Farewell to ‘Westworld,’ which destroyed itself with three big mistakes

HBO has ended the futuristic epic years after the original inspiration got lost in ludicrous twists and shaky concepts.

Darren Franich


The delightful first season of Westworld established two distinct science-fiction worlds. Above was the West, a fake frontier full of fake people whose fake adventures were better than life for their human guests. Beneath that phony past lay a familiar future: Corporate drones staring at screens, juggling customer expectations and manager directives. The robots had no freedom but all the fun, firing six-shooters and falling into tragic love while dying over and over again. The humans were all outrageous workplace monsters: Wannabe deities, preening creatives, ambitious executives.

Westworld always fancied itself a high-minded existential head trip, replete with conversations about the nature of identity and how to define reality. These are fun questions to ask when a show is fun to watch, and the HBO series was very fun until it became a boring embarrassment that was unceremonially canceled on Friday. Season 1 stood up to so many interpretations, adapting Michael Crichton’s 1973 concept for the internet age. Hosts like Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) were sort of video game characters and obviously prostitutes and definitely enslaved and maybe the proletariat but maybe also celebrities caught in an unwanted conservatorship. Delos was Silicon Valley and nostalgia and fascism and behind-the-scenes Hollywood: Note Anthony Hopkins playing a Western-loving storyteller with John Ford’s surname. And the guests were us, with Jimmi Simpson playing the rapture of a regular guy who binges on an entertainment experience even when he knows it’s all one big lie.


Jimmi Simpson and Evan Rachel Wood in ‘Westworld’

| Credit: John P. Johnson/HBO

Every character popped. Newton’s performance quickly dominated the show, shading humor into a strange tale of a simulation awakening. Jeffrey Wright was poignantly lovable as baffled Bernard. Then Tessa Thompson arrived to Ragnarok West‘s world. All the while Ed Harris lingered as an apex predator who seemed to have memorized the show’s strategy guide. Both universes had stratospheres. A random Delos functionary like Felix (Leonardo Nam) was just as crucial as wild bandit-bot Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr). Archetypes were subverted: Dashing hero Teddy (James Marsden) was an oft-murdered sap, while brutal business bro Logan (Ben Barnes) turned pitiful, and Dolores herself was a distressed damsel-turned-revolutionary. The two worlds clashed madly, two narrative chessboards that could move together in unexpected ways.

So what the hell happened? By its third season, Westworld was funny bad, a go-nowhere thriller about various lame people who were mostly the same person defeating a giant ball of knowledge. It was a show about an evil French trillionaire who dominated Earth with his precious information while Ed Harris hung out in a mental asylum and Thandie Newton waited for someone to tell her where to point her sword. It was a show about Aaron Paul feeling sad about flashbacks. Emotional and actual color bled out of the show’s universe, until everyone mostly wore black, and wonderful Bernard turned into a stone-faced worldsaver. The actors looked trapped.

There are people who always thought Westworld was overrated, and Reddit-y true believers who swear season 4 was starting to tie it all together. I can’t go with the latter — people, there were scary flies — though I disagree with the former. The theme park made an ideal setting, full of lavish personalities and endless new arrivals. In an earlier TV era, season 1 would have been the show: Fantasy Island with cyborgs. So Westworld‘s first mistake was a problem of scale, getting too big too fast. Season 1 kept all the characters in a limited geographic space, giving them constant opportunity to bounce off one another. In its later seasons, the show theoretically covered the globe, but that meant the show had to keep inventing unlikely reasons to bring some characters together.

The second mistake was simpler: Westworld just overdosed on twists. The series kept trying to outdo 1’s timeline tomfoolery, with ever-crazier results. It turned out that some characters were in new bodies, and some people were (once again) in a separate timeline, and the “real” fake reality also contained a digital virtual reality that looked entirely real. Season 1’s best running gag was how often the hosts died and came back to life — the life cycle of a messiah, or Super Mario. I thought the show was making fun of how prevalent character death had become after Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. At one point, Maeve and Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) screwed while their tent burned because they needed to die in the most mangled way possible. Incredible! But then Westworld lost its sense of humor and kept bungling major exits. Season 1 ended with the shocking death of one character, who reappeared as a digital avatar, and the heroic sacrifice of another character, who…  just didn’t die. Season 3 ended with the shocking death of another character, who… also didn’t die. I guess his neck wasn’t that slashed. Some actors stuck around to play different characters, which sounds fun, except vivid personalities lost all their fidelity from the constant transfer.

A TV show overdosed on serialization and sacrificed character specificity for easy shock. These are common mishaps, for modern TV, like they have happened in maybe 12 Ryan Murphy shows. Westworld‘s final mistake was more complicated, though, and more worrisome for genre television’s future. Season 1 focused on a few core science-fiction concepts. Robot theme park, constant surveillance, evolving AI, now go! Then the show helplessly grab-bagged every conceit it could think of: The robots could also be duplicates who could transfer their brains between bodies, and humans wanted to use the robots to extend their own life indefinitely, but also everyone could transfer their consciousness into a digital heaven, and scary flies could control humanity. All this more was actually less, a path personified by the journey of Maeve from “someone who wants to escape her prison” to “badass activist technopath doing action things for world safety.”

I honestly worry that the pace of actual science is outpacing some writers’ ability to make coherent science-fiction stories. The default trend casts tech types as dark-wizard gods with infinite power. This seems like cynical realism, but I wonder if it’s actually self-defeating CEO propaganda — and a way for writers to cheat their way to profundity, approaching Big Theme problems without bothering to consider any palpable human stakes. Or maybe Hollywood types are just a little in awe of Silicon Valley types — who, after all, might be their bosses soon? Elon Musk might be scary, but he still worries about stock prices. Peter Thiel obviously wants to live forever, which makes it rather poignant (sorry Pete!) that none of us will. Jeff Bezos (who actually is Joy’s and Nolan’s new boss) has more money than some continents — and even he needed to hire divorce lawyers. You can hate some of them or all of them, but Westworld kept imagining various Musk-ovian nefarious tycoons tyrannizing the world with megamachines, while all the show’s once-vibrant characters could do was arm themselves into superheroes. The chessboards turned into checkers. A crucial lesson for TV writers everywhere: Sometimes a show about robot cowboys really is a show about robot cowboys.

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Westworld (TV series)

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s ambitious sci-fi thriller is based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name.

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