Trying to conjure an overview of a show with no spoilers at all is difficult – but here goes…!
Below: Anthony Hopkins as ‘Dr. Robert Ford’ in the 2016 version of Westworld.
If you’re talking about ‘recycled culture’ (and we were in my last blog post on Blade Runner 2049) then standing out among the Ghostbusters, Star Treks and plethora of superhero narratives this year was undoubtedly HBO’s Westworld, a ten-part series broadcast from 2nd October. Overseen by executive producers and chief creatives, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, the show used a 1973 movie written and directed by Michael Crichton as a jumping off point. This was a well-regarded film which detailed the collapse of a group of adult theme parks (‘Romanworld’, ‘Medievalworld’ and the eponymous, ‘Westworld’), which are populated by life-like automatons, all built to serve wealthy tourists and who are manipulated by a mysterious, faceless, exploitative corporation called ‘Delos’. A high-concept leisure park, corrupted by greed and twisted into a lethal experience that, through its disintegration, revealed man’s true nature was certainly also a potent enough template for Crichton himself to return to, with his 1990 novel, Jurassic Park. His casting of an all-powerful network of capitalistic interests, more than willing to twist science and sacrifice humanity in the service of profit, today seems less like a prediction and more an increasingly accurate picture of contemporary globalisation.
A remake of Westworld has been floated on various film pre-production slates since the 1980s as it drifted from creator to creator, studio to studio and even once mooted as a star vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, suggesting that these versions would focus more on action/adventure elements than political and philosophical commentary. It even surfaced a pretty poor very short-lived USTV series using the 1976 sequel’s title, Futureworld.
Today Crichton’s original film still provides good (albeit very dated) value. It was one of a number of dystopic future visions that dominated science-fiction cinema of the mid 1970s as films such as Soylent Green (1973), Rollerball (1975), The Stepford Wives (1975) and Demon Seed (1977) all dealt with bleak, predictive scenarios where the infiltration of the self is shaped by expedient, unforgiving corporate forces. In Westworld, a cunning postmodern fusion of science fiction and western genres, Crichton inadvertently manifested a prediction of what was to come in the 1980s as a blend of action adventure and high-concept speculative fiction that operated on two levels. Firstly, as a straightforward thriller and then secondly as an intellectual statement. As the decade arrived the former soon overtook the latter. It is readily apparent that the murderous, robot gunslinger (iconically rendered by an intentionally blank, Yul Brynner), who runs amok across all three of the theme parks in the film hunting down corporate adventurer/holidaymaker, ‘Peter Martin’ (Richard Benjamin), very plainly informed James Cameron’s equally relentless ‘Terminator’ figure, in the film of the same name in 1984.
Below: Yul Brynner as ‘The Gunslinger’ in the 1973 MGM version of Westworld.
Wisely, Nolan and Joy took that 1973 story and rather than merely replicate, call-back and invert it for a new audience with more CGI and action, they followed a much more rewarding path in extending from Crichton’s fable and investigating the sort of consequences and implications that have remained unexplored within the range of ‘AI-gone-wrong narratives’ from Blade Runner (1982) up to high profile efforts such as the more recent (and equally intriguing) Ex-Machina (2015) and the less-challenging AMC/Channel Four series, Humans (2015-2016), (an adaptation of the Swedish 2012, Äkta människor).
Westworld has been an example of exemplary writing, filming and direction throughout, one that ably demonstrates that a lengthy pre-production, conception and re-shoot schedule can pay off to great effect. Compared to the more prosaic, Humans, this show felt more like a grand novel than a kind of skim through the concepts, as this show floated more philosophical concepts in each episode than the entire two series of the C4/AMC product. One might argue that shows and films which subvert ‘reality’ and play guessing games about ‘who or what is real’ in the cast and setting, all the while claiming to discuss the nature of humanity itself have been somewhat played out. Thus in recent years, so familiar have these concepts become that audiences have taken refuge in, seeing them more as recurrent tropes rather than excuses to really challenge or delve deeper into in philosophical terms. What made Westworld stand out was that it took on inter-relating ideas such as ‘objectification’, ‘empathy’, ‘social interaction’, ‘psychopathy’, ‘sociopathy’ and ‘disconnection’ and ensured that their exploration entirely benefitted from the showrunner’s pivotal trick of casting the series from the ‘hosts’ or robots’ perspectives.
Ideas that were supplied, but not fully expanded upon by Crichton, gained significant traction here. Especially as we charted the brothel-owner, Maeve’s (Thandie Newton), journey from consciousness to realisation to independence. That process was revealed by offering clues, hints and insights that other similar texts have often either alluded to or simply glossed over. Recycled culture does exhibit a tendency to retrofit and expand upon ideas raised in previous texts. An example of this is that today we now get Disney’s Rogue One (2016) cast as one of our primary cultural texts, a film that is basically expanded from a single line in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and which continues the trend of mining the cracks of popular culture for fiscal reward. At the same time this facilitates fans being able to wallow in a contained, familiar universe that can be visited and re-visited, with the experience deepened.
Below: Felicity Jones in Disney’s Rogue One (2016).
However, this series offers a different experience. It is satisfying in that Westworld explicitly acknowledges the original film through numerous postmodern referents, i.e. the slick, clean, pre-Ridley Scott 1970s view of shiny corporate future world, the self-conscious visual parallels between Brynner and Ed Harris’ mysterious, black-clad gunslinger and, in one telling sequence, when chief programmer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) goes to the basement of his facility to retrieve archived information in the November episode, ‘The Adversary’. Here the connections are made more clear. In that seemingly throwaway sequence we not only hear a reprise of the mechanistic sound loop on the soundtrack, (which was played under each appearance by the 1973 gunslinger), as a strangely disconnected and incongruous echo but we also see that character himself de-activated, inert and posed, slightly out-of-focus in the background. A call-back to fans of the original but also a deliberately ambiguous nod which suggests that Crichton’s film (set in the early 1980s remember!) is part of the same continuity. Or maybe it isn’t. It is that kind of show after all.
Below: ‘Bernard Lowe’ goes to the basement and passes by a familiar figure in the 6-11-16 episode of Westworld: ‘The Adversary’.
Westworld scores most heavily in its dealing with issues of ‘memory’. Though using Phillip K. Dick’s ideas as a springboard, this is what the show does so very effectively in fleshing out the subtext from Crichton’s foundation and, again, examining the consequences of these ideas. To go into detail here would give away the show to those of you haven’t yet seen it. But this exploration of ‘recollection’ sits central here and is managed in ways that are unexpected as well as substantial. From this theme the show unravels an incredibly dense, multi-layered scheme of histories, presents, futures, misremembrances and misconceptions that doesn’t suffer too much from post-show analysis and actually raises all sorts of interesting side questions too. Surely the purpose of good speculative fiction?
Nolan and Joy are possessed of an evident skill in supplying retrospectively-obvious, yet entirely organic clues to the show’s denouement from the very beginning (yet at no point do they tip their hand too early or present a climax which reeks of writers having painted themselves into a creative corner). Indeed the Nolans seem to excel at misdirection and here that writerly sleight of hand has allowed them to present philosophical musings on the nature of sentience, whilst providing enough material for those hoping to simply solve the narrative puzzle that has been posited by the show. For unlike other ‘conundrum’ TV series that appear to be more fascinated with their own infuriating mysteries rather than having any coherent plan to resolve them, such as Lost (ABC 2003-2010), (well one that the internet community hadn’t guessed years in advance anyway), Westworld’s finale not only makes sense in terms of its own structure but it leaves enough hanging to suggest that a second series might not be an entirely unwelcome proposition. Especially if the writers are maybe keen to take on the same creative approach to continuity and linearity as shows like, Fargo (AMC 2014-2017) have demonstrated, for example.
Below: ‘Maeve Millay’ (Thandie Newton) and ‘Felix Lutz’ (Leonardo Nam) in Westworld.
This show also marks the continuation of something very welcome in televisual circles and which intersects with a larger, more recent phenomenon in television. For it is encouraging to see a mainstream show not aim merely towards the safety of the middle ground but to edge higher in intellectual ambition and to really use the opportunities that the long-form series really offers in terms of narrative complexity. Westworld felt like the reestablishment of a continuity in fact started by HBO back in the 1990s. As unlike many of the recently lauded Netflix prestige shows, (i.e. Daredevil, House of Cards, Luke Cage etc.) Westworld felt like it belonged more in the tradition of a grander ‘quality television’ boom. This is seen by many as exemplified by the arrival of The Sopranos (HBO 1999-2007) which in effect refashioned the televisual form, as mainstream cinema, in an analogous gesture, increasingly began to embrace ‘spectacle’ over ‘complexity’. The tipping point arguably came with the show, Breaking Bad (AMC 2008-2013). Which was a show that detailed a contemporary popular fascination with issues of morality, that the superhero genre seems to be also addressing in confusing postmodern times. In truth, as entertaining as that show undoubtedly was Breaking Bad in fact represented an end to that cycle of ‘quality TV’. As various television providers have since understood what ‘quality television’ is supposed to look and feel like and this, along with the profound shift in viewing habits that on-line television supplies, has meant that the marketplace has since become awash with formally stylish shows that extend narrative arcs across numerous series and that feature at their centre, often morally ambiguous leads (have a look at Brett Martin’s very good book, Difficult Men for further examples of this).
Below: The Sopranos (HBO).
Westworld seems more like a stone cast in the lofty direction of Boardwalk Empire (HBO 2010-2014), Deadwood (HBO 2004-2006), Mad Men (HBO 2007-2015) and other such dramatic high water marks. Wisely following those shows not in terms of genre but certainly in storytelling ambition. For Westworld never felt like it was trying to pack out its (pre-ordered) run with meandering storylines and diversions that added very little to the main arc. It told its story very well, consistently and intelligently and never spoke down to its audience. There are undoubtedly minor slips here and there; as Sidse Babette Knudsen has proved in the DR1 hit show, Borgen just how effective she can be, but yet curiously seemed a little ‘at sea’ in the first few episodes and Simon Quarterman’s ‘Lee Sizemore’ character seemed to be ferried in from a CW show. But these minor quibbles certainly don’t impact on Westworld’s abiding legacy.
For me, when a show is celebrated with numerous on-line articles suddenly springing up professing to ‘explain’ its ending to seemingly confused viewers, (clickbait demands aside), this phenomenon alone tells me that its doing something right. Its success this year has been an encouraging sign that people still want something approaching quality television, rather than a bowlderized ‘version’ of that idea.
Dr. Van Norris is a Senior Lecturer in Film, Television and Animation Studies in the School of Media and Performing Arts at the University of Portsmouth.