One of the most talked-about shows of the last few years has been Westworld. Westworld is a futuristic, science fiction concept series about a not-so-distant future, where an amusement park allows the rich and wealthy to experience their deepest inhibitions and exhilarations in a synthetic wild-west world. Things go awry, however, when the synthetic human that inhabit this world start to question the nature of their reality, leading down a rabbit-hole of confusion, death, and existential questions of consciousness. The series was created by Lisa Joy, and stars a host of acclaimed cast including Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton, Tessa Thompson, James Marsden, and Anthony Hopkins among others. Westworld has completed 2 seasons on HBO, and is halfway through airing its 3rd at time of writing.
To provide a little bit of context to this review, I’m writing this having finished seasons 1 and 2, without having started season 3. I wouldn’t want to review something that hadn’t been seen to its completion, especially a show with as many twists and turns as this one, so this review is essentially covering seasons 1 and 2 only.
This show is an exercise. It’s pretty far and away the most interesting concept and situation on television right now, with a fantastic idea and a narrative strong enough to carry it, but it is undeniably a little bit of brain calisthenics. Westworld is like a high-tech philosophy course, one that asks extremely sophisticated questions about human ethics, the essence of free will, and reality in general. It does it in incredible ways, composed and woven through a fascinating and impossibly entertaining story. If one cares to pay the appropriate attention, Westworld is an unbelievable story. They set up rules and stick to them throughout; the rules are complex, but, once you’ve got them, the plot is a ride you won’t want to get off of. I actually think that the first season of Westworld might be one of the best seasons of television I’ve ever seen, for a lot of reasons. The frickin fantastic concept and plot aside (assuming I’ve been on about that long enough), the characters are great, the writing is fantastic, and everything is executed to perfection. They’ve hit every single note as far as technical sophistication goes; the visuals and music are composed perfectly, the visual tone feels eerily right in the story, and the acting is a little hard to believe in moments. It adds up to a perfect execution of the concept, and the effect of that is hard to overstate. You really, genuinely stop seeing hosts and robots anymore after a point. The emotions come through so deeply, honestly and so raw, it just breaks your heart.
There are 3, maybe 4 twists on this show that are up there with the best I’ve ever seen. Even when you kind of, sort of, see it coming, it still hits you just as hard, maybe harder. Season 1 is incredible that way, dropping hints at what truly is, convincing you of certain things, timelines and realities, and then showing you what really was all along. I would highlight Anthony Hopkins, who is perfect in every way as Robert Ford, and Evan Rachel Wood, for the sheer acting feat she’s done here, drawing Dolores’ complete arc over the course of 2 seasons. But the show is seemingly filled to the brim with deeply understood characters. Ed Harris is incredible as The Man in Black, with all his mystery and violence that feels like the strangest enigma, right up until you understand everything, all the pain on pain on pain in his past. Thandie Newton’s Maeve is one of the best pieces of writing, with an arc not as varied as Dolores, but much, much more emotionally compelling.
Season 2 is a little bit of a step down from season 1. The mysteries and questions are almost as interesting, but there’s a lot of narrative distraction that doesn’t belong where it is. The big change at the end of season 1 makes the stakes feel a lot more real, which is awesome, but I didn’t much enjoy any of the Shogun part of the story; it felt like a bit of a waste of time if I’m honest, and I feel like they could’ve chosen to do a lot more with the characters involved in that arc than they ended up doing. The Ghost Nation/Indian story started off boring, but got good in a hurry, so that didn’t feel as much a waste as the Shogun bit. The Man in Black took the new mantle as arguably the most interesting character, diving deeper still into his bubbling, red-hot pain and subsequent chase for something that just isn’t there. Still, the whole endgame of the Valley Beyond is a little less interesting and conceptually relevant as compared to season 1’s Maze; it started to turn the story down a slightly more typical path. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as good as the first season. That said, 1 or 2 of those crazy, mind-bending twists did save themselves for late in season 2, and they paid off pretty damn well. I haven’t started season 3 yet, I have a lot of questions going forward about what is to become of the hosts at large, which I’m hoping will be answered soon, as soon as I finish writing this as a matter of fact.
The show’s philosophical journey is what sets it apart from almost anything I’ve ever seen. It’s a very complex and sophisticated exploration of what my fellow IB students will recognise as “some TOK shit”. But it’s such an interesting discussion of the ideas of freedom, right and wrong, and the nature of consciousness, that I think even they would forgive the incessant questioning of what consciousness is. I’d love to get into the weeds of what the show says it is, but I’d rather not spoil it for anyone who’s yet to see it. It’s an extremely interesting take on the line between consciousness and programming, as well as the potential illusion of free will in the first place. One thing, which they never actually mention in the show but which struck quite a chord for me, was the weight that they give to the idea of nostalgia throughout the show, even if they never call it that by name. Great power is given to actions and places that have happened before, to the past at large, and I think a significant amount of my appreciation for the symbolism of those actions and places comes from my own nostalgia-streak. Aside from that, the show is ripe with interesting motifs and metaphors, the piano that plays itself being the most notable, that play an interesting intellectual role throughout the series.
This is a phenomenal show; one that accomplishes feats of storytelling in a seemingly effortless way, as if it was all lain out beforehand. Its concept, its idea, is incredible, and it has the narrative strength to match it in every way. It is a little bit of a mental workout, you need to pay very close attention to understand the rules of the game in all its intricacies, but once you do, you’ll find yourself bound to an unforgettable and entertaining exploration into the human psyche and consciousness that I’d honestly prescribe absolutely anyone.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 89/100 Aryamaan’s Score –