A line uttered often in WestWorld’s first season is “These violent delights have violent ends,” and boy, does WestWorld seem to be filled with violent delights. The ten-episode run features an array of stabbings, skull bashings, throat slittings and bullet blastings along with some less than standard sex scenes.
Despite all this, it is not a show about carnage and will likely bore those coming along for the visceral stuff. Instead, HBO’s latest blockbuster series focuses on mystery, philosophical questions and characters; the blood involved serving mainly as a visual garnish to an already stunning show.
WestWorld is a show about the titular theme park that takes its wealthy guests back to the Wild West to fuck and/or kill highly advanced robots, named hosts, that are indistinguishable from humans. The show’s plot is concerned with ideas of consciousness and sentience, following several hosts on the cusp of these milestones as well as the guests and WestWorld employees around them.
While the story heavily relies on mystery, it is more like a jigsaw than anything. Viewers are given pieces over time and before you have them all you can more or less speculate on what you are seeing.
This may sound like the show is predictable, but I disagree; I believe in this case it made the show rewarding. WestWorld’s first series entices viewers to theorise about somewhat obvious outcomes, but always offers just plausible enough alternatives so you can never quite be sure until the reveal. I must admit to letting out a few gasps of vindication as reveals were made in some of the show’s tensest moments.
WestWorld makes these logical story choices, with wonderful foreshadowing, to ensure there is never a twist for the sake of a twist. The plot is not without its surprises, murders being the most common. Disappointingly, these appear to be more to do with getting characters out of the way than they do with building up the narrative. Character disappearances are among the show’s few faults, but after a slow opening to the series, they’re much less noticeable in the higher-octane second half.
Another flaw of the show is its heavy-handedness. The dialogue is often overly philosophical and people who want TV characters to talk like real life will certainly be put out upon hearing another classical literature quote. However, the dialogue adequately serves its purpose of bringing the show’s questions to the front; questions of conscience, consciousness and humanity.
These heavy questions and their less than subtle entrances could have brought WestWorld to a screeching halt; not so much taking viewers out of the story as aggressively ejecting them from it like the seat of a James Bond car.
Luckily, the show is held together by a superb cast. Anthony Hopkins plays the morally ambiguous creator of the park Dr Robert Ford and is, as you would expect, fantastic in his delivery of eloquent, if highfalutin, monologues.
The series does not lean heavily on Hopkins for quality acting. however. Ed Harris, James Marsden and Jimi Simpson all make for very believable gunslingers while Ben Barnes, Clifton Collins Jr and Shannon Woodward, among others, add character both in and out of the park. Thandie Newton is enthralling to watch as the robotic mistress of a bordello who is coming to terms with a growing knowledge of her reality and history.
However, it is Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffery Wright, as host Dolores and WestWorld employee Bernard respectively, who deserve most praise. Both actors give performances that are believable and effective on first viewing but with layers of nuance that can only be appreciated on a second viewing of the series. In fact, it is simply impossible to give full credit to many of the actors involved without giving away some of the show’s greatest mysteries.
This is probably WestWorld’s most divisive characteristic. It is a finely crafted ten episodes of television but is at its very best when it’s over, when you know everything. Only with all the pieces of the jigsaw in place could I enjoy and fully understand it to its fullest.
Throughout the series, repetition and iteration are used along with clever – some might say confusing – editing to mislead the viewer. For me, this made the finale all the more satisfying and compounded the notion that re-watching would be essential. Others may simply feel cheated.
Ultimately, WestWorld is unlikely to have the widespread appeal of HBO’s flagship series, Game of Thrones. It asks too many big questions for its audience to mull over with less exposition to answer them. However, if you are interested in questions about humanity, consciousness and even writing and video games, all bound together by top quality acting and an intriguing narrative, WestWorld is something you will watch and watch again.
Also, if you’re like the casting directors of Hollywood and you enjoy seeing James Marsden suffer unjustly as he does in almost all his movie roles, WestWorld has that in spades.
Frank Roddy is a video game designer and writer who didn’t realise he wanted to be a cowboy until he played Red Dead Redemption on his PlayStation 3. His only concern now is if he could pull off the chaps. He’s quicker with his twitter, @SkankRandy, than he is with a six-shooter.