For a long time, it seemed, film and TV sequels, reboots and spinoffs obeyed a kind of reverse Moore’s law: each new iteration contained less, felt emptier, held half the aesthetic or cultural charge of its predecessor. Audiences grew into a weary cynicism about such exercises, waiting for the moment when a TV show would “jump the shark” (the term was inspired by a Happy Days in Hollywood special, after all), or for a formerly successful film franchise to go straight to video.
Then something happened. Perhaps the generations raised on this model grew up to make their own films and TV, and, being savvy to the trend, wanted to buck it. Or maybe the rise of DVD box sets and long-form narrative TV tilted that old world off its axis. Whatever the case, our screens are now filled with instances of follow-ups or reinventions that match or even exceed their source material. AMC’s Better Call Saul, the taut and vivid series taken straight from the ribcage of Breaking Bad, is a case in point.
But nothing on TV has moved further from its origins than HBO’s Westworld, whose third season has just made its gleaming, portentous, hyperviolent landing. The 1973 film on which husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have based their series (along with a short-lived TV series that followed in 1980, Beyond Westworld) was smarter than the average sci-fi, and scary enough. Yet it stands in relation to this reboot as an acorn does to a mature oak.
The bare branches of idea and implication in Michael Crichton’s original – his debut as a director and screenwriter – have swelled and burst to a complex maturity here. And as for the old movie’s visual palette (Westworld was the first film to use digital pixilation to suggest what it is to see the world through non-human eyes), well, today’s version is rendered with a richness and intricacy that staggers.
The show’s problems, it should be noted, are embedded in the same success. How to clearly articulate the dense philosophical propositions Westworld raises about free will and artificial intelligence, for example. Or how best to corral multiple characters across various distinct milieus over a back-and-forth time frame without losing viewers’ attention. This new season, for all its glossy refinements, reminds us that story also needs to feed simple hungers.
Which, to be fair, the opener does by going hard, early. Dolores, played with a combination of alabaster poise and inward seethe by Evan Rachel Wood, is the robot we first met with a vacant smile at the show’s outset. Back then she was a winsome android actor in the titular theme park, programmed to suffer over and over at the hands of human tourists, overwhelmingly male, who paid handsomely to satisfy their lusts or pathologies without legal and social sanction.
But Dolores is more than that. The co-founder of Westworld, we learn, turned her into a bomb. The arc of her coming into awareness of this fact – that once, in the past, she achieved full sentience and is able to do so again; and that, when that moment comes, she should bring down the whole stinking temple that is Westworld and its satellite domains, all of them owned and run by the shadowy Delos corporation – is the most satisfying and electric of several strands driving the show.
Series three sees her emerge, from the bloody rebellion of android against human she initiated at the close of the second season, into the human world outside. Here she encounters a polished, improved yet denuded near-future in which elephants are extinct but people travel by autonomous vehicles, where there is an app for getting involved in crime, yet the streets are spotless and the city’s buildings are half-glass, half-hanging garden.
It is also the world Dolores sets out to destroy: beginning, in a fashion that combines Me Too comeuppance with Terminator-level brutality, with the murder of men who preyed on her for sport at Westworld. Here, too, we are introduced to a damaged former veteran named Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad and its feature-length pendant, El Camino) – a man not incompetent in the use of violence, but whose moral compunctions and desire to care for his institutionalised mother have left him making do as a low-level construction worker: one more existence to be fed into big data’s algorithm and found wanting.
But he’s also ripe for radicalisation, which Dolores, whom he saves from Delos operatives intent on tracking her down, undertakes to do. Despite being the unmistakable queen of her non-human hive, however, Dolores has weaknesses. The second episode of the season sees the return of Bernard Lowe (a glowering, perennially perplexed Jeffrey Wright) to one of the now-abandoned sites of the theme park. There he reanimates the emotionally labile, fiercely intelligent Maeve (Thandie Newton), the only android with the wits and the will to check Dolores’s plans. Maeve, for the initiated, was a brothel madam in the show’s initial season. Programmed to entertain, she was nonetheless haunted by memories of a lost daughter – a neural hangover from an earlier role she played, when her child was killed by a human visitor to the park known as the Man in Black (a sadistic turn by Ed Harris).
If Maeve and Bernard represent a different potential future for android–human relations – one less zero-sum – and a possible challenge to Dolores, the third episode of the series introduces a further wrinkle. We last saw Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), a human and senior Delos corporate-type, caught in the midst of the theme-park massacre, recording a message to her young son while gunshots were fired in the background.
Now she is returned to sentience as an android (though which host is inside her, we don’t know), and is back in her leadership role at Delos at Dolores’s urging. Charlotte has only partial access to her human memories; nonetheless, that part of her residual mortal fights bitterly to wrest back control.
This sense of blurring between human and android is touched on everywhere in the third series. Bernard, who was once human (indeed, he was the Westworld founder who programmed Dolores to run amok), wishes to protect his sentient creations from humans, but refuses Dolores’s methods. Meanwhile Charlotte, curled up with her son on his bed, is asked by him, with childish intuition, when his real mother will be back. When Caleb visits his schizophrenic mother in care, she asks much the same question of him.
That determined ambiguity has a pedigree, but not one that belongs to Michael Crichton’s Westworld. The model here is Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – made, of course, into that landmark film Blade Runner. Westworld not only shares that film’s interest in how capitalism and technology threaten to unmoor us from older concepts of selfhood, it also takes more recent phenomena – total surveillance, algorithm-led social engineering – and presents them as a trap sprung so tight about us that notions of free will come to seem as elusive for free human agents as preprogrammed automatons.
Westworld is at its best when, like Blade Runner, it paints philosophically with images rather than making explicit utterance. One rule of thumb with self-consciously intellectual TV or film is to turn the subtitle track on: if what you read makes you giggle, they haven’t got the balance right. Too often, that is the case here.
But to gaze into Dolores’s eyes and sense the awesome ambition behind them; to see Charlotte unconsciously self-harm as though possessed; to see these bodies move through landscapes of natural beauty or smooth technological perfection, interacting like children or angels or righteous killers, is to appreciate both cosinage and a common longing: for connection with others; for acknowledgement of one’s self as a being who loves, thinks and feels; and, ultimately, for the right to choose how to live.
Westworld is a show whose surface is more brilliant than its narrative substance. Nonetheless, it represents the apogee of a certain kind of TV (by comparison, film mainly does spectacle and comic books these days), which melds the widescreen spaciousness of old-school cinema with cool digital manipulation, recoding simple genre conventions with the more complex grammar of literature and philosophy.
There is a Mannerist perfection at work here, as well as considerable ambition. And, three episodes into a season of eight, a degree of intrigue about what is to come. Just watch it with the soundtrack loud and the subtitles off.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2020 as "Shining delight".
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