HBO’s quest to fill the eventual void left by Game of Thrones is off to a very strong and thoughtful start.
There’s a sequence early in the first season of HBO’s new show Westworld, in the opening minutes of the second episode, in which we are shown how “Guests” (the human participants in this story) are introduced to the park. Before they enter the carefully curated world of Westworld, a high-tech amusement park filled with android “Hosts” and an opportunity to run amok in the old west, participating in violence and mayhem to their heart’s content, the Guests are led into a room where they can choose their wardrobe and weapons. Everything is authentic and bespoke. We watch as a reluctant first timer named William (played by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia recurring player Jimmi Simpson) is presented with his options, including the offer of an intimate encounter with his unearthly blonde escort. Before he is allowed in the park, he is given a choice of hat: the black hat or the white. Because in this fantasy land, he can be a hero or a villain, his experience only limited by his own reticence to step outside his moral bubble.
This is a microcosm for what Westworld offers as a show. The audience is given the choice of how they’d like to see this meticulously crafted world. Are we going to see all the sex and violence and wear the black hat, writing it into HBO’s long history of presenting us with gratuitous entertainment? Or will we wear the white hat and read the show as a network looking into the mirror, exploring the consequences of such forms of entertainment through the eyes of Hosts of its fictional theme park?
No matter what we choose, we will find wonder in the exploration of Westworld’s vast landscapes. We’ll also find intrigue in its Hosts, including Evan Rachel Wood’s farm girl Dolores or Thandie Newton as the brothel den mother Maeve. What producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan have created is a world worth exploring and characters worth knowing. And just as the creation of Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) within the show offers, there’s a bubbling of mystery just below the surface. Within the shiny perfection of Westworld lies a greater mystery and discussion about the nature of humanity. Beyond passing a Turing test and being self-aware, what does it truly mean to be human? In that regard, Westworld is a deeply fascinating conversation that I look forward to having over the course of its first season. Having screened the first four episodes, I’m convinced that all the controversy around its sex and violence will evolve into a more interesting, nuanced conversation. Because Westworld is concerned with humanity on a number of levels. Why are we so interested in our most sinister urges? Is ignorance truly bliss? And if we spend too much time indulging those most nefarious impulses, what kind of eventual retribution awaits?
There are some answers in the show’s first four episodes, but I’m not here to spoil them for you. What I can promise for now is that HBO has finally found itself another drama that will be worthy of much conversation. I look forward to reading Rob Hunter’s weekly reviews as we go episode-by-episode (starting Monday) and engaging with the many opinions that are bound to arise as Westworld unfolds. In its quest to find a replacement for the chasm that will be left when Game of Thrones finishes in two years, the network has found itself an interesting start. Whether or not Westworld pays off in a meaningful, longterm way remains to be seen. For now, I can safely encourage everyone to begin watching when Westworld debuts this Sunday, October 2.