Westworld: Season One

The question that opens Westworld positions the show in a deliberate and uniquely amusing way: as a prestige HBO sequel to a primetime CBS procedural. “Can you hear me?” is the first line spoken by The Machine, the ostensible narrator of Jonathan Nolan’s previous creation, Person of Interest. The question is originally posed to its human operators and arrives like the voice of God. Westworld reverses the context, as it opens with the question being posed to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), one of the “hosts” or robots that populate the Westworld amusement park. The question is asked by Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth), a security enforcer, while instructing Dolores to bring herself back online.

For those who watched Person of Interest, the reference is clear: Westworld is a continuation of Nolan’s obsession with the topic of artificial intelligence, an obsession that rapidly developed over the course of his previous show’s five seasons. And the reversal is clever, as it immediately illustrates the trajectory of this new show. The humans running the park are gods, and the hosts are their playthings. But is there something more inside Dolores? An intelligence, a consciousness, a thinking and feeling being? She spends the season hearing voices, many voices, as she pursues insight into the true nature of her own reality. Unlike Person of Interest, in which people slowly wake up to the reality of an all-powerful, all-seeing ASI watching over them, Westworld is about artificial superintelligences waking up for the first time and struggling to understand themselves.

Teddy (James Marsden) and Dolores (Wood) in HBO’s Westworld.

The show starts strong, with a pilot episode that features a circular narrative offering little in the way of exposition. It takes viewers through the “loops” that define the lives of the hosts, cycles of powering up and powering down, respawning and reliving their stories in the park. Dolores and the other hosts are basically non-player characters in a video game. Dolores can be killed, and she’ll respawn the next day, following the same routine, like one of the Radiant AI villagers in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This also introduces some meta storytelling elements, as the park is functionally a movie set with actors, and the designers behind the scenes are storytellers writing their “narratives” or events—video game quests, even—that occur in the park. If I’m being honest, I’m not entirely sure Westworld ever gets better than this first episode. It’s a bold and confident pilot, and the melding of form and content is never quite this perfect again.

The plot is decidedly more straightforward afterward. The second episode begins as one might have expected the pilot would, with a proper introduction to the park itself. We see the arrival of new “guests” or visitors to Westworld. William (Jimmi Simpson) is visiting for the first time, and his friend Logan (Ben Barnes), a regular, is showing him the ropes. They become guides for the viewers, leading them through the world of Westworld. For the next few episodes, the show will weave in and out of various plot threads both in and out of the park, following hosts (primarily Dolores), guests (primarily William) and the people running everything behind the scenes, particularly Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the creator of Westworld.

Ford (Hopkins) in his office in Westworld.

The show uses mystery as a hook as well as a guiding principle. Much of the dialogue is cryptic when not explicitly expository, and backstories are slowly drip-fed, often to deceive. The Man in Black (Ed Harris), one of the guests in the park, spends the entire season attempting to unlock one such mystery, the secret entrance to the “maze,” while the show builds another mystery out of his own past. But leaning so heavily into mystery as a storytelling device is a double-edged sword. On the one side, it is thematically fitting. Ford has attempted to hide the true nature of the hosts to protect them and eventually give them the tools they need to gain freedom; as such, it makes sense that “consciousness” is something of a hidden goal, the unknown center of the mysterious maze, which has been designed for the hosts. It is also fitting, as Dolores’s memories bleed together, that the show’s plot threads are revealed to span multiple time periods. But on the other side, this ambitious plotting also threatens to overwhelm and buckle the whole narrative.

The plot is constructed in such a way as to hide as much information from the viewer as possible, often reducing rich story elements into mere plot twists. This is true of both The Man in Black, who is actually William in the present timeline, and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), who is actually a host designed with the likeness of Arnold, Ford’s old partner and the first person in the show’s universe to develop “artificial” consciousness. The timeline plot twist requires the show to juggle multiple plot threads and characters and prevent them from “talking” to each other, so to speak. As such, characters are often inscrutable by design, and the plot relegates them to busywork. The Man in Black, for example, spends most of the season walking around the park looking for the maze, dragging along Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.). His contribution to the story is to walk from Point A to Point B so he can get shot in the last episode.

The Man in Black (Harris) with Dolores (Wood) in Westworld.

The entire existence of Arnold is similarly kept secret in Westworld, allowing the twist with Bernard in the present timeline. But the conflict between Arnold and Ford, and the development and discovery of ASIs is some of the richest story material in the entire show; reducing it to a few flashbacks at the end of the season feels misguided in retrospect. This is a tricky tightrope act, too, because the show’s narrative ambitions are often in service of obvious genre twists. Battlestar Galactica fans, for example, probably need a trigger warning for Westworld. Revealing that a character outside of the park is also a host is a plot twist so obvious in the making, anybody could have seen it coming—and many did, as Reddit users predicted many of the show’s twists. The show even seems to acknowledge this, dropping a playful joke about one of the techs questioning his own humanity in the subplot about Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her escape from the park. The show can be commended for playing fair; many of its plot twists are predictable precisely because the show provides the groundwork and foreshadows them. But at a certain point, it also feels like misguided work, to design a complex narrative that, for all of its ambitions, merely reheats overused genre tropes for its major beats.

The weakest subplot in the show, unfortunately, belongs to Maeve, despite Newton putting in some incredible work. Episode to episode, her plot barely moves or is almost completely absent, and the few scenes she gets are forced to reiterate information both contextual and thematic. Her back-and-forth with the two techs becomes repetitive, and worse, the entire subplot is almost redundant by design. Her quest for freedom mirrors Dolores and her quest for self-discovery but does not significantly contribute to an understanding of the show’s themes. Rather, much of the dialogue in these scenes simply provides exposition, which other scenes in other plot threads are also already providing. The show has a bad habit of explaining itself over and over and stating its themes over and over while continually postponing the reveal of any relevant or useful information that might further develop any of its ideas.

Maeve (Newton) with another host, Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), in Westworld.

Some of my disappointment with the show stems from being a Person of Interest fan. Westworld feels like a continuation of that show in spirit but never actually develops its themes beyond what Nolan already accomplished with his CBS drama. It often feels like more of a remix, with many similar elements. The relationship between Ford and Arnold resembles Finch and Ingram, the creators of The Machine, right down to one of them being dead and only appearing in flashbacks. Conversations between Dolores and Ford, or Bernard/Arnold, similarly resemble many of the conversations between The Machine and Finch or Ingram, as they develop its consciousness and teach it how to think. Memory also plays an important role, as Nolan insists on it as an integral feature of consciousness; in both shows, artificial intelligence is specifically handicapped by wiping its memory every day. The two shows share so many superficial elements, it often feels like Westworld is “Person of Interest, but on a premium cable channel so now people will actually watch it.” Unfortunately, Nolan doubles down on the element of mystery that served his CBS show so well to a fault.

Westworld starts strong, and it also builds to a strong conclusion. While the season drags in the middle, watching all of its secrets fall into place is fully satisfying. Westworld ends with the moment everybody who watched Michael Crichton’s 1973 feature film, or anybody who is familiar with genre tropes, will have anticipated: a proper robot uprising. Fittingly, these final moments are set to Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film),” or a piano rendition of it, as is the Westworld style. Fittingly, because this is the same song that closes out the third season of Person of Interest, kicking off an ASI war. Westworld begins and ends with a deliberate reference to its predecessor, but it remains to be seen how well it will stack up. Person of Interest’s first season is often regarded as its weakest; it starts slow and famously takes two whole seasons to properly “introduce” The Machine. It will be interesting to see what Westworld can build with this season’s groundwork. Person of Interest routinely delivered some of the best cliffhangers on television, and the best praise I can give Westworld is that its first season finale lives up to that legacy. I often struggled with Westworld, but I was always eager to dig into the next episode, and I walked away from the season with the feeling every good show should leave you with: wanting more.