‘Westworld’ Mesmerizes — and Makes No Effen Sense

HBO's metaphor for the abuses of power may be abusing its power over viewers.

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Westworld
Ed Harris as the Man in Black in HBO's "Westworld."

If I had to use two words to describe the second season of HBO’s Westworld, it would be “mesmerizing” and “obfuscating.” Ordinarily, the latter word would make me stop watching a TV show quicker than you could say “Harvey Weinstein wants a private meeting.” This dystopian fantasy show, loosely inspired by the 1973 cult movie about a creepy theme park peopled with human looking/acting androids called “hosts,” is so hypnotic in its effete weirdness and refusal to offer a coherent, linear through-line that I can’t help but be in its thrall.

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The terrific cast — including Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton and the great Ed Harris — pulls me in even though I don’t have a clue what the heck is going on. I suspect 99.9% of the Westworld viewers feel the same way. If they don’t, they’re in denial or lying.

It’s the old emperor wears no clothes allegory: no one wants to throw their hands in the air and concede defeat when the truth is glaringly obvious.

The first season is fascinating viewing.

That doesn’t mean fans aren’t trying fervently to unravel the show’s inscrutable storylines. After a recent episode in which most of the action took place in “ShogunWorld” –another part of the endlessly sprawling theme park universe — I had to watch several YouTube fan-made discussions afterwards to fill in the blanks.

Not that I think these fans have a stronger inkling than yours truly as to what’s going on. However, unlike me, they’re pretending to fathom the unfathomable.

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For instance, in this current season, the hosts are currently running amok, having staged a revolution against their human oppressors. That would be enough storyline for any season. But husband-and-wife showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan opt to complicate matters, incorporating plots and subplots that defy comprehension. Here are some examples:

  • In the second season, as The Man in Black/Old William (Harris) rides a horse through this park that seems the size of a continent, we see in flashbacks both his younger self (Jimmi Simpson) and older self interacting with James Delos (Peter Mullan), the mogul whose company finances Westworld. The ailing Delos has passed over his dissolute son Logan (Ben Barnes) as his successor in favor of his shrewd son-in-law, William. After Delos expires (or so we think?), William tries to use Delos’ consciousness to create a host in Delos’ image. It’s an attempt at immortality that ultimately fails. When William abandons the project, he tells hybrid host/guest Delos that “some people are better off dead.” Delos then goes insane and mangles himself. Later, what’s left of him is found and destroyed by Bernard (Wright), the park’s programming chief, and Elsie (Shannon Woodward), a pixieish programmer.
  • In the first season’s finale, Bernard, who had been programmed by park co-founder Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), attacks and ambushes Elsie. The reasons for this are never explained. By the way, Ford created Bernard as a replica of his long-deceased partner, Arnold. Oh, and Ford commits suicide, for reasons that are unclear. Maybe Hopkins contract was for only one season?
  • Then there’s sweet ingenue/robot Dolores (Wood) from the first season who has become a cold, ruthless, Che Guevara-like guerrilla leader in Season 2, slaying all guests unlucky to encounter her. Dolores’ character arc is clear, yet it’s not clear why the show-runners made Season 1’s most sympathetic character into an irredeemable villain in Season 2.
  • Then there’s Maeve (Newton), a host who was formerly a single homestead mom turned saloon madam with young daughter in tow until Man in Black/Old William gunned the little girl down for no apparent reason. Like Dolores and the other hosts of Season 2, Maeve has also risen up against the humans. Unlike Dolores in season two, however, Maeve isn’t so bloodthirsty: she has empathy, a semblance of a soul. This is evidenced by her longing to be reunited with her daughter from her initial storyline. She’s the one who never really existed other than being yet another host in a narrative programmed by Ford and Arnold/Bernard.

Got all that?

Currently, Maeve is my favorite character. I like her wry wit and the way that Newton, a wonderful actress, lights up when Maeve playfully calls other characters, both hosts and guests, “darling” with a sultry wink and an arch gleam in her eyes. It’s almost if she wants us all to know she, too, is on the whole meta joke of her existence. Perhaps it’s her aside to the audience that the plot she’s trapped in makes as much sense as Trump’s domestic and foreign policies.

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Westworld has superb production elements and the acting is top-notch. However, I can only recommend it to those who have the patience to be perpetually confused. If you must watch this show, watch Season 1, which you can stream on HBO.com. Although admittedly complex, it’s fascinating viewing and does indeed make sense. This is probably because the show-runners used the 1973 movie as their inspiration.

“Westworld” is a metaphor of the abuses of power.

For those inclined toward the political, you can easily draw comparisons between the humans as the aggressive, greedy colonialists ruling over an empire in which the hosts are in hapless servitude. Think the imperial British and their subjects in India, or a cult leader and his followers, or, on the most pernicious level, a plantation owner and the slaves. Except in Westworld, the hosts are not cognizant of their abject status until the end of Season 1, when they achieve consciousness and all hell breaks loose. In this context, Westworld is a metaphor of the abuses of power. Or it can be seen for what it literally is — an ambitious TV series that has become a bloated victim of its first season’s success.

If Westworld has a Season 3, we’ll see if the show-runners can get this jumbled mess back on track. Until then, watching the wreckage unfold on the small screen is riveting. Like a car accident voyeur, I can’t avert my eyes. Am I hate-watching Westworld? Or am I simply hoping that I won’t need to watch 1,500 YouTube discussions to gain some insight when I watch the latest episode and to dispel my migraine? I’m still perplexed about that, too.

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Iris Dorbian
Iris Dorbian is a business and arts journalist whose articles have appeared in a wide number of outlets that include the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Venture Capital Journal, DMNews, Playbill, Backstage, Theatermania, Live Design, Media Industry Newsletter and PR News. From 1999 to 2007, Iris was the editor-in-chief of Stage Directions. She is the author of Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater, which was published by Allworth Press in August 2008 and An Epiphany in Lilacs, which was published by Mazo Publishers in 2017. Her personal essays have been published in Blue Lyra Review, B O D Y, Embodied Effigies, Diverse Voices Quarterly and Gothesque Magazine.