HBO fantasy drama “Game of Thrones” (2011-present) captivated viewers with its portrayal of flawed men and women pursuing power through pithy dialogue, sexual manipulation and epic clashes of blades and wit. Show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss skillfully brought brutality and grit to a world of magic and dragons, reinvigorating high fantasy portrayal in film to levels not seen since “The Lord of the Rings” film series (2001-2003).
With the series nearing completion, HBO hopes to broaden its offerings in the genre with “Westworld” (2016), which aired its pilot episode on Oct. 2. Media outlets, desperate for clicks from an avid fanbase, were falling over each other to label the show “the next Game of Thrones.” This is misleading at best. HBO certainly spared no expense to bring both shows to life and they both feature strong casts and complex storylines, but the similarities end there.
While “Game of Thrones” gave viewers the opportunity to revel in its titillating displays of sex and gratuitous violence, “Westworld” takes place in a not-so-distant future in which people want to roleplay similar guilty pleasures in real life. They want to manifest their deviances in a world without consequence, a privately-run park set in in the American Wild West populated by “hosts” – machines designed to appear human and believe in their own humanity.
Human guests pay tens of thousands of dollars per day to interact with the hosts and this simulated environment in any way they see fit. Hosts begin the day as characters going about their programmed routine: wizened prospectors, welcoming prostitutes and trigger-happy bandits. By sundown, many hosts lie “dead,” riddled with bullet holes or subjected to violence, sexual or otherwise. At the end of the day, hosts are cleaned, repaired, memory-wiped and put back in their starting positions to do it all again.
“Westworld” captures that uncomfortable paradox in which many have difficulty confronting “real” violence but love consuming violence when it’s packaged as entertainment. The park caters to people’s darkest impulses in the same way that TV shows like “Game of Thrones” do. Gunfights and carnal pleasures are only the surface level of what the park offers guests and, by extension, viewers. Amidst an overarching plot line in which the park’s hosts slowly become aware of the daily suffering they’re enduring at the hands of guests, “Westworld” works on a number of different levels because it’s more than a delivery mechanism for grand ideas about artificial intelligence and the danger of unchecked technological advancement.
“Westworld” creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have ensured that the show’s secrets and subtleties keep viewers hooked.
Its characters appear thin on the outset but this façade quickly falls apart upon closer examination. The Man in Black (Ed Harris), for instance, is a long-time guest who destroys hosts without hesitation in pursuit of Westworld’s “endgame.” While he may appear to be the story’s antagonist, he drops a number of small clues that suggest his goals are not so straightforward. He may completely disregard the hosts’ welfare, but is that necessarily evidence of evil, or just of a man who sees the hosts as nothing more than machines, tools to a greater goal? Fan theorists are on the job.
Music, too, plays an instrumental role in making scenes come alive, in no small part due to the impressive skill and experience of the show’s composer Ramin Djawadi, who also wrote the music for “Game of Thrones.” One particularly memorable scene is the bloodbath that ensues when wanted criminal Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) rides into town with a gang armed to the teeth to an orchestral version of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” (1966). The scene elegantly captures the anachronism of the robot-filled Western theme park and the banality of scripted violence, as the guests look on with glee while bandit hosts gun down other hosts in the middle of the street in a dramatic gunfight.
There is a lot to enjoy and absorb in “Westworld,” whether one is in it for the bullets and nudity or the existential crises that result from being confronted with machines on the verge of sentience. Whatever level viewers choose to engage the show on, they can find something that will make them hungry for the next episode.