on its own merits.