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The brilliance of Westworld Season 1

The brilliance of Westworld Season 1

“Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin never died. They simply became their music”. 

Coming into Westworld’s feature-length season finale, ‘The Bicameral Mind’, I had a number of doubts. Every episode so far had been, to my mind, worthy of a hypothetical 5-stars, each one a tour-de-force of philosophy, psychology and politics. Oh, and of visual storytelling, acting, music. Yet I was worried that the overall narrative was too much like a falling sequence of dominos – discern one theory of the show, and the rest fall into place before they’re revealed. I was worried that there were too many characters that were too conflicted for one or two characters not to get burnt. I was certainly worried that there isn’t quite enough in the show to sustain the same quality and level of intrigue over the eventual second season, let alone the mooted five or six that James Marsden noted in an interview around the time of the season premiere.

Well, the latter worry still abounds, even if it has been slightly dissipated (more on that at the end), but the other concerns were firmly put to rest. Which leaves more time to talk about the things that worked across the ten episodes, though we will perhaps touch on the things that came close to failing to provide a touch of balance.

First and foremost, what worked was the nature of the adaptation itself. I’m loathed to make Game of Thrones comparisons given that, ultimately, one is a show about dragons (and much more…), and one is a show about artificial intelligence (and much more…), but this is the one area it’s appropriate. Where Game of Thrones had A Song of Ice and Fire, a cornerstone of Biblical proportions, to weave its way from, Westworld has… well Westworld. Yes, sure, there’s Futureworld and the first TV adaptation, Beyond Westworld too, but really?

If Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy had decided to base their show off of the one from 1980 that was cancelled after 3 episodes, the 3rd of which was about an android hiding in a rock band, I’d have been worried. Really, all there was to go off was the 88 minutes of Michael Crichton’s brilliant, brilliant original film. Which is, as I just said, brilliant, but required a lot more work than A Song of Ice and Fire to bring to television, especially television of the style and quality associated with HBO. Thus, speaking as someone who has seen or read all associated properties – source material or adaptation – I’ll just say this: for me, A Song of Ice and Fire is the better source, but Westworld is (first season versus first season) the better show.It’s a bold statement to make, given I spend each season of Thrones waxing lyrical about how great that is on this very website. But Westworld’s trump card isn’t just in the questions it asks its audience, but in both the way it answers these questions, and the way, at times, that it can’t. The notion of what it means to be human is nothing new to television, or film (and certainly not to literature), but Westworld excelled throughout its first season as a sort of pop-psychology/ philosophy and sustained character drama – by no means unintelligent, but making sure to ground it in ways that were applicable to television. There were references to Baudrillard, with the notion of the ‘simulacrum’, and myriad other namedrops throughout (mostly by Dr. Ford), but the core basis of the theory of the ‘Bicameral Mind’ was one that is contested enough to give the show room to breathe.

As much as the quality of allegory was high, the acting perhaps went one step higher. As Evan Rachel Wood explained during an interview early on in the season, those playing hosts had to jump through hoops to make everything credible. In that amazing scene with Louis Herthum as (the first on-screen) Peter Abernathy, as he talks about ‘meeting my maker’, he is simultaneously a distressed father, a malfunctioning robot, a mortal meeting his gods, a thespian ‘Professor’ and overall, no more than a child psychologically speaking. You can see all of these elements at work, but he still pulls it off. And for Herthum, it was just a few scenes.

Imagine the job Wood had to do herself as Dolores – every episode, flitting between so many different modes and styles (and time periods), but still managing to craft a character for the audience to identify with. Sure, this is also due to superb writing, but in something like this, it takes special work to bring it to life and not make it look ridiculously overacted. The same goes for Thandie Newton’s Maeve – for whom a more simplified journey only meant more hurdles to overcome – as well as many others. The prestige cast of Jeffrey Wright et al. wasn’t just an added bonus of the show: it was necessary.And of course, there was Anthony Hopkins. Little needs to be said about how he was good throughout the season, because we all saw it. The Lecter-like mannerisms, the terrifying casual delivery, everything. The question now of course, is whether he’ll be back? Disregarding tinfoil hat territory of ‘is he dead or not’ for a second (because a Ford definitely died; we just don’t know if it was the Ford), it’s not really just a question restricted to Westworld. Could it be that it wasn’t just Ford signing off with the magnificent ending to the season, but Hopkins too? He’s not the sort one can see filling every last second of life with a role to avoid boredom, especially when you account for his love of painting. Going out on a high would be fitting for such a career, and is there really any better way for him to bow out and ‘become his music’?

The music itself was an integral part of the show, featuring a barrage of covers throughout. It wasn’t so much tongue-in-cheek as deliberately and blatantly meta: I mean, we had ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ as the exit music for Ford (before Debussy that is) in a feature length episode. Dolores was the fake plastic girl of ‘Fake Plastic Trees’. Maeve was going ‘Back to Black’. Others weren’t quite so obviously metaphorical, but everywhere you looked (or even listened), there were familiar sounds. There were more than a few articles criticising this as repetitive and lazy, recycling the emotional impact of existing material. But that was the point.

It might be, to borrow from the show, ‘bootstrapping’ our emotional reflex, but by doing so, it drew attention to the artifice of our world, and our consciousness. The hosts are given specific prompts for emotion, and so are we. What’s the difference? Sure, the hosts are stuck in overt, undeniable loops, but to some extent, we all are. Our loops might differ greatly from person to person, but so do the hosts’. And after all, from a nihilistic perspective, we are bound by the ultimate loop: life and death. All the hosts have done it a million times. And they’re fucking great at it.The question now, is what happens next? I don’t mean that in a narrative sense per se, because you can make a pretty good guess. With Dolores’ taking control of her mind, or at least starting to, her violent delights will indeed have violent ends. In the words of Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, it’s going to be chaos.

But beyond that, is it going to be the same show in 2018? The central mysteries are all gone, and the overarching mythology only stretches 30 years back, unless there’s significance in how Ford and Arnold came to make a breakthrough in AI. Still in terms of season one plot, a lot has already happened. Either Ford is dead, or the show’s ruined one of the first seasons best moments by devaluing his ‘death’. If he is dead, that’s a massive hole to fill; if he isn’t, things are going to get awfully like Battlestar Galactica, and we don’t want too many ‘they’re a Host’ reveals.

With Arnold revealed to be definitively dead, and definitively Jeffrey Wright, there’s no longer the option to cast some other prestige actor to replace or balance Hopkins’ Ford; and, it means that for the sake of his arc, Bernard is Bernard going forward. If he starts to lapse into actually thinking he’s Arnold or something, rather than recognising his origin, then it just won’t work. The MIB is now William, and William’s (and Logan’s) past arc is more or less complete (maybe there’ll be a few Jimmi Simpson cameos but I wouldn’t expect anything major). Every single one of these reveals and plot points was handled brilliantly, but that doesn’t change the fact that they have been handled.Crucially, the two central characters – Dolores and Maeve – are both in strong narrative positions right now, and there is more to explore beyond that, including the newly revealed Samurai World (or Shogun World?), and the many other characters around Westworld itself. But it’ll be interesting to see how the show adjusts to be less smoke and mirrors.

Westworld, then, was everything I’d hoped it was going to be. It’s rare that a film-to-TV adaptation actually works, and ever rarer that it’s of this quality (only Fargo & Hannibal come to mind in this category). The only downside is that we’ll be waiting till 2018 for season 2.


Westworld is available now to download, discover and watch on iTunes

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