Posts Tagged ‘westworld’
When the game of thrones comes to an end? That’s the unspoken question at the heart of Sean & Stefan’s discussion of HBO’s two most high-profile drama debuts of the past year, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope and Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy’s Westworld. These two prestige-TV series present two very different paths for the future of the New Golden Age of TV, and offer many points of comparison with current standard-bearer Game of Thrones itself. Go in-depth on their strengths and weaknesses—and trust us, one is much stronger than the other—in one of our biggest and, dare we say it, best episodes yet!
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Dr. Robert Ford, ‘Westworld’
Smile, and smile, and be a villain. As the co-founder and chief narrative architect of the Westworld theme park, Dr. Robert Ford is not unfamiliar with Shakespeare; he’d recognize Hamlet’s description of evil every time he looked in the mirror. Or would he? As played by Anthony Hopkins, who taps the quiet menace he mined so effectively decades ago as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Ford spends the bulk of the HBO hit’s first season manipulating and murdering everyone, human or android, who threatens his control. But late-game twists hint at an even more disturbing truth behind Ford’s highly erudite villainy, this time one out of Nietzsche: To fight monsters, is it necessary to become a monster yourself?
We’ve reached the center of the Maze. It’s not a physical location, a place in the park where the safety catch comes off and the guests can play for keeps. It’s a metaphor for consciousness, the inward journey required for an android to become truly alive. In the case of Dolores, it’s also the downward spiral to her buried identity, i.e. Wyatt, the genocidal maniac destined to create a new robot-friendly world from the human blood of the old.
But tonight’s movie-length season finale – “The Bicameral Mind” – proves that the Maze isn’t such a bad image for the show itself. For all its faults, Westworld‘s first season wasn’t an affront or a disaster. There’s enough entertainment value in each episode, particularly if you just so happen to enjoy sci-fi thrillers, no matter how skeptical you are of their overall philosophical or dramatic merit. But the journey from the starting point to the center of it all reveals just how distant “enjoyable” can be from, you know, good. Right up to the end, the show’s inaugural season was watchable – and ultimately dismissible.
I reviewed last night’s season finale of Westworld for Rolling Stone. Like I said, it was never a show I dreaded watching — I was never like “oh god, here we go, time to watch another fucking Westworld,” you know? I actually kind of looked forward to it each time. I just never looked backward to it afterwards.
Anyway, as I try to explain in the review, the show succeeded best as a straightforward genre thriller and foundered in its attempts to be more than that. In terms of the twists and revelations, the problem was less their existence and more the simultaneously slovenly and byzantine way in which the storylines that led to them unfolded. Basic structural stuff.
It’s not the content that’s to blame for the episode’s shortcomings, but the delivery mechanism. From start to finish, the hour’s events move in fits and starts, with the herky-jerky rhythm of a malfunctioning host. How else could it work, when nearly all its focal-point characters are constantly moving in and out of awareness? Teddy wakes up from being shot with an arrow, then is promptly killed again. The Man in Black watches all of this smugly, until he gets knocked out; the next morning he realizes he’s about to get hanged from a tree courtesy of a noose and a skittish horse. He narrowly escapes, but only to have his narrative stopped in its tracks once again by a visit from Charlotte Hale, one of his fellow members of the park’s board of directors. Logan torments his estranged brother-in-law-to-be and Dolores until the latter escapes and the former pretends to forgive him. Cue the smirking asshole waking up the next morning with all his robotic Confederado comrades massacred and the born-again-hard William firmly in charge.
The self-aware hosts go through even more fake-outs and double-backs. Dolores shifts back and forth between locations, time periods, and states of consciousness so frequently that it’s impossible to keep track of – deliberately so, but that doesn’t prevent it from undercutting the emotional impact of her discovery that she murdered her maker. And poor Bernard splits his time between getting switched on and off by Maeve and Ford on the one hand, and being jolted in and out of his robotic consciousness and memories. Many of said memories involve killing other characters, like Theresa and Elsie, just to add to the staccato storyline. Sometimes he’s not Bernard at all, but Arnold … or at least Dolores’s deep-rooted memory of him. His Doctor-ordered suicide at the end of the episode comes as sweet relief after the mindfucks he’s been through. When the storyline that suffers the fewest interruptions of this sort (i.e. Maeve’s rebellious arc) involves our heroine breaking down a fellow robot’s mind before deliberately burning them both to death en flagrante delecto, you know things have gotten way too complicated.
Add it all up and it’s like watching a version of The Usual Suspects in which both Chazz Palmintieri and Kevin Spacey’s characters are constantly getting hit in the head with a baseball bat. (And are then forced to try and pick up the story where they left off hours later.) There’s just no way for it to sustain momentum, tension, or suspense – let alone make its plot twists and shocking revelations work properly – when every character is so busy just trying to stay sentient and upright.
The episode is less persuasive when it shifts its gaze from the robot mind to the human one. Before Ford wipes his secret android minion Bernard’s memories of his murder of, and relationship with, Theresa Cullen, the perplexed ‘bot asks his maker what separates his pain and experiences from that of a normal person. If all of this stuff ultimately exists in the brain and nowhere else, who’s to say where the line is drawn between the stuff of life and the merely “lifelike”? Noting that his old frenemy Arnold was tormented by the same question, the Doctor dismisses it. There is no difference, he says, because human consciousness is just as much an illusion as that of the hosts. We too are locked in loops and routines, rarely challenging our drives and desires, perfectly happy to follow orders. The only difference between machine and man is that the latter can at least be aware of his plight, and holds the remote control over the former.
Which is true, so far as it goes, but that’s not very far at all. The question of “what makes us truly human” has always been one of the least interesting ones science fiction asks because the answer is all around us. Love, happiness, suffering, memory, anticipation – even if they’re all just part of our brains’ core code, it’s the only code we have. It’s not as if we’re living a lie when we experience these things, since there’s no way to access any other deeper “truth” about reality. False or not, our consciousness is inescapable. No matter how much Ford sneers about it as he uses his iPad or whatever to reprogram his Frankenstein’s monster, it doesn’t give him, or us, an escape route.
For sheer entertainment value, the biggest shift isn’t in Bernard, but his creator. Nearly a quarter-century after his star turn as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs — a role he revisited twice, to diminishing returns, amid a virtual buffet of ham-based entries on his IMDB page — it’s easy to forget just how menacingly minimal Anthony Hopkins can be. The “I ate his liver” speech and the face-peeling shenanigans have the biggest pop-culture footprint, of course. But his Hannibal was at his most ominous when he was standing still, the ghost of a smile on his face and fire in his eyes, quietly tearing people to mental shreds with just his words.
The brilliance of his take on that iconic killer is visible in Ford’s full-fledged heel turn. Gone is the cryptic old-man-of-the-mesa routine, dispensing wit and wisdom in a bemused British accent. In his place is a stone-cold lunatic, and if Bernard’s very existence is any indication, he’s been mad as a hatter for literally decades. Staring into that face — which is positioned almost, but not quite, to look directly into the camera, a la Lambs‘ Lecter v. Clarice conversations — you can feel hope evaporate in the heat of his squinty glare. This guy’s too smart, to prepared, too ruthless, and too insanely dedicated to his mad project to possibly be beaten in the basement of his own sanctum sanctorum. It takes Ms. Cullen longer to realize this than it takes us, and the Doctor has no patience with it: The look of combined boredom, impatience, and condescension as he watches her try to call for help is a thing of dark delight. The brutal murder that follows is almost an afterthought; you could see her death reflected in his eyes long before he gave his robotic right-hand man the order. You wanted an “adversary”? You’ve got one.
Maeve’s walk through the Westworld theme park’s behind-the-scenes house of horrors is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the instant in which one of Westworld’s unfortunate, unwitting robots receives undeniable, unforgettable confirmation that their life is a lie. It’s a crushing concept all on its own, and the guided-tour-of-hell structure of the scene adds to the pathos. By rights it should stand alone as one of the series’ most powerful moments.
And yet, Westworld’s treatment of it falls flat. Like park technicians fiddling with a host’s intelligence or empathy on their control panels, the show’s filmmakers artificially increase the sequence’s tear-jerking levels by soundtracking it with a chamber-music version of the closing track on one of the most acclaimed albums of all time: “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” the achingly sad conclusion of Radiohead’s electronic-music breakthrough Kid A. It’s not the first time the hyperactively overscored series has relied on the band, having previously gone to the Radiohead well with their suburban-ennui anthem “No Surprises.” Hell, it’s not the first time it did so in this episode, which opens with a similarly heavy-handed accompaniment by a player-piano version of the band’s ode to falseness, “Fake Plastic Trees.” But it is the show’s most egregious example yet of using a song with preexisting cultural clout to do its emotional work — a syndrome we’re seeing, or hearing, with increasing frequency as Peak TV prestige dramas attempt to cut through the clutter and grab viewers, or listeners, by the heartstrings.
Rather than let the power of the scene emerge on its own, Westworld leans on a preexisting work of art to doing the heavy lifting for it. It’s a cheat, a shortcut to resonance. That particular work of art has far more cultural purchase, impact, and history than a first-season TV show. Even if you don’t rate Radiohead, substitute the gut-wrenching classic-album closer of your choice — “Purple Rain” or “Little Earthquakes” or, to cite an artist Westworld’s already employed to dubious effect in that over-the-top orgy scene last week, “Hurt”— and you’ll get the point.
Over at Vulture, I went long on how shows like Westworld, Stranger Things, and even The Americans have used preexisting pop music as a cheat code to score emotional points they haven’t earned. I also talked about shows that have done pop music cues right, from The Sopranos and The Wire to Lost to Halt and Catch Fire and The People v. O.J. Simpson. It’s basically a prose version of what Chris Ott and I talked about on his Shallow Rewards podcast a few weeks ago. I quite liked writing this piece and I hope you enjoy it.
Westworld is a show about androids, but the titular theme park’s biggest problem is – let’s face it – its H.R. department. Delos, the corporation behind the theme resort, has based its staffing structure around a system of checks and balances – though in practice it’s more like Republican and Democrat zero-sum party politics, or a Hobbesian war of all against all. The boffin-y behavioral scientists, the temperamental artists who craft storylines, the hardcases who handle security, the grunts in the basement chop shop: They work against each other far, far more than they work together. According to Theresa, who breaks up with Bernard because the conflict of interest their relationship represents, that’s by design.
Okay, fine. After all, this might explain the constant backbiting and infighting we were complaining about last week. (Explain, mind you, not excuse: Just because it has an in-story reason for happening doesn’t make non-stop conflict any less boring to watch.) But in this week’s installment – “The Adversary” – this policy winds up raising more questions than it answers. In a theme park this paranoid, how the hell can so many people get away with breaking the rules?
Obviously, science fiction requires suspensions of disbelief – otherwise it’d just be “science” – and few stories of any kind are so flawless that there are no plot holes to overlook. In that light, all this nitpicking about lousy stop-loss practices by park staff could be seen as just that: nitpicking. But logical gaps are easier to cross when we’re given enough material of value to build bridges, and that’s where Westworld fails time and again.
There’s nothing wrong with the Westworld theme park a few security cameras couldn’t fix, and other observations: I reviewed this week’s Westworld for Rolling Stone.
Granted, Logan has no redeeming qualities in any capacity, so his behavior toward his colleague shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it speaks to the fundamental misapprehension Westworld has about what makes a compelling workplace drama. You need tension and conflict and even the occasional full-fledged feud. But neither the show nor the fictional business it portrays will come together if that’s all you’re getting. Both Mad Men and Sterling Cooper would have collapsed had Don Draper not been a charming companion and a surprisingly good mentor in addition to everything else. The Wire would have had no story if McNulty and Daniels, or Stringer and Avon, had always been at each other’s throats. Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s little-watched but much-admired series about the dawn of the Internet age, spent an entire season with its main characters screaming at each other, before realizing show would seem less grating if they worked together.
Unless and until Westworld realizes the same thing, it’s always going to feel like a fraction of the series it could be. Yes, you get your requisite gory violence and copious nudity, including HBO’s second clinical close-up of a black man’s penis this year after The Night Of (and a ridiculous robot orgy soundtracked by a chamber-music version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Something I Can Never Have”). You get all the guessing games about multiple time frames and hidden programming, the doppelgangers of Dolores and Lawrence, and the truth about the late great Arnold. All of this will only get you so far. To quote George Costanza, “We live in a society!” even if the employees’ role in it is to create a lawless version thereof. People need to work together, at least sometimes, for that society to function. The humans on the show need to acting like humans for us humans on the other side of the screen to truly care.
I reviewed this week’s Westworld for Rolling Stone, ignoring the clues and theories in favor of talking about a far more fundamental problem. We’re all free to do this kind of thing! Nothing says we have to “solve” a show constructed as a puzzle box.
The point is this: Given what happens to every character who tries to solve the puzzle, perhaps it’s best to just enjoy things as they unfold, if you can indeed “enjoy” a story this grim.
Unfortunately, the majority of the show isn’t making this easy. While the horror elements pack a jolt and the “conversations” between robots remain enthralling, everything else is shooting blanks. The human characters are still a major flaw: Aside from Ford and his lunatic zeal, everyone who works at the park is utterly joyless and unpleasant. When Bernard and Theresa smile at each other in his bedroom, it almost feels like a continuity glitch.
In particular, the loathsome black-hat Logan is all but unwatchable in his clichéd obnoxiousness; “You’re gonna grow to love me, I promise,” he says to his dully good-hearted companion William, but we have our doubts. In some clunky exposition, he also raises the idea that the two of them are part of the family that owns the park, which means they’ll be even more important to the story as it progresses. Great.
Perhaps to compensate for the undercooked dialogue, the score is omnipresent and obnoxious, telegraphing every emotion we’re supposed to have during every scene: ominous hums in the production facility, lugubrious strings during Dolores’ touching moments with the menfolk, jangly Mexicana when the bad guys and bandits are on the scene, the ironic use of “La Habanera” for a slow-mo massacre. Hey, Westworld: Have some faith in your players – ahem, viewers. We can figure this out ourselves.
I reviewed last weekend’s Westworld for Rolling Stone. Amazingly, Ramin Djawadi does the music for this show, and the difference in quality between the theme and score here and that of Game of Thrones is just night and day.
Three episodes deep into Westworld, it’s become clear that there’s a problem with the user interface. Theoretically, our deepest interest in this increasingly dark sci-fi parable should be with the characters best capable of sustaining it: the humans. After all, the guests and the staff of the theme park are the ones with actual, honest-to-god (or honest-to-Darwin) consciousness. They’ve lead real lives with real experiences, instead of having fake memories uploaded into their brains. Their emotions can’t be switched off with a command. Their bodies can’t heal from fatal wounds after a quick overnight trip to maintenance. They’re people, damn it.
So why do they feel like lines of computer code, stuck in a loop?
I reviewed this week’s Westworld for Rolling Stone. The human characters are faltering while the robot “characters” are fascinating.
“I know you think that you have a handle on what this is gonna be: guns and tits and all that mindless shit that I usually enjoy. You have no idea.” When Logan, a handsome, sleazy young veteran of multiple trips to Westworld, says this to his milquetoast first-timer companion William, he’s ostensibly referring to misconceptions about the park. But for all his subsequent blather about the place helping you find “who you really are,” who Logan really is turns out to be a guy who enjoys, well, guns and tits and mindless shit. He indulges in multiple male and female partners twice in his first day of vacation, pulls out a gun in a restaurant to test whether a fellow diner is real or an android, and brutally stabs an elderly “host” he finds annoying. Despite what he told his coworker, this creep’s robot-resort experience lives down to expectations.
But the real target of his words is quite clearly us, the audience. In Westworld‘s second episode – “Chestnut” – co-creators/co-writers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy continue to take an “as below, so above” approach to their material. The same ethical dilemmas posed to the park’s visitors – the gratuitous violence, the literally dehumanizing sex, the freedom to indulge in absolute cruelty with complete invincibility – are the same ones set forth by the show to its viewers. The implicit promise is precisely the one Logan makes to William: There’s more to this onslaught of nudity and brutality than meets the eye, even if for the time being we mostly have to take their word for it.
“What does it mean to be human?” is the least interesting question science fiction can ask, though that hasn’t stopped the genre from using tales of androids among us to ask it year after year. “What does it mean to be inhumane?” on the other hand? That’s an inquiry worth exploring. To knowingly inflict pain on artificially intelligent machine-men (or machine-women, though that’s a whole other issue) – when we treat them as slaves or toys or, to use Westworld‘s evocative term, “livestock” – that says a lot about us. Dr. Frankenstein made Frankenstein’s monster. The real question is whether this makes a monster of Dr. Frankenstein himself.
Judging from its intriguing, disturbing, hugely ambitious pilot episode (titled “The Original”), HBO’s series-length redo-cum-re–exploration of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie is focused on the correct side of this equation.
I’m reviewing Westworld for Rolling Stone, starting with last night’s pilot episode. I started as a skeptic and did not end that way.
Netflix, September 30
Ooh baby, we like it raaaaw. With trailer music and episode titles alike nodding to classic New York hip-hop, the latest of Netflix’s street-level Marvel superhero shows (it follows Daredevil and Jessica Jones and precedes Iron Fist and team-up series The Defenders) looks like it will make good on the promise of its lead character, the pioneering African American superhero-for-hire created in the 1970s. Actor Mike Colter’s cameos on Jessica Jones were among the show’s high points; let’s see if his solo turn is as bulletproof as his skin. STC
I wrote about a whole bunch of upcoming or just-debuted shows for Rolling Stone’s big Fall TV Preview feature, along with a whole bunch of talented writers. Enjoy!