Westworld is HBO’s new series – the NC17 rated remake of the cheesy 70’s western about robots run amok starring Yul Brynner. But it’s much adapted from the original, and I mean that in a good way. It’s beautifully shot (even in HD), with a pleasantly complex set of story lines, and features some splendid acting by legends and relative newcomers alike. And the story of Westworld finds itself at the end of episode 5, to be in a rare position to say something really important about the decline of our culture, and who we really are beneath it all.
Don’t get me wrong, I have as little confidence in Hollywood’s depth as anyone. The people who make American movies are in virtually all cases, as vain, shallow, and thoughtless as any humans. So I’m still holding back enough enthusiasm so that I won’t be too heartbroken when Westworld turns into another Hollywood version of an “important morality play about the evils of racism and the role of women”. But I confess, so far, I’m absolutely entranced.
And one of the main reasons is the conversation I mentioned. It was in my mind anyway, just the right mix of deep philosophy and shallow accessibility to lend itself to a much bigger point about good and evil. It seems flawlessly designed for a nearly illiterate American audience that’s all but completed its detachment from its history and culture, but that still swims in the ocean of western civilization. In Westworld, the characters at least are looking for something true. Something with meaning. That alone makes it better in my mind than 99% of the childish dribble that Hollywood produces.
In 21st century Westworld the theme is that if the robots are so lifelike that you can’t tell the difference between them and the humans, then what is the difference between them and the humans? We’re given glimpses of the iceberg of difference, but so far only relatively subtle ones, viewed through the heavy mist, and showing no clear indication of the larger shapes beneath the surface. The result is a mystery. We can’t tell for sure who is the good guy, who is the bad, and who means well or ill for the guests, their robot hosts, or society at large.
Sure, some of the characters are obvious. The businessman who just wants to rape and murder his way across the put up landscape to gratify his ego, or his future brother in law who has much less interest in the dark side, they’re both pretty easy. So too is the much murdered but noble robot Ted Flood, who is well played by James Marsdon, and who we are told in episode one, only exists in the Westworld universe ‘to lose’ to the guests who want to murder him. There is the fair maiden turned Joan of Arc style heroine and the omnipresent hooker with a heart of… well something or other.
But all that’s just the surface of Westworld. It’s a world where vice is very much rewarded, and virtue exists only so that it can be made to serve as a weakened foil to the depravity of the guests. The damsel isn’t ‘good’ except in as much as she’s available to be raped. The would be hero is in the end, just a victim. But not all the characters see it that way. Some at least, say they’re looking for something else.
Enter Ed Harris’ ‘man in black’, so far just an homage to the Yul Brynner character that runs amok and murders guests in the original 70’s version. So far he’s the most brutal person in the park, but there is more to him. He thinks there is something else to be had. In the conversation I’m obsessing over, he plays the devil to the enigmatically presented and nearly omnipotent Anthony Hopkins, the park's chief designer and director. You can get a glimpse of it in this trailer for episode 5:
There are subplots of course, and they have their appeal. Thandie Newton for instance plays the robot hooker who spends a good chunk of her on camera time totally nude. I’m as happy as the next guy to see an exotic little gem like her totally undressed, especially one who is as much ‘my type’ as she is. But what is it exactly that seems to fill all actresses of a certain age with a desire to nude scenes? It makes you wonder if we don’t live in a world with the same morality as the Westworld park – where vice is always rewarded, and virtue regarded with nothing but contempt.
That wonder may be the even bigger point. Later episodes will probably tell us. In fact it will probably tell us, in typical Hollywood style, with all the delicacy of a ball peen hammer to the center of the forehead. But so far, the discussion between Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins is the big story line. Good versus evil? God vs. the devil? The importance of freewill? So far they’re all still on the table.
The writing is so well done that I’m still looking at Westworld as a great opportunity that, like so much else that comes from California these days, will probably lead to a great disappointment. But I’m holding out hope. I’m hoping they don’t bother with the ‘evils of slavery’ episode, or the ‘George Bush is still a monster’ episode, or any of the other preachy nonsense that they think is important out there in LALA land.
I’m hoping they tell us that the greatest evil any of us ever really commit, is the subtle ways we live to serve our egos and insecurities. That we are most of us not monsters who rape and kill, but when we indulge our vanity and envy we are setting off a chain of events that often leads to much greater pain and suffering than we ever imagine. I’m hoping they tell us that what is described today as traditional virtue and selflessness is not only its own reward but a reward for others as well. But that’s just me. And I’m probably not the audience they’re shooting for at deeply progressive HBO.
In many ways I’m very much a man out of touch with the world. I still care about right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice. And I’ve done my best to live my life that way, imperfect though my efforts may have been. I want every act in my life to be one with meaning, however small and I very much do not live for the satisfaction of my appetites. In today’s world that isolates me greatly because in our world, just like the one in Westworld, selfish (rhetorical) knifeman and the assassins of the corporate political world are the ones who always reap the greatest rewards, and virtue driven guys like me are seen by them as the naive fools they prey upon. In 21st century New York, fulfillment of their own desire is the only thing that seems to drive anyone anymore.
But I’m still holding out hope that Westworld can tell a different story. After this last episode I know it can. The question is, will the producers see any point in bothering. I guess the real question is, who are they and what is driving them?