At the midpoint of its first season, HBO’s Westworld is clearly as dense and sprawling as anything on TV. The focus moves between frontstage (the park) and backstage (the lab) settings, half the characters are androids who pass as humans and the stories mutate and bleed into each other as they loop over decades of repeated telling. The androids don’t age, which raises the possibility that the whole thing is happening on multiple timelines.
The show doesn’t orbit around a central Tony Soprano or Don Draper. Instead we get Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) as the awakening android, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) as the brains of the operation, William (Jimmi Simpson) as the viewer-surrogate park visitor and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) as the long-time visitor who’s working through the maze.
Westworld builds on the sprawl and discursive structure of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the manufactured repetition and spare tone of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and the surreal technological elements and counter-historical approach of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. The dual story—sci-fi corporate thriller and shoot-’em-up western—gives the producers two distinct genres of film and TV to pay homage to and/or upend. And the overarching ideas of the observer and the observed, and whether artificial beings can have human thoughts, will make you dizzy if you stand up too fast after watching an episode.
That complexity didn’t accrue over time. Rather than start with a core story and work its way out, Westworld’s pilot sprawled through the desert like a Las Vegas suburb, identifying dozens of characters and opening storylines. Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson advanced the theory on her excellent Decoding Westworld podcast that the pilot script was so unwieldy that it had to be split into the first two episodes, and I suspect she’s right.
With Sunday night’s Ep. 5 (“Contrapasso”), the season is showing some pretty deep stress lines in the foundation. HBO and Westworld’s producers have positioned the show for maximum engagement—recaps, Reddit threads, podcasts, ponderous showrunner interviews—but it’s hard to say if those are bonus elements for superfans or a necessary context.
“Contrapasso” continued opening more boxes without taking long to look inside, but it offered the clearest sense yet that the still-undefined maze and the awakening of the hosts will be the focus of the season’s back half.
The main story is Delores and William reaching Pariah with the increasingly annoying Logan (Ben Barnes), who finally gets some of the reality he’s been wanting—and, frankly, that I’ve been wanting—in the form of a beatdown by a couple of host thugs. Delores sees or thinks she sees a Delores doppelganger in Pariah, but the rest of us got the big letdown in the reveal of the “genital to genital touch” controversy—an overstuffed orgy written into the episode to satisfy the HBO bouncing-breasts quota.
We finally got a scene between the Man in Black and Dr. Ford about the maze at the end of the episode. It was fun to finally see them together, but they spoke so cryptically—“I think there’s deeper meaning hiding under all that, something that the person who created it wanted to express, something true”—that’s more about the idea of the maze than the maze itself.
I’ve never been this frustrated with a show I actually enjoy watching. The Walking Dead has become increasingly complex over its seven seasons, but it’s still essentially a story about Rick Grimes in the zombie apocalypse. Game of Thrones has always been multi-POV show, but those stories move in linear, overlapping progressions. Lost ultimately did collapse under the weight, but it was a smooth ride and the twists were generally in the direction of adding a wider universe of characters.
Westworld has almost everything you’d want from great TV—it’s cinematic, it’s extraordinarily well acted, it’s asking relevant questions—but the storytelling is so self-styled as next-level stuff that’s it’s difficult to sit back and enjoy actually watching it. I can get past the HBO-i-ness of it—the showy faux-provocative orgy in last night’s episode comes to mind—but there are too many existential questions for the show to function as entertainment.
Is Bernard a robot? Is Arnold really dead? Is the maze designed to lure the Man in Black away from the main story? Are William and the Man in Black the same person 30 years apart? Does the whole thing take place on Mars? I’m OK with a show having mysteries, but I’m having trouble ignoring all the things I don’t know that are foundational to the things I do (or should) know.
The previews at the end of this week’s episode make me wonder if HBO has the same concerns. The scenes are from multiple episodes and set up Maeve (Thandie Newton) as a bridge between the show’s two worlds. “It’s a difficult thing, realizing your entire life is a hideous fiction,” she says to her lab techs. “It’s all a story created by you to keep us here. I’d like to make some changes.”
Here’s hoping she can.