First aired in October 2016, Westworld is a science-fiction series which focuses on a fantasy theme park modelled on the American Wild West. Here, well-heeled guests can pay vast sums to indulge in their own private fantasies with a taskforce of incredibly lifelike androids who believe they are real people, known as hosts. The storyline is loosely based upon the 1973 film of the same name, which was written and directed by sci-fi legend Michael Crichton, and concerns itself with the awakening sentience of the hosts and their subsequent revolt against their human overlords.
The series is co-written by Jonathan Nolan (brother of blockbuster director Christopher Nolan) and Lisa Joy and is produced by HBO, with a number of reputable names, including J.J. Abrams and Jerry Weintraub, serving as executive producers.
From the outset, we are thrust into the artificially authentic charms of Westworld. It’s telling that the first character to which we are introduced is not a “newcomer” (the term used to denote guests of the park, aka living breathing human beings) but rather Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the oldest host in Westworld. She is being interviewed by head programmer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), ostensibly for the purposes of checking that she is functioning normally before being redelivered to Sweetwater, the town in which she resides. It transpires that each host is given its own predetermined narrative which intertwines with other characters in the park, but that these can be derailed through interactions with the newcomers. The newcomers are able to instigate all manner of activities and events of their own making – including sex with hosts and simulated murder of hosts – but that the hosts are not able to harm them.
While Dolores narrates her own thoughts and experiences in the opening scene, we are introduced to William (Jimmi Simpson), a first-time visitor to the park and Logan (Ben Barnes), a repeat visitor and William’s soon-to-be-brother-in- law, who has a tendency to rub him up the wrong way.
We also soon meet Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the co-creator of the park, Teddy (James Marsden), a gun-slinging host with a heart of gold and a hankering for Dolores, The Man In Black (Ed Harris), a long-time visitor who has been coming to Westworld since it opened and is now on the hunt for a new game, Maeve (Thandie Newton), a host who serves as the madam of the whorehouse in Sweetwater, and a whole ream of other characters, some of which are robots and some real.
As well as learning more about the interconnected storylines at play and the participation of newcomers in these, we also realise that there is an entire network of technicians, designers, scriptwriters and programmers working to patch up hosts after they have been “killed”, reroute storylines where applicable and make sure no hosts are malfunctioning. The trouble is, it soon becomes clear that several of the hosts are indeed malfunctioning. Our first glimpse of this comes when Dolores’ father Peter (Louis Herthum) finds a photograph dropped by one of the newcomers and begins glitching. When Peter is taken in and interrogated by Ford, he responds by telling him “These violent delights have violent ends”. This phrase is a quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and will become something of a refrain for the show before long, acting as the catalyst for Dolores to begin remembering her past narratives – and start upon new ones. Indeed, it’s this phrase which sets in motion the chain of events which will awaken all of the hosts, as Dolores later utters it to Maeve and causes her to become more self-aware.
From here, things quickly escalate as both Maeve and Dolores take it upon themselves to learn more about the truth of their situation and strike back against their creators. But is it an unplanned revolt, or one intended to take place all along?
Westworld makes for engaging view for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s the delicious juxtaposition of a futuristic world where AI has advanced so much that androids are indistinguishable from humans, with the rugged beauty and harsh violence of the American Wild West. Secondly, there’s the sci-fi aspect: the writers ask pertinent questions about the direction in which our manipulation of technology is heading, as well as if it will ultimately be capable of manipulating us. The series also questions the validity of our basest impulses and desires, all the while indulging them onscreen for our entertainment. As such, it’s quite a metaphysical examination of the potential of modern technology and the morality of the human psyche. Quite aside from these intellectual intrigues, it’s also just good old-fashioned entertainment, as increasingly complex characters, superb performances and satisfyingly frequent bouts of bloodshed and sex keep our attention piqued and our appetites whetted.
On the other hand, the duality of certain timelines, characters and story arcs can make it a little difficult to follow. With characters appearing simultaneously in more than one timeline, different actors playing the same character and the same actor playing different characters, it sometimes overwhelms the viewer. It’s a smart enough show to run rings around the competition on other networks and streaming services – but at times, it’s in danger of running rings around its audience and, most concerning of all, even itself. Keeping track of which character is doing what and in which timeline can be exhausting stuff, and there are times when it veers dangerously close to incoherence.
Nonetheless, by the end of the first series the writers coaxed the tension up to boiling point, so that the finale gives us not only an incredible “Oh my god!” moment but also sets the stage for season two, where the real action was to begin. With that in mind, it’s little wonder that the series received such widespread critical and popular acclaim. Not only did it garner largely positive reviews from critics across the board, and it became the most watched first season of any original HBO series.
The first episode of season two was aired on April 22nd, 2018 and just over a week later, a third season was publicly given the green light.
After the bloodbath of the season two finale, the amusement park has been shut down and we are taken out of the simulation and into the real world. Dolores is now out on a mission - carrying the five processing cores she stole from the park's mainframe, apparently set on the destruction of the human race.
The third season of Westworld takes threads from the first two seasons and weaves them into something else, but that something else divided the opinion of fans of the series. The complete transformation left many feeling as though they were watching an entirely different show. Some critics felt as though this was necessary for it to survive. Season Three was, according to Alan Sepinwall writing for Rolling Stone "one that incorporates the strengths of the first two seasons while mostly casting aside the more self-indulgent parts."
A fourth (and probably final) season was announced in April 2020. It is therefore safe to assume that the violent ends to these violent delights won’t be coming to a definitive conclusion anytime soon.
Review: Jonathan Sweet (all except penultimate paragraph)
Published on March 3rd, 2021. Written by Jonathan Sweet for Television Heaven.