Westworld – Season 1

There was a lot of buzz around this. The trailer looked stunning and the ideas were fascinating, clearly HBO and Sky in the UK were hoping that this would be the next Game of Thrones, particularly given that we’re heading towards the end of that series. So why was I just not bothered with it? I let a few episodes back up and then watched the first couple and my response was distinctly… meh. It just didn’t grab me. I watched with a couple of friends and they seemed to feel the same, so our meh-ness somewhat reinforced each other and we agreed that there was something that just didn’t quite work about the delivery of the concept.

Westworld (the setting) is basically an evolved computer game. The people who built the park are running a real life massively multiplayer role playing game, one that’s been running for decades and is hugely successful. The hosts (non-player characters, robots) have all been crafted and written in order to support either specific narratives that the guests can participate in, or just to flesh out the background so the guests can immerse themselves in the period setting. Now, my friends and I have played a lot of games between us, and we could quickly predict how some things were going to go, leaving us a little bored waiting for it to play out slowly. Plus we could spot various flaws in the ‘game’, either deliberate ones necessary to get the show’s narrative to work, or accidental ones that were just mediocre writing by people who hadn’t really thought about how this sort of game would work in reality.

So after watching a couple of episodes, I just wasn’t grabbed by it, and let it flounder on my sky box for a while. Eventually though I exhausted most other options (I still can’t be bothered with The Walking Dead!) and figured I might as well finish it off, not least as I’d heard there were a few twists later on that were interesting (although sadly I was spoiled on them which rather reduced their impact). At that point I managed to power through the rest of the 10 episodes, gathering momentum until I watched the last 4 episodes back to back last night (sadly the final episode was double length leading to a rather late night).

It did get better, or maybe more accurately the good bits expanded and made the not-so-good bits tolerable. There are characters in the first couple of episodes that are almost background, but really develop into something interesting and start to actually explore the issues around consciousness, manipulation and desire. Once it starts getting into the mystery elements more fully, and the characters and audience realise that not everything is what it seems it starts gaining momentum. Bits of the story make very little sense and at best require characters to take particularly convoluted routes towards their aims, but it does finally give the show some momentum that made me want to watch the new episode.

There were still threads that I didn’t care about and slowed everything down, the idea behind Delores’s “narrative” was interesting, but I found her an excruciatingly tedious character to actually spend time with. Some elements were uncreatively cliché which was a bit frustrating, and also slowed everything down when you know how things are going to go but they take an age to get there. There are also characters and ideas which had a lot of potential that was frustratingly ignored, some of which may be expanded in the second season, but not all of the characters will have the opportunity and that’s a real waste.

I do have some conflicted feelings towards the level of nudity and violence. The nudity in particular is incredibly gratuitous. I can see that there is a point to the nudity – the people working in the park dehumanise the hosts by having them naked when not ‘live’. It is relevant to the plot and isn’t sexualised in the same way that other shows might do. Similarly the level of violence against things that look like people but aren’t really, is again an interesting look at what people are capable of (the last episode has an interesting counter point to that too). But in both cases I wonder if there was a more elegant way of making those points.

I don’t think this is the next Game of Thrones (although I don’t really think that Game of the Thones is the pinnacle series that the masses seem to think it is), or at least it isn’t yet. I do think that it’s got a lot of potential, particularly if they continue playing with some of the ideas and storytelling techniques that come up in the last few episodes. It could be that in a couple of years this is the kind of series that you explain the first season is a bit ropey, but stick with it as things get amazing. But it could also be that they have no idea what they’re doing and it will go down as a good idea that didn’t quite materialise. Still, at least it’s something different.

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