How to Fix: Westworld

This was originally published at Metro on 26th July 2018. 

It can be a touch disheartening to discover that a show you previously enjoyed has, in one way or another, gone off the rails. We’ve all experienced this letdown before: whether it was because a promising sitcom lost its edge (Community); an enticing drama grew too knotty and convoluted to follow (Heroes); or a good miniseries abandoned its integrity for the sake of a hasty sequel (True Detective).

There’s a certain indignity to it, like watching an ageing rock star you once admired stumble onto stage, visibly ravaged by decades of substance abuse and bad choices. All it takes is a brief glance and you realise that they’re just a shell of their former selves, unintelligibly mumbling along to the music, no longer able to recall the lyrics to their songs or what endeared them to fans in the first place. Come to think of it, that’s precisely what True Detective: Series 2 felt like. Especially the bit about incoherent mumbling.

Westworld

Credit: HBO

If this sounds remotely familiar to you, then perhaps you’re a loyal viewer of HBO’s Westworld, which just wrapped up an iffy sophomore season characterised by slow pacing, squandered potential and more resurrections than both testaments of the Bible combined.

How this happened is anyone’s guess. After all, success was practically giftwrapped for the showrunners (Lisa Joy & Jonathan Nolan), who had a great opportunity to build upon the strong foundations they had already laid, whilst simultaneously ironing out any kinks. Instead, they did the exact inverse, amplifying everything that was off-putting about Westworld and bizarrely jettisoning the parts that people liked. As you can imagine, audience goodwill soon dried up and the ratings began to plummet.

Nevertheless, it’s not too late to salvage the situation. Although the show’s credibility is now in a precarious position, all it will take to turn things around is one basic, yet utterly-transformative, change. You see, the key to getting Westworld back on its feet is to simply trade in the overbearing emphasis on plot-twists, for a renewed focus on character development.

Westworld 2

Credit: HBO

First, let’s address that character point. Westworld is privileged to have capable performers among its ranks, including multiple Oscar, Emmy and Tony nominees. A couple of them have even received acclaim for their work on the show itself, most notably Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright. Unfortunately, whilst this acting talent is almost universally top-tier, the same cannot be said for the material that the cast is working from.

They’re all saddled with remarkably sterile and emotionally distant characters. To an extent this is sort-of deliberate, as approximately half of them are portraying artificial facsimiles of human beings. However, at the same time, the central crux of the show is supposed to be that these theme park attractions are evolving into new lifeforms, with their own dreams, fears and passions.

But be honest, do you ever get that impression from them? Because frankly they never so much as crack a smile, shed a tear, or raise their voices by even an octave. Sure, the robots talk about how they’re experiencing sensations like love and pain, but they never demonstrate this in their behaviour. On the contrary, they just pick apart these feelings and examine them with all the cold despondency of an academic essayist.

How are we meant to buy into the idea that these machines are developing sentience, when they’re so uninvolving and detached? Incidentally, the human characters don’t fare much better, with interactions that are limited to spouting-off dry exposition and pompously quoting classical literature. Not the most compelling bunch.

Overall, the best change that season 3 can make is to stop these characters from acting like walking textbooks and have them behave them like real people instead.

Westworld 3

Credit: HBO

 After that, HBO’s next priority should be to streamline the show a little. Which they might be reluctant to do, given that overwhelming complexity has long been touted as one of Westworld’s defining features.  In particular, the first season was widely commended for its ingenious use of flashbacks and flashforwards. This storytelling device was employed to masterful effect in order to misdirect viewers and disguise certain narrative twists.

Overeager to repeat the cunning trick for Season 2, the writers made a fatal mistake by awkwardly cramming time jumps in at every juncture, rather than letting them crop up organically. The result was sometimes messy, often obtuse and always unnecessary.

Indeed the narrative felt willfully confounding, despite being quite straightforward, mainly consisting of characters wandering from Point A to Point B. What made it so bewildering then, was the fact that everything was arbitrarily fragmented and jumbled up. Moreover, it was transparent that this was only being done to disorient us, so they could conceal how uneventful and meandering things were becoming.

In short, the whole out-of-sequence gimmick felt very obligatory and forced. What’s more, the incessant flitting around was highly disruptive to the flow of the drama, so if season 3 is going to persist with these temporal shenanigans, then there needs to be a damn good reason for it.

Westworld 4

Credit: HBO

Likewise someone may need to have intervention with the showrunners about their infuriating dependency on shock revelations, because season 2 was filled with so much contrived nonsense, that it started to verge on self-parody. In fact, if you attempt to disentangle the relentless twists, you end up sounding like a deranged conspiracy theorist.

For instance, here’s a condensed breakdown of the finale:

First, we learn that the park has been storing copies of its guests in a secret database. Then it transpires that Ford is controlling Bernard from beyond the grave, using him to activate a virtual heaven for the hosts. Meanwhile, it turns out that Delores has been uploaded into an imitation of Charlotte … or something like that. Oh and Dolores created Bernard, but she did that in the future? And the virtual depiction of Ford we’ve been seeing isn’t really there, he’s a figment of Bernard’s imagination. Plus William is a host now, I think. Maybe.

As you can see from that migraine-inducing, Matrix-sequel esque claptrap, Westworld’s writers, quite literally, lost the plot. They are so preoccupied with doing something unexpected, that they don’t stop to think if any of it makes a lick of sense!  You subsequently begin to wonder if they shared so much as an email exchange while they were churning out this dizzying piffle, because none of it adds up.

It’s all well and good trying to catch your audience out with surprises, but like any good jigsaw, the pieces should fit together in the end. Otherwise you haven’t really outsmarted us, you’ve just provided a bad puzzle that we have no hope of solving.

And that’s absolutely what happened here, so it might behoove the showrunners to keep things cleaner and simpler next time. At least that way they’ll be able to redirect their efforts into fleshing out characters. Alas, until this happens it’s going to be hard for us to stay invested.

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