I’d like to use this last blog post as an opportunity to make a recommendation. In the age of peak TV, where the market is saturated not just with an unprecedented quantity of shows, but with an astounding quality of series as well, it can be difficult to decide what to watch. Actually, it can be pretty overwhelming, especially when you’re a TV enthusiast like myself and feel the need to watch everything.
Not to worry, I am here to help, to provide a resounding endorsement of a unique series so you know it’s worth your time to watch. HBO’s Westworld, entering its season one finale this Sunday, has emerged as something of a power player in the network’s drama lineup. While certainly no ratings juggernaut like Game of Thrones, Westworld has still garnered an enthusiastic fan-base and was recently renewed for a second season. And rightfully so, as the show is intriguing.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Westworld is set at some unspecified time in the future. Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) has created the theme park Westworld, a recreation of the Wild West populated by artificial intelligences called “hosts” who have no idea what they are or that their entire world and lives are completely manufactured. For $40,000 a day, patrons can visit the park for a fully-immersive experience and do whatever they like – including murder – to any of the hosts. Every day, the hosts are repaired, reset, and live out the same narrative loop. However, when a new update inadvertently causes some of the hosts to remember their previous lives, some start to become aware of the nature of their existence.
Thanks to this premise, Westworld is able to do a number of different things and explore many different themes at once. As a science fiction series, it poses questions of morality and ethicality regarding the creation of artificial intelligences, ponders what it means to be “alive” or “human,” and alludes to Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation regarding the nature of reality. As a western, it plays with age-old myths such as the Manifest Destiny and the American Dream, engages classic “human vs. wilderness” themes, and questions what makes a hero or a villain and how much of a choice one has in determining which they are.
But beyond genre themes, the show really succeeds at meta commentary on film and television itself and audiences’ relationship to such. Within park management, there are numerous branches that parallel roles on a film set: a director, a writer, a character designer, a special effects team, etc. The process of running Westworld mirrors the process of creating a movie. However, as patrons of Westworld visit the park and take an active role in the stories being told, the show suggests that relationship between film/television and audiences is a much more interactive experience than we might like to think. As we watch the show, we shake our heads at the park visitors who ruthlessly and gleefully murder hosts. Yet, those sequences draw parallels to our own tacit endorsement of and even participation in violence depicted on screen: how is our enjoyment as a viewer of graphic violence in film really any different from these park visitors’ perpetuation of such violence in a simulated world?
Still from Westworld, “The Original” (Season 1, Episode 1, 2016).
This meta commentary is bolstered by the main focus of the series: storytelling. In Westworld, it’s all about the narratives. Park management bickers over what new narratives to create. Storywriters watch as their narratives unfold in the park. Visitors of the park search all over town for a narrative to take part in, be it playing cards at the saloon or joining a search party to hunt down a wanted outlaw. But most importantly, hosts begin to realize the constructed nature of their reality, that their narratives are written for them, and begin to fight back to take control of their own stories. And the way in which these stories are told keeps audiences on their toes as well. As Haleigh Foutch writes for Collider, “By asking us to identify with the robotic hosts, Westworld has largely told its story through a series of unreliable narrators, carefully crafted personalities who aren’t even aware of their own reality.” (Disclaimer: that link has some spoilers in it, so…be careful.) As viewers, we are left constantly guessing as to what we’ve seen is real or imagined, is happening now or in the past, is authentic and autonomous or manufactured and pre-determined. It’s a wonderful reflection on the nature of storytelling itself, and at times, a call to action to be more active authors of our own stories.
The series is really quite rich thematically and forces viewers to consider rather deep philosophical questions. It’s not a perfect show, and it’s not necessarily the most entertaining or fun series, but it might well be the most thought-provoking thing on television. And as such, I’d place it near the top of my “must watch” list.