In an entertainment landscape inundated with reboots and remakes, even HBO’s announcement to turn the 1973 Yul Brynner vehicle, sci-fi film Westworld into a multiseason series surprised no one. After all, what’s old is new again (given a major overhaul, of course).
HBO’s series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy say that there is no direct connection to the film, other than in name. Rather, HBO’s Westworld is in a world of its own, and from a slow start, the series has taken off in a big way.
Westworld stars Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, the stereotypical damsel in distress, by design. She and hundreds of others are what are referred to as “hosts,” artificial intelligences built for the sole purpose of giving visitors to the high-end theme park whatever they desire, be that with good or bad intent. Westworld is akin to a Disneyland for role players: Pick a hat (black or white, for obvious reasons), don your Western attire, and suddenly you, too, are either the hero or villain in a stylized Western world.
Dolores is our center and through her we learn the many follies of man. Guests often shoot hosts simply because they can; they assault them in various, sometimes sexual, ways. After all, these hosts are not human . . . right? Take the Man in Black (Ed Harris). Harris stalks and murders hosts with gusto. But these hosts feel pain — and they suffer; and suffering, as becomes morbidly apparent, is the key to this entire series.
Slowly, methodically even, the park unravels as hosts become increasingly aware of their situation; and a little over midway through, there comes one hell of a payoff.
Anthony Hopkins is a screen presence unlike any other as Dr. Robert Ford, one half of the park’s creators. His interactions with assistant Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) reveal a man with many ulterior motives. At times, Ford is menacing, that Hannibal Lecter gaze returning to Hopkins’ threatening face; while at other times, Ford is fatherly. Hopkins’ acting elevates other, lesser-talented folk around him, and gives the series a gravitas that, without it, might seem a bit hokey.
After episode 5, the show finds itself, and the journey solidifies. We’re introduced to Will (Jimmi Simpson) and Logan (Ben Barnes), brothers-in-law-to-be from a wealthy connected family looking to bond over a little role playing. For Will, the weight of the world proves too heavy, and the moral implications of raping and pillaging take a toll as Dolores begins to exert signs that she may be more than a host. Will, ever the optimist, follows along as Logan attempts to ground him in reality.
If by mid-season you’ve grown a bit bored — and it’s easy to see why, as the path slows down a bit and several storylines branch off from one another — take a deep breath and plod through. Come episode 8 and beyond, as the plan unfolds and the concept is realized, it becomes worth having taken the journey. Hopkins’ performance in the season finale, along with co-stars James Marsden (who plays the destined-to-suffer Teddy), Thandie Newton (self-aware host Maeve Millay) and Simpson all put on powerful performances, culminating in a finale that actually answers a majority of questions laid out over 10 episodes, a rarity in modern scripted television. (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead.) Come for the spine-tingling conclusion, stay for the epic old-timey piano Radiohead covers.
According to writer Jonathan Nolan, there is story enough for five seasons. If season 1 is any indication, it’ll be one hell of a ride.
Out of the Box is a biweekly column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.