These Endless Delights Lead To An Endless Mess
Many of the series that I consider for this column, I consider overrated because of their lack of ambition (Succession, Ozark) or their emphasis of style over substance (Euphoria). However, there are also some series that I don’t want to consider overrated because I badly want them to work but never quite gel. One of the prime examples of this is Westworld, one of the most convoluted and messy series in recent years that when you consider all the talent involved, you truly wonder: how did they get to this point?
Let us concede the obvious: the series is infinitely better than its source material. What was essentially a one-act horror movie in the 1970s, developed by Michael Crichton (who had yet to realize his talent) it’s basic plot was very simple: wealthy patrons went to the title park where they could undergo their most primitive fantasies against human-like automatons (the most famous of which was played by Yul Brynner). You went to the atmosphere and you got to have sex with or kill robots without paying the consequences. Then one of the robots malfunctioned and started attacking the guests. It inspired a couple of sequels in the decade, but the premise just sat there (unless you consider that Crichton considered it on a much grander scale for Jurassic Park.) It was not until more than a decade after Crichton’s death that HBO began to pursue the idea as a series.
And to be clear, the first season mostly worked very well. We spent most of it trying to figure out what was going on and who was actually human. (That Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard was revealed to be one may not only have been the highpoint of the first season but perhaps the entire series.) There were clearly levels of awareness around and brilliant performances from an extraordinary cast, made up almost entirely of actors I have admired for decades. Evan Rachel Wood, playing first the delicate flower we often associated her with as a youth and then realizing violence. Thandiwe Newton, getting to reveal inner deviousness as she tried to figure out the reality of her daughter. Ed Harris, one of my favorite actors of all time, as The Man in Black, someone whose been coming to the park for thirty years and who clearly believes there’s a message in it just for him. (Regardless of my feelings for the series, this is still some of the greatest work he’s ever done.) James Marsden, trying to figure out if his love for Dolores is real. And in a marvelous one season role, Anthony Hopkins as the mastermind behind the park, who spends the entire season trying to come up with a new ‘narrative’ and actually seems proud when that narrative begins with Dolores shooting him in the head. Throw in later appearance by such wondrous talents as Tessa Thompson and Aaron Paul, and you have one of the greatest casts assembled in any Peak TV series.
So what’s the problem with Westworld? Simple. After the first season, it became almost entirely incomprehensible. I watched the first season on and off with admiration, but I abandoned the series halfway through season 2 because the jumps in the timeline, the switches between new characters and fundamentally trying to figure out what the writers were trying to tell us with each successive season keeps becoming harder and harder to fathom. I have dealt with mythology series in my time where the backstory starts fraying at some point and it’s clear the writers have lost the narrative thread. The larger problem with Westworld is that rather than try and resolve any basic threads with each season, the writers keep expanding the world of the show and putting the characters in it. Which would be fine if it didn’t keep changing the rules with almost every character.
After watching Westworld for long enough, I think the model that it follows the most closely is not a sci-fi show like Battlestar Galactica or The X-Files but rather Millennium. A little history will be in order. In 1996, Chris Carter premiered his follow up series to The X-Files, a show which followed ex-FBI profiler Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) who has just start consulting with an agency called the Millennium Group, an organization that, at least in the first season, is made up entirely of ex-FBI agents and other law enforcement officers. For much of the first season, it followed a simple model of Frank chasing down brutal serial killers (a precursor of later shows like Criminal Minds and Law and Order’s) Then near the end of the season, one of the recurring characters was murdered by someone identified as the Gehenna Devil, a clear demonic presence.
From that point on, Millennium became a series that would delve as much into the paranormal as it did the mundane. The problem was it never defined what the show was basically about. This was clear fundamentally in the nature of The Millennium Group. An organization of ex-law enforcement in Season One, in Season Two, it appeared to become a cult centered on Judeo-Christian end-times determined to bring about the apocalypse. In Season Three, it seems to become illuminati like group bent on world domination. Terry O’Quinn played Peter Watts, the groups’ clearest face. In Season One, he was an ally of Frank. In Season Two, he seemed to be the group’s unwilling representative, questioned everything he believed as an apocalypse neared. In Season Three, he became something of a puppet master, trying to lure Frank back to the group. It’s small wonder that as you watch the series, you often see Henriksen struggling to figure out how to make his character shift with the tone of the series. (Adding to the confusion was the fact that each season of the series had a different set of showrunners at its head and the fact that Season 2 seemed to conclude with the apocalypse coming…and Season 3 acting as if it never happened.)
Fans of the show (and while it was never a smash, it did have a cult following) tried to find some kind of underlying plot going on within it. The truth is far simpler: Millennium managed to exist for three seasons without a clear mission statement as to what it was supposed to be about. We had no clearer perspective as to what the show meant at the beginning then we did when it was cancelled. And I think this fundamental disconnect is also apparent in each subsequent season of Westworld.
In Season 2, we get a clearer perspective as to what’s going on in the outside world: that some people are trying to use the hosts as a form of immortality or to defeat death. (Harris’ character is the son of one of the initial patrons.) Throughout Season 2, we learn that workers are also collecting data files on the patrons as much as the hosts. The purpose to this becomes clearer (as much as things do on this show) when we enter the outside world and learn that humanity is being controlled by an artificial intelligence system that is subverting everybody’s free will led primarily by the technology developed by Delos. Season 3 ends with the destruction of the system and the revolt of humanity.
The most recent season involved a new world where the Man in Black (Harris) was working with Thompson’s character to develop a farm of servers. She was created a world where hosts were now in power and spent their time hunting humans. There were revolts going on by a ‘resistance faction’, characters who we’d seen dead were now alive in some form, there was a virtual world known as ‘The Sublime’ and Maeve’s daughter was leading the resistance searching for her father. It was fascinating — and utterly impossible to follow what the hell was going on from scene to scene, much less episode to episode. The season ends with Dolores (I know she was killed at the end of Season 3, but let’s not pretend that logic holds a place here) telling us that sentient life on Earth is doomed, unless one final test saves it. And the Season ends with us back yet again in the title park.
Westworld is a series designed not only to isolate the casual viewer but pretty much even the viewer who is loyal for four seasons. This is a tragedy because many of the individual parts of the show are absolutely fascinating. I remember watching a recent episode where Caleb (Paul) tries to escape from his cell, only to realize that there are dozens of hosts in the cell around him. As he escapes, he keeps coming across bodies of himself, each of whom followed this exact path but couldn’t get further. At one point, he finds a dying version of himself in a duct and an impossible jump. The dying Caleb tells him to use his body to survive. Caleb finally makes it to a place to escape and instead broadcasts a message to his daughter. He spends his final moments raving at his captor — and the episode ends with a new Caleb being molded and the questioning about to resume.
And all of the actors are always mesmerizing on the screen, particularly Harris who seems to be relishing playing the destroyer of worlds, human or host. There is a reason that members of the cast keep getting Emmy nominations year after year; the performances are always solid, and that’s remarkable considering that who were watching is often as much a mystery to the actors as it is to the characters as well as the fact that none of them, being human, get to emote much.
Normally I flaunt series that I consider unambitious in their scope. Westworld has the opposite problem: it’s far too ambitious. If it were to try to deal with smaller in scale ideas — had it stuck within the realm of the parks and the Delos Corporation — I think it might have worked better. But the fact that it keeps putting the goal posts further and further away makes it impossible to tell a story — in four seasons we’ve gone through a malfunction at a theme park to the fate of the human race…which apparently will now be determined at that same theme park.
I suspect that the next season for Westworld will be the final one — the phrasing of all the characters in the last episode would seem to indicate as much. Besides, there isn’t much further they can take the series — space exploration anyone? While the legacy of so many overrated series is that they barely tried to shift the parameters of their formula, the flaw of Westworld is one that shifted far too often and whose reach was ultimately beyond its grasp. I regret the way things turned out for Westworld far more than I did for a show like Ozark — this series had the potential for greatness, but couldn’t move beyond the limits of its hosts.