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Ambitious yet frustrating ‘Westworld’ remixes myth

| Friday, April 27, 2018

Diane Park | The Observer

“Westworld” is a sprawling behemoth. Thematically, it tackles consciousness, love, memory and morality. Visually, it captures breathtaking landscapes with sun-dappled cinematography, stages brilliant set pieces and inventively plays with western iconography. With narrative, it juggles over a dozen major characters, multiple timelines and a handful of rug-pulling twists. Entering its second season on HBO, “Westworld” is audacious, beautiful and surprising; I simply wish it was also compelling.

To its credit, “Westworld” has a killer premise: a futuristic theme park where guests pay to play in an imaginary West populated by robotic Hosts indistinguishable from real people, with no rules and no consequences. Eventually, the Hosts, specifically Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton), awake to their condition and question their existence, as they replay a loop of death and rebirth. Meanwhile, development manager Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) deals with the park’s corporate owners and the fallout of the Hosts’ dawning consciousness. “Westworld” smartly adopts the Hosts’ point-of-view, allowing the series to effortlessly play with memory due to the Hosts’ unique relationship to time. What “Westworld” loses in disorientation, it gains with twists and reversals, made possible by its time-hopping structure and limited point-of-view.

However, “Westworld” is a slave to its own serialization, obsessed with setting up and paying off season-long arcs rather than telling satisfying individual stories. While television, unlike film, provides a unique opportunity to tell long-form stories, television is also inherently episodic. The basic storytelling unit of television should be the episode, not the season. “Westworld” clearly operates differently. First season episodes rarely focused on beginning and ending a story within an hour. Instead, they added another piece to an elaborately designed puzzle. Characters remain ciphers to hide mysteries, leaving little except curiosity to drive interest. I am not opposed to cliffhangers or ambiguous endings; “Westworld” excels with both these elements. But I am frustrated by the inability to craft satisfying individual episodes, asking viewers to invest hours in order to see any ending. Perhaps this is symptomatic of our era of binge-watching; it still proves exhausting.

Yet “Westworld” is worthwhile despite its storytelling flaw. Its naturalistic visual splendor, playfully riffing on old Western landscapes, is astonishingly beautiful. Few series execute speculative science-fiction premises as well as “Westworld,” which follows through on the fascinating philosophical implications of artificial intelligence. And the second season’s premiere indicates the series may have learned from the first season’s story missteps. Four main protagonists (the three mentioned above, with Ed Harris’ Man in Black as a human fourth) drive the narrative forward with clear motivations and endgames.

And, even in the absence of strong storytelling, “Westworld” proves fascinating for its themes. Many science-fiction properties ask questions of morality and what it means to be human, but “Westworld” zeroes in on the stories we tell ourselves. Locked in stories written by management, the Hosts are programmed with desires and personalities to conform to their particular role. Yet, when Maeve becomes self-aware, she yearns for a daughter who does not exist, operating on a programmed maternal drive. Dolores, recently revolutionary, still reserves affection for her programmed lover Teddy (a woefully underused James Marsden). Are we not the same, conditioned by our environments and cultures to desire and act in certain, approved ways? “Westworld” is gleefully self-aware of America’s symbolic construction of the West, a land of opportunity. So it remixes myth, subverts legend and asks why these stories exist.

Specifically, “Westworld” positions its main Hosts as women and people of color, while its management is largely composed of white men. Through its first season, “Westworld” built a messy metaphor for oppression, where guests take advantage of a system to impose their will with few consequences. In its second season, the oppressed are grabbing the reins of their own stories.

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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