When Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld in 1973, he could have never known how reality TV would change the way that entertainment and real life have blended together, even twisting them. But in the collaboration of Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest, The Prestige, Interstellar) and Lisa Joy (Burn Notice, Pushing Daisies), life, fiction, memory, and humanity are all poured through the fiery collander that is Westworld. The end result is one of the finest first seasons of television in history.
In Westworld, clients, or guests, can sign up to explore a scripted world with echoes of the American West, populated by ‘hosts,’ who are actually robots fully formed and programmed to act like humans. Clients who want to explore a world where they can sleep with a beautiful person, kill an enemy, or role play an experience from a time long forgotten are able to participate without consequence in stories that blend a John Wayne/Clint Eastwood mentality to their pleasure.
There are docile, kind Little House on the Prairie-like women like Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), and tough madams like Maeve (Thandie Newton); there are villains like gang leader Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and heroes like Teddy (James Marsden). All of them have roles to play in pleasing the wealthy visitors who descend from their real lives to play in this creative, interactive playground.
From the audience’s vantage point, the guests we follow around the world are Billy (Jimmi Simpson), a weak-willed man dragged to the playground by his more aggressive, soon-to-be brother-in-law Logan (Ben Barnes). Through these two we see one of the great dynamics of the show: is it wrong to sleep around, steal, kill, and abuse the hosts/robots because they are designed for the pleasure of the guests? Or is it more of an indication about the guests themselves that they want to do those things in a vacuum with no repercussions?
Every show needs a villain and Westworld’s script allows us to see a fluidity of evil and violence, regularly in the persons of the world’s designer, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and a visitor to the world, the Man in Black (Ed Harris). Both of these men are multi-faceted in their violence and decision-making; in fact, not all viewers will agree with my assessment that they’re the villains!
Several things become apparent, that stir the pot and make the plot go. First, the Man in Black is seeking out “the center of the maze,” a wormhole in the system of Westworld that he believes will bring him what he is looking for. Second, there’s some dissension among the ranks of Ford’s crew, as operations director Teresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), head of programming Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), head of security Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth), and programming ace Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) are exploring the possibility that someone is smuggling out information to the world at large. Third, some of the hosts seem to be experiencing glitches where they remember previous existences (or storylines) that pre-date the last time they were programmed.
With the recognition of ‘sentience’ in some of the hosts, each individual personality – host, guest, or Westworld staffer – is faced with decisions about what their moral obligation is. Do they proceed with business as usual? Does their perspective of what is ‘alive’ change? For each of them, understanding how to proceed says quite a bit about their willingness to explore their own humanity, their own culpability, in regards to a world where pain is real and decisions have consequences.
Without going into much more detail – because what would be the fun in that – the show begins to ask if there aren’t consequences for our actions, even when we think they’re done in a vacuum. [The maxim that there are no victimless crimes comes to mind.] But there’s a deeper question here, too: what does it mean to create life and what responsibility/authority does the creator have in the lives of the created?
Ultimately, we see a clash of philosophies that borders on religious. What one sees in the narrative of Westworld will probably be most impacted by what you think of your own creation. Are you an accident or chance? Are you created out of love and power? Are you destined for something greater? Are you the imago dei? What you think of your own life will impact how you see the narrative of this morally-soaked parable about the human experience. Yes, it’s laced with nudity, violence, and language, but at it’s core, it’s the beautiful ethical exploration that Game of Thrones was in its early seasons.
Special features on the Westworld Blu-ray include behind-the-scenes looks”Realizing the Dream: First Week on the Set of Westworld,” “Crafting the Narrative,” and “An Invitation to the Set.” There’s also a Gag Reel and the musical creation of the title sequence, with more important takes on the artificial intelligence of the series in “Reality of A.I.: Westworld.”