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Westworld & a wild (West) goose chase

In a world of instantly streamed international entertainment, we all hold the same remote control. Here's what to point it at

A still from Westworld
A still from Westworld

On Sunday night, the first season of Westworld rode off, revolvers blazing, into the sunset. HBO’s $100 million gamble paid off, and the show has proved to be just the breasts-and-violence epic the network needed in a season shorn of Game Of Thrones (which, ironically enough, happens to be winter). While we’ve had many massively successful shows this year—Stranger Things, Narcos, Atlanta, The Crown—it is Westworld that had most of us break our bingewatching habits and watch weekly as we salivated for the next installment, the time between episodes spent musing on conspiracy theories and looking back for clues. This is a show we put our heads together to discuss.

Why is this? Because Westworld is a mystery? Doesn’t cut the mustard. Search Party is a far more engaging mystery, for instance, and I see no Vanity Fair writers putting on their investigative fedoras to hypothesise about that show. Or Fargo, even, which is (rightfully) universally beloved. We enjoy those shows at our own pace, as with nearly all fine television. No, there is more to this than genre. What I posit Westworld does is that it sets out daring us to guess, it starts out with inbuilt shadows and fog and teases us with breadcrumbs of clues and revelations, challenging us to keep up with—and to out-guess—the creators before they reveal their hand.

The important thing in this narrative approach is that it look smart. I wrote about the gorgeous opening episode and the promise offered by Westworld right here eight columns ago, and the show — by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, based on a 1973 film by Michael Crichton, streaming in India on Hotstar—appears legitimately brilliant when you first step into it. It is a slick, sexy show with orgies and gunfights, a cast that includes Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and Sir Anthony Hopkins, and a player-piano that plays The Rolling Stones and Amy Winehouse in old-timey saloon bars. What’s not to love?

A lot, it turns out. We will get to the specifics of what doesn’t work in this show—suffice it to say that I am unimpressed by the piano hackily choosing to play Radiohead’s Exit Music (For A Film) during the climax—but for now this is what I ponder, bracing myself for inevitable imitations of this storytelling style: is it okay for a show to build its entire narrative on a bluff? On the appearance of greatness? If we have seven or eight weeks of breathless watching or guessing, does it matter if the climactic payoff isn’t as profound or as layered or as graceful as the show has led us to expect? Is a weak finale forgivable when the season has electrified us so?

I personally hope not—but I do predict many networks and writers may follow this path paved with ratings and reportage. As for us, we set ourselves up for amazement while the show was merely about what a maze meant.

(The rest of this column is best left to those who have watched Westworld over the last ten weeks, and contains spoilers.)

It was midway through Westworld that the seams started showing. The excellent actors did their bit, certainly, and the meticulous attention to detail is all gloriously cinematic, yet the writing begins to feel mechanical and half-formed. After the slow, elegant world-building of the first few episodes — episode three, where William comes to the park and chooses his stetson, is an ace — it gradually became clear that fine actors were playing half-formed beings, playing characters instead of archetypes in a show that was, despite its self-awareness, treading deeper and deeper into a pulpy b-movie narrative.

I started noticing it when Thandie Newton started saying ‘fuck’ in every episode. The word sounds wonderful in her silken accent, the ‘k’ violently and impressively striking through like a gloved hand breaking glass, and while it made me grin the first half-dozen times, I realised it was being used purely for effect. That Newton would bite her lip and be sensual and violent all at once, that Jeffrey Wright would look confused and conveniently ask questions at least some of which he should know the answers to, and that these answers would be provided—in longform—by Hopkins, dabbing a sly professorial colour to blatant and clunky exposition, that a Kid called Billy (see?) doesn’t want to be called that. All this while The Man In Black gets closer to the truth, and is played by Ed Harris—who, not coincidentally, played the all-seeing controller, “God", in The Truman Show.

The show—like the robots in the amusement park therein—starts running in loops, and once you spot the patterns the lack of substantial storytelling becomes increasingly obvious. We are used to better television. The final episode, an indulgent 90-minute whopper, exists merely to tell us about twists we may have already guessed, and does this in such dispirited and unimaginative fashion that it feels like an absolute slog. There are several revelations afoot, but the very fact that we’ve been looking at something all wrong doesn’t mean much unless the alternative is truly ingenious.

Westworld is about artificial intelligence. Yet the only one pulling the strings in this varied, lawless world is one man—named, in its Western-saluting way, after Robert Ford, the man who assassinated Jesse James—and all of his schemes come to fruition rather too flawlessly. Turns out he wants what we don’t expect him to, but the effectiveness of this true revelation is undercut by many other cards being turned over via endless monologues and long action scenes without any real stakes. The more I think of this season as a whole—and the gimmick of multiple timelines the narrative relies on too-heavily—the more it feels like a prologue for something smarter. Sharper. Deeper.

Or maybe they got me again. It’s all that damned promise the show holds. I’ll be watching whenever Westworld returns, but as of now I dream not of electric sheep or saddles. This is an ambitious show that bit off far more than it could chew and ended up beautiful and hollow. A silver-tongued conjuror that looked better rolling up its sleeves than at the actual trickery. After the abracadabra has been said, however, it doesn’t look like anything to me.

Stream of stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.

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