The Westworld expansion
Note: Spoilers follow for the series premiere of Westworld.
Producing a television series, as I’ve often said here before, is perhaps the greatest test imaginable of the amount of control that a storyteller can impose on any work of art. You may have a narrative arc in mind that works beautifully over five seasons, but before you even begin, you know that you’ll have to change the plan to deal with the unexpected: the departure of a star, budgetary limitations, negotiations with the network. Hanging overhead at all times is the specter of cancellation, which means that you don’t know if your story will be told over an hour, one season, or many years. You may not even be sure what your audience really wants. Maybe you’ve devoted a lot of thought to creating nuanced, complicated characters, only to realize that most viewers are tuning in for sex, violence, and sudden death scenes. It might even be to your advantage to make the story less realistic, keeping it all safely escapist to avoid raising uncomfortable questions. If you’re going to be a four-quadrant hit, you can’t appeal to just one demographic, so you’ve got to target some combination of teenagers and adults of both sexes. This doesn’t even include the critics, who are likely to nitpick the outcome no matter what. All you can really do, in the end, is set the machine going, adjust it as necessary on the fly, try to keep the big picture in mind, and remain open to the possibility that your creation will surprise you—which are conditions that the best shows create on purpose. But it doesn’t always go as it should, and successes and failures alike tend to wreak havoc with the plans of their creators. Television, you might say, finds a way.
The wonderful thing about Westworld, which might have the best pilot for any show since Mad Men, is that it delivers exceptional entertainment while also functioning as an allegory that you can read in any number of ways. Michael Crichton’s original movie, which I haven’t seen, was pitched as a commentary on the artificially cultivated experience offered to us by parks like Disney World, an idea that he later revisited with far more lucrative results. Four decades later, the immersive, open world experience that Westworld evokes is more likely to remind us of certain video games, which serve as a sandbox in which we can indulge in our best or worst impulses with maximum freedom of movement. (The character played by Ed Harris is like a player who has explored the game so throughly that he’s more interested now in looking for exploits or glitches in the code.) Its central premise—a theme park full of androids that are gradually attaining sentience—suggests plenty of other parallels, and I’m sure the series will investigate most of them eventually. But I’m frankly most inclined to see it as a show about the act of making television itself. Series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have evidently mapped out a narrative for something like the next five or six seasons, which feels like an attempt to reassure viewers frustrated by the way in which serialized, mythology-driven shows tend to peter out toward the end, or to endlessly tease mysteries without ever delivering satisfying answers. But I wonder if Nolan and Joy also see themselves in Dr. Ford, played here with unusual restraint and cleverness by Anthony Hopkins, who looks at his own creations and muses about how little control he really has over the result.
It’s always dangerous to predict a show’s future from the pilot alone, and I haven’t seen the other episodes that were sent to critics for review. Westworld’s premise is also designed to make you even more wary than usual about trying to forecast a system as complicated as an ambitious cable series, especially one produced by J.J. Abrams. (There are references to the vagaries of television production in the pilot itself, much of which revolves around a technical problem that forces the park’s head writer to rewrite scenes overnight, cranking up the body count in hopes that guests won’t notice the gaps in the narrative. And one of its most chilling moments comes down to the decision to recast a key supporting role with a more cooperative performer.) After the premiere, which we both loved, my wife worried that we’ll just get disillusioned by the show over time, as we did with Game of Thrones. It’s always possible, and the number of shows over the last decade that have sustained a high level of excellence from first episode to last basically starts and ends with Mad Men—which, interestingly, was also a show about writing, and the way in which difficult concepts have to be sold and marketed to a large popular audience. But I have high hopes. The underlying trouble with Game of Thrones was a structural one: one season after another felt like it was marking time in its middle stretches, cutting aimlessly between subplots and relying on showy moments of violence to keep the audience awake, and many of its issues arose from a perceived need to keep from getting ahead of the books. It became a show that only knew how to stall and shock, and I would have been a lot more forgiving of its sexual politics if I had enjoyed the rest of it, or if I believed that the showrunners were building to something worthwhile.
I have more confidence in Westworld, in part because the pilot is such a confident piece of storytelling, but also because the writers aren’t as shackled by the source. And I feel almost grateful for the prospect of fully exploring this world over multiple seasons with this cast and these writers. Jonathan Nolan, in particular, has been overshadowed at times by his brother Christopher, who would overshadow anyone, but his résumé as a writer is just as impressive: the story for Memento, the scripts for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, and that’s just on the movie side. (I haven’t seen Person of Interest, but I’ve heard it described as the best science fiction show on television, camouflaged in plain sight as a procedural.) Nolan has always tended to cram more ideas into one screenplay than a movie can comfortably hold, which is a big part of his appeal: The Dark Knight is so overflowing with invention that it only underlines the limpness of the storytelling in most of the Marvel movies. What excites me about Westworld is the opportunity it presents for Nolan to allow the story to breathe, going down interesting byways and exploring its implications at length. And the signs so far are very promising. The plot is a model of story construction, to the point where I’d use it as an example in a writing class: it introduces its world, springs a few big surprises, tells us something about a dozen characters, and ends on an image that is both inevitable and deliciously unexpected. Even its references to other movies are more interesting than most. A visual tribute to The Searchers seems predictable at first, but when the show repeats it, it becomes a wry commentary on how an homage can take the place of real understanding. And a recurring bit with a pesky fly feels like a nod to Psycho, which implicated the audience in similar ways. As Mrs. Bates says to us in one of her last lines: “I hope they are watching. They’ll see.”