“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
Earlier this summer, at the ATX TV Fest, Tom Fontana and David Simon, creators of Oz and The Wire, respectively, discussed what it was like to produce a series for HBO both before and after The Sopranos became an unparalleled success. On the upside, having a show with that kind of audience subsidized the network’s other shows, and allowed them to continue despite less-than-favorable ratings. On the downside, HBO would be in a perpetual search for its next big thing.
For years, its flagship show has been Game of Thrones, but as the sword-and-sorcery epic has now given a (more or less) definitive end-date, something had to take its place. For a while, it seemed like Vinyl would be the network’s beacon, with a star-studded cast and a production team with an unbelievable pedigree, which was unceremoniously cancelled just weeks after being renewed. HBO needed something, and it needed to be big.
Enter Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the husband-and-wife team at the helm of Westworld, an incredibly ambitious, ornate, and layered Sci-Fi/Western hybrid, building off the world first created by Michael Crichton in 1973. Best known for writing novels like Jurassic Park and Sphere, Westworld was Crichton’s first foray into filmmaking, and became the cornerstone for the ‘theme park goes awry’ trope. Nolan and Joy, who also spoke at the ATX TV Fest at a separate panel, discussed the complexity of their story, as well as how their new approach balances Nolan’s sense of tradition with Joy’s intent to break free of the genre’s conventions.
They also mentioned that HBO was giving them near-unlimited resources, and stalled production on the set earlier this year so they could adjust the storyline, as the network intends for the show to run for five or six seasons, at least.
Which all leads to the big question: is the gamble going to prove worth it? The answer, at least so far, is a yes.
During the last day of Fantastic Fest this year, attendees were treated to an advance screening of the pilot episode, and to say their ambition has paid off might even be considered an understatement. It opens with the voice of Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), who’s being questioned about the nature of her world, and more importantly, how she’s perceiving it. Juxtaposed with shots of her in her seemingly idyllic life on the quaint Western frontier, you start to get a sense of the vast intricacies of the Westworld theme park.
The park’s guests arrive by train, and from the beginning you can hear people discussing the roles they choose to play. “Went straight evil. Best two weeks of my life,” boasts one visitor on a train, our first indication of the kind of moral grey area that a place like this allows people to indulge.
Meanwhile, below ground, we meet those that keep the park moving, including Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), and Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the man behind both the design and the evolution of the park’s robots, referred to as hosts. A recent update, given to roughly 10% of the park’s hosts, allows for what Lowe and Ford call ‘revelries,’ which helps let them pick up on nuances of what it means to act human. This update also lets the hosts access memories from their past, giving them a kind of subconscious.
While the thought of artificial intelligence gaining sentience is a disturbing enough premise that it’s been a Sci-Fi staple for decades, Westworld reminds you that these characters are repeatedly beaten, raped, and killed by guests, solely for their own amusement, before starting their day all over again. Only now, some of them have more than a few lingering memories of what they’ve been through.
Along with the cerebral dwellings on the nature of humankind’s reckless inhumanity, Westworld brings up a host of questions, though like all great pilots it doesn’t answer any of them, instead hooks you in with a complexly unnerving world that has the potential to force its audience to question the very nature of existence week after week. The characters within the park that we meet are mostly hosts, save for Ed Harris, a human guest donned in all black, echoing the look of Yul Brynner’s appearance in the movie 43 years ago. Known only as The Man In Black, he’s looking for a deeper level in the game, and is willing to do absolutely anything to find it.
There’s a lot being set up in the first episode of Westworld, and it manages to do so without ever feeling convoluted or tediously over-explained. Given that the show’s gratuitous violence comes hand-in-hand with rather brutal displays of what humans are capable of doing — both in the park and the control room, there’s no doubt that this show will be quick to dominate Monday morning conversations. The fact that it has chosen to abandoned casting of a traditional hero archetype (at least so far), and presents no real moral center, there’s a lot of potential for those conversations to grow very spirited very, very quickly. The pilot even manages to work in a couple of in-jokes (pay attention to the music being churned out by the player piano), a kind of nudge-and-a-wink reminder that despite the heady violence of it all, there’s still a sense of humor in play as well.
While there’s no question that a show like this should be a success, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it will be. Though HBO has always had the ability to incorporate thought-provoking narrative themes, while providing enough entertainment on the surface to keep casual viewers coming back week after week. Here’s hoping it’s given the time it needs to really explore its world and all the possibilities it’s just starting to present.