10 Episodes, 60 minutes
Created by Jonathan Nolan and Emma Greenberg
I’m a big proponent of nudity equality on television. HBO prestige dramas have long been the classiest way to look at boobs short of going to an art museum, and I have no problem with that – I just think it’s only right that we see an approximately equal ratio of male nudity. It’s fair, and it’s realistic, and it’s the only chance we’ve got to see Justin Theroux’s dick. The first season of Westworld is an encouraging step toward nudity equality: While the majority of the show’s overwhelming amount of nudity is female, Westworld has more full-frontal male nudity than I’ve ever seen on TV before. Westworld is good at both nudity and raising thought-provoking questions about the nature of humanity, and it’s really frustratingly bad at making any of it particularly entertaining.
On Westworld, character development takes a backseat to a story that isn’t very interesting for long periods of time. It’s the very model of a modern major mystery show, full of slow-motion flashbacks and canted angle dream sequences, vague prophecies and reoccurring symbols. Episodes routinely take seemingly pointless detours to stall for time until a major plot twist can come together – the villainous Man In Black torturing yet another host for yet another meaningless clue, or William, Dolores and Logan stealing nitroglycerine in service of a heist plot that stumbles around aimlessly for a few episodes before being forgotten.
Fascinatingly, the more the show told me about its world, the less I understood it. Having watched ten episodes centered around the show's central mystery of The Maze, I still couldn't tell you what The Maze is, much less what (if anything) is at the center of it that everybody is looking for. The fact that information is being transmitted out of the park - presented as an Earth-shattering revelation for the park's management - means nothing to me, because it's never made clear what the information is or what consequence it will have.. I don't know what it is about this high-tech amusement park that so mystifies the shadowy Delos Corporation, and Westworld has no interest in telling me. And because none of the characters are ever in mortal peril – the Guests can’t get hurt and the Hosts are resurrected and repaired daily – I don’t know why I’m expected find any of this exciting. William and Dolores’ skirmishes with evil bandits and savage natives have roughly the same level of urgency as a bunch of kids chasing each other around a cul-de-sac with cap guns and cowboy hats.
It’s really hard to stay interested in a low-stakes story that keeps you in the dark about so much for so long. Better mystery shows, like Twin Peaks, The Leftovers or season one of True Detective, succeed because it's fun to watch colorful, richly-drawn characters who are just as confused as you the viewer. But Westworld has so many characters jockeying for screen time that most of them are reduced to one broad note:
Teddy, The Stoic One
William, The Good One
The Man In Black, The Bad One
Logan, The Mean One
Dolores, The Confused-but-Determined One
Bernard, The Sad One Who is Actually a Robot
Dr. Ford, The One Who Repeatedly Appears Out of Thin Air to Deliver Monologues
By and large the characters feel like cardboard cutouts whose reason for existence is to deliver blandly expository dialog about hazy plot points like the (supposedly) villainous “Wyatt” or “The Maze.” To be fair, some of the characters do develop over the season - but for most of the Hosts this takes the form of staring into space with a pensive expression, intercut with the same slow-motion flashback sequence over and over again, while for the humans it mostly takes the form of tortured curveball plot twists. (“William is The Man in Black in the past! Bernard is a robot, and also he’s Arnold! MINDFREAAAAAAAAAK!”)
The argument I keep hearing in defense of the show, both from friends and TV critics, is, “Yes, the plotting is uneven, the characters are one-dimensional and the dialog is bad, but Westworld raises a lot of thought-provoking philosophical questions.” And with all due respect, fuck that. Television is an entertainment medium, and having a lot of heady things to say is no excuse for not being able to say them in an interesting way.
The Sopranos raises a lot of thought-provoking questions about psychology, morality and death. Game of Thrones raises a lot of thought-provoking questions about structures of power and control. The Americans raises a lot of thought-provoking questions about marriage, relationships and trust. These shows and plenty more are able to tackle heady concepts while still creating compelling and engaging drama on an episode-by-episode basis. I’m not going to grade Westworld on a curve when it fails to do the same in spite of an enormous budget and wall-to-wall buzz.
I really want to like this show – and sometimes, I do. I thought the pilot was a fantastic introduction to the world, even if the next nine episodes couldn’t keep up the same atmosphere of wonder and mystery. The locations are breathtaking and beautifully shot. Thandie Newton is excellent, and her character Maeve is one of the only ones who I actually cared about. Really, everybody turns in a good performance – even the painfully miscast Jimmi Simpson. It’s just a shame they didn’t have better material to work with.
My favorite moment in Westworld came in the final moments of the final episode, when a group of well-heeled investors gather inside the park for a reception hosted by the park's creator, Dr. Ford. In establishing shots for the party, we get glimpses of Hosts we've been following for months performing for curious guests arriving at the party - protagonist Teddy demonstrating his quick draw skills, the psychotic Rebus patiently performing card tricks for a giggling crowd of tuxedo-clad elites. For all my gripes about character development, seeing the heroes and villains I'd come to know over ten hours reduced to the equivalent of Disneyland cast members cavorting for tourists did more to realize the show's central concept than any of the preceding nonsense about mazes and prophecies and the nature of humanity. As I watched this, I caught myself wishing I'd enjoyed the rest of the show more so this moment could mean more to me.
The last five minutes of Westworld are considerably more interesting than the previous nine hours and 55 minutes, and that gives me hope that season two might introduce some real life-or-death stakes. If that's the case, perhaps this unwieldy ensemble cast will get cut down to more manageable size -- one that gives us enough time with each character to figure out who they really are when they're not galloping from one half-baked plot twist to the next.