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In WESTWORLD, the Gamification of Life and Artifice Shows Us Ourselves (Review)

In WESTWORLD, the Gamification of Life and Artifice Shows Us Ourselves (Review)

Want. It’s maybe the strongest drive in the human system—engineering all our actions and instincts, both primal and manufactured. The limitlessness of the human spirit makes this an endless pool from which our animalistic nature can choose, effectively constructing the emotional world in which we all individually live. This possibility lends itself to flights of fantasy in the name of fulfillment of desires, from basic to wild—the dangers of which are ruminated on in HBO’s Westworld. When given an inch, how many miles will humanity take? Even (or, perhaps, especially) when their playthings blur the line between machine and human.

In its original iteration, Westworld was a 1973 sci-fi western written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton, its main focus was the Gunslinger android (played by Yul Brenner), tasked with instigating fights. While there is a Gunslinger in this TV iteration (played with deft cruelty by Ed Harris), his role is quite different—he’s definitely not an android, and certainly not the central focus of the show. His instigation skills, though? Brutal and echoing underneath the story’s bubbling surface.

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That central role belongs to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood): a longstanding android who’s played a myriad of parts across her tenure at Westworld. Programmed to be the eternal optimist, girl-next-door type, Dolores’ reality is linked to Teddy Flood (James Marsden), the Wild West-y Romeo to her Frontierland Juliet. In their journey, you cannot help but feel as though we’ve crossed a line in the mere creation of these incredible miracles of engineering.

On the other side of the equation lies the team that created them. In this distant-future, Dr. Robert Ford plays god alongside a team of capable and constantly evolving engineers Bernard Lowe and Elsie Hughes (played by Jeffrey Wright and Shannon Woodwood, respectively). Obsessed with perfecting the humanistic properties and the AI’s ability to improv the pre-written, constantly evolving storylines at play (over 100 at a time, allegedly), the trio word diligently to hone increasingly lifelike androids. Of course, not everyone agrees that they should be all that indistinguishable—and the battle between the sides is certainly something that’s churning and evolving (as are people’s opinions on the matter). In addition, a new update to the droids has possibly crossed a line—or threshold, so to speak—though whether that was an accident or not is yet to be seen. Needless to say, the Pandora’s Box of it all is where the real, unnerving, dystopian thrill comes into play.

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Playing out as if Deadwood and Black Mirror 3D-printed a living baby, Westworld is meticulously plotted to lay out the delicate intricacies of the story it’s telling, but it doesn’t move slowly or without an inherent tension. This show does demand you pay attention, but you don’t need to be pre-versed in the universe or theoretical physics in order to understand what’s going on. There’s a nuance to the performances of the robots and their different states—and even to those who are tasked with their creation and evolution.

In that regard, the standout of the series is Wood’s Dolores, upon whose shoulders our own empathy and entry into the world is lofted. Her ability to switch from character to droid is subtle but incredibly evocative—allowing us to truly see the humans as the ones who’ve done a Very Bad Thing. Of course there are layers to all of this, like any good prestige drama worth its meddle, and it becomes increasingly clear throughout the episodes that the grey area is not exclusive to just creations or the creators.The ruthlessness of Sidse Babett Knudsen’s Theresa Cullen, the operations manager, feels ripe with potential—particularly going up against Hopkins’ layered Ford. Actors Thandie Newton and Jimmi Simpson are also sympathetic standouts in the early episodes, showing the full effect of the Westworld domino game that feels poised to fall at any moment, as are players like the aforementioned Wright and Woodward, who bring another emotional level to the work happening behind the scenes. (It’s really great to see Shannon Woodward get her due in something like this, and we’re excited to see more of her and actress Tessa Thompson, as well.)

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We’re overdue for a series that explores the idea of reality and what constitutes something as “real” in this way: the labyrinthine nature of desire and excess and creation and morality, when thrown into the frontier (both literally and metaphorically) challenges the audience to see themselves—and the human race—for what we maybe are or could be. (We’d LOVE to sit in a room and watch this one with Werner Herzog and Elon Musk, for example.) The realities of our consequences as we continue to mine the land of our own want in the face of increasingly volatile technical world is heady shit to put it mildly, but Westworld does not feel patronizing or tedious—its scares come from how close to reality this all could be. Co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan have created something riveting, evocative, thrilling, and effective in furthering the social morality conversation currently playing out so beautifully on TV. Get ready for your next great HBO obsession.

5 out of 5 sentient, pleasure-giving burritos:

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Westworld premieres on Sunday, October 2. Are you going to tune in? Let us know in the comments below.

Images: HBO


Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor of Nerdist, creator/co-host of Fangirling, and very worried about artificial intelligence. Find her freaking out on Twitter.

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