'Westworld' Isn’t Elite (and I Feel Fine)

The first season finale of 'Westworld' made two things clear: that it's a flawed show, and that it's entertaining as hell.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

Most reviews of first season episodes of Westworld came with a qualification: This show has a lot of flaws, but it might all be worth it if the show wraps everything up with a jaw-dropping finale. This is the way Westworld’s creators wanted it—they dropped their characters and audience into a maze of secrets, twists, and misdirections and promised that there would be something significant at the end. The mystery, and all the plotting around it, was the show. We made it to the center of the maze last night—after another 90 minutes, mind you—and though by the end my face did resemble the Man in Black’s after a chunk of his arm was blown off by a host, it was difficult to feel anything more than fleeting excitement. 

In its first season, Westworld held its audience at a distance. Instead of letting us in on the machinations of Robert Ford, the true identity of the Man in Black, or the struggle of Dolores Abernathy, it kept us in the dark. Even ignoring how naive such a strategy is in a world where Reddit can solve puzzles with ease, Westworld’s detachedness eliminated any potential for catharsis. The “what” was always more important than the “why” to Westworld, which left the show’s characters feeling like two-dimensional vehicles for plot points that were charted long ago. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to know Ford had come to agree with Arnold, and learn what brought him to that realization? Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to see William become the MiB, rather than having it explained to us in an exposition-laden speech for which we already knew the punchline? How could we ever understand or empathize with characters like Charlotte, Logan, Lee Sizemore, Felix and Sylvester, characters who seemed just as flat as the hosts? And honestly, was there really a point to having multiple timelines?

Westworld has been treated and judged as a prestige drama with prestige aspirations, but that seems ill-fitting. It will never reach the emotional highs of shows like The Sopranos or Mad Men, nor does it seem to even be trying to. Underneath the artfully curated sets, a few magnificent acting performances (seriously: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Anthony Hopkins deserve credit), and a lot of Radiohead covers, Westworld the TV show is exactly what Westworld the movie was: a pulpy, campy, fun sci-fi flick. And you know what? That’s totally fine.

The reason why the internet figured out almost all of Westworld’s twists—aside from the fact that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy left breadcrumbs every step of the way—was because we were so hooked. It was fun to dissect everything happening, to play the game just as Arnold had Dolores play. The creators certainly underestimated the sophistication of their audience, and could have benefited from beating the audience to the punch by dropping their reveals earlier, but the so-so end result doesn’t diminish how entertaining the journey was. 

Not every drama—not even every drama on HBO—needs to be The Sopranos. It’s okay to have a show with puerile aims, that fails in characterization and dabbles a little too much in freshman year philosophy but executes frivolous entertainment. And as Westworld heads into its second season—which we won’t see until 2018—the season finale was valuable for both reconfiguring our expectations for the show and wiping the narrative slate clean. With the knowledge that Westworld isn’t aspiring to be an Important Drama, we might be able to better appreciate it for what it does do well. And because Westworld established that this first season was a prologue to the war between humans and hosts (and introduced the existence of other theme parks like Samurai World), we’re on the precipice of an entirely new story. It’s not always easy to transition from a first season, but at the very least, Westworld has set itself up to do what it does best—be captivating.

With networks like FX perpetually beefing up its slate of shows and streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu releasing content on an almost weekly basis, there’s so much on TV that being a viewer in 2016 is a completely subjectively curated experience. You watch what strikes you, what relates to you, and your habits rarely mirror the masses’. It's a nice luxury to have, but it also extinguishes the very underrated feeling of watching something as part of a massive community. The last time a TV show inspired monoculture was probably the Breaking Bad finale three years ago. Since then, Game of Thrones has gotten closest to the feeling that an entire culture was engaged in the conversation surrounding a TV show, but Westworld is getting there now. And that shouldn’t be discredited, it should be celebrated. Even though Westworld has a laundry list of flaws, it’s a show we need because it lets us escape, it lets us revel in confoundedness (and now, chaos), and most importantly, it lets us connect.  

Latest in Pop Culture