Taking a look at the successor to Game of Thrones…
HBO seems to be on a winning streak with it’s shows. It seems like every few years they release the next big influential tv drama. From Boardwalk Empire to The Sopranos, they have a high bar to set. With incredible shows like The Wire to their name and with no other big breakout drama, many were worried that HBO were going to face problems finding another success once Game of Thrones finished. Then along came Westworld. While some label this show as a copy of Thrones set in the wild west, a closer look at the show reveals not only some astonishingly clever writing, but a consistent and carefully planned narrative.
Summing up, Westworld is a resort set in the distant future in which robotics have advanced to point where the machines can now pass the Turing test and are incredibly life-like. The Park is a place in which the guests can interact with these Host robots in a wild west setting, engaging in layered stories, or just killing and shagging the hosts as they please. We follow a variety of characters, some hosts, some human players and the staff of the Delos corporation who create and control the hosts throughout the season. As the story unfolds we learn more about the origins of the Park as well as the possibility that the hosts are becoming sentient. This show is every bit as entertaining as Game of Thrones, and possibly just a bit cleverer. Be warned, potential spoilers from this point onwards.
The first thing to mention about the show is the incredible cinematography. Huge sprawling landscapes and beautiful scenery are shot with aplomb and the wide shots of the land contrast well with the foreboding sense of entrapment, as the hosts are forced to repeat dialogue and actions without once realising it. The transitions between different characters point of view, and as we find out later, different time periods are perfectly chosen and create amazing foreshadowing. For instance, William, a newcomer to the Park nearly always is cut to after or before a scene with the ominous Man in black, who is revealed later to be an older version of William. The shots are well executed and the costume and set design are on point. Every character exudes personality just from their outfit, from rich tourist guests wearing the most gaudy, silly cowboy outfits, to Robert Ford, the Parks creator, wearing western getup almost all season, subtly showing his sympathies lie with the hosts more than with humans. My personal favourite is the Man in black, whose costume is a superb example of style. It toes the line between affectation and intimidation, with a dark hat, leather gloves and boots, and a cravat. And yet it is a simple outfit, almost utilitarian. Apart from the characterisation, the outfit is a nice call-back to the original gunslinger from the 1973 film.
Apart from the visuals, the story is phenomenal. Whilst it is easy early in the season to find yourself confused, with quite a few characters and unexplained backstories, it doesn’t take long to pick up on things without the characters throwing a bunch of exposition around. I won’t go into too much detail here, or this post would be the size of a small novel, but the way in which Jonathon Nolan and Lisa Joy weave so many plot threads into a compelling and tightly focused narrative is frankly astounding. It would be so easy to lose track of one or two story elements and make a complete mess, but no part of these episodes feels wasted, every single scene feels in some way important, impactful. This makes for a very engaging viewing experience. Nolan of course has helped write almost every film made by Christopher Nolan, and it is easy to see why. But as ambitious as the narrative is, the fact that the characters and setting serve as a metaphor for fiction writing as well is very impressive. For instance, take a look at this scene with Ford, as he talks about why people come back to the Park. What he says can be applied word for word to any story creator.
Finally, we come to characters. There is not a single actor who does a bad job on this show, and far too many to cover here, so I will focus on the ones which stood out most to me. Ed Harris plays the Man in black, and from the number of stunts and fighting gives an impressive physical performance on its own. However, he captures the mindset and feelings of a gamer who has played so long that not much surprises him anymore. He is simultaneously jaded and cynical and yet oddly hopeful that his pursuit of a deeper meaning within the Park will satisfy him. Ed Harris was born to play characters like this. Another stand out to me was Jimmi Simpson as William, who I only knew through a handful of comedies, playing mostly weaselly cowards and rather nasty individuals. Seeing him play a traditional heroic type, albeit a thoughtful and nervous one was quite unusual. However, he pulls it off so well, and in fact is much more engaging than other, better looking actors could probably have been. That said, these two are not my favourite character. That prize goes to Dr Robert Ford played by Anthony Hopkins. This may be the best performance from Hopkins I have seen since Silence of the Lambs, and certainly a much subtler one. Hopkins is such a natural actor that I am convinced there is no line of dialogue he can’t make sound convincing. In Ford he weaves an incredible tapestry of different small facial cues and slight expressions, never once going too far and yet creating such a wealth of feeling and character that I swear Ford must be a real person. Honestly, in the wrong hands this role could have seemed so cliché, but with Hopkins playing him, he is the most interesting and complicated character within the whole of the first season.
So, to finish, this show is a brilliantly written, fantastically shot, perfectly acted masterpiece of Science fiction. I would recommend this to everyone, and I am eagerly awaiting season 2 in April. Until then, you’ll have to excuse me, I’m off to watch the trailer for season 2 again and again.