The year: I was never quite sure. The show: that one about robots, but which was also a Western. The premise: the heir apparent to Game Of Thrones.
At least, that was the idea.
I’m not sure there’s ever been a show that I’ve both instantly fallen so hard for, then almost just as quickly recoiled from. It was the toxic relationship of television.
It started off simply enough, at least as far as Westworld goes, which is to say not at all.
Anthony Hopkins has created a Western theme park where anything goes: it was Sodom and Gomorrah with a six-shooter. People would use and abuse the ultra-realistic robot characters – or “hosts” as they were known – that populated the park, unleashing their sadistic selves as they did so, and the hosts would simply be patched up and sent back out each time, their memories deleted and their selves rebooted.
But something was about to go wrong. Hopkins had worked out that the best way to make the hosts as lifelike as possible was to give them “reveries”, subliminal actions and responses drawn from all their previous lives, though they’d never remember where each was from. Then, not-so-twisty plot twist: what if they started to remember?
There was more to it, of course – a season-long reveal showed we’d been watching two timelines all along and two characters, one of which was Ed Harris, were actually the same person, but that all felt a bit M Night Shyamalan to me, a “Whoa!” very swiftly followed by an “And?” – but it set up series two perfectly.
Back then, I was fully on board with Westworld, happily rooting for the likes of Evan Rachel Wood to fully discover she was a robot and realise she had become more than the sum of her silicon. And, boy, in the first series’ finale, did she.
Then, sadly, came series two. I’d love to tell you exactly what went wrong with series two, but that would require me understanding what happened in series two. I can tell you that it followed the bloody fallout from series one. As for the rest... well.
Here’s a rough summary from what I can remember:
It had so many timelines it was like watching a TV show as structured around a Rubik’s cube. And not, in case you are wondering, in a good way.
Anthony Hopkins, the only character who was both a) genuine fascinating and b) definitely human, had been killed and so only appeared in flashback to make the plot even more confusing.
The character who was previously the most interesting – Bernard, played by Jeffrey Wright – turned out to actually be a robot, created from a dead person, who was able to turn his emotions off. So, less interesting.
The people behind the park were secretly – duh-dum! – recording/downloading all the human players into AI form. I’ll be honest, I can’t remember why, but I’m sure it wouldn’t get past GDPR.
There was a new world – Shogun World – that was not interesting at all.
Tessa Thompson was a real person and, again, one of the few interesting real people, until she got shot by a robot who looked exactly like her and so became not interesting at all.
Some of the robots... uploaded themselves into online nirvana? This bit gets a bit hazy.
But my main takeaway was this: rather than the robots realising that their reveries were really what they were, the show went to great lengths to say: hold on there. They don’t have personalities. Or, rather, they do, but only the latest personality that’s been uploaded into them.
And not only that, but just when you thought you could at least follow some of the humans… well, no, because they were either inherently evil (hi, Ed Harris!) or turned out to be robots themselves or, in the case of Tessa Thompson, were killed by a robot version of themselves (if there was anything Westworld loved to do, it was reveal that a much-loved human was actually a robot all this time, the latter just being a slight twist on the same theme).
And so, anyone you ever invested any time in, it was shown, can be rebooted, wiped, memories changed, their emotions and personality endlessly fiddled with as they were dials on a mixing desk.
And, by the way, the robots would endlessly do this to each other, making it sort of an ultimate form of gaslighting, as the person will always believe you. Evan Rachel Wood’s in-character partner – the all-round good guy Teddy played by James Marsden – was turned into a sadistic killing machine at the swipe of a finger. Had you got to know/like his previous persona? Well, unlucky. And don’t worry: he’ll be dead soon anyway.
In the end, you can’t help feel Westworld has been a grand experiment for HBO in more ways than one. Could you make a drama in which you cared about the intellectual ideas being thrown around, without the makers having to debase themselves with such things as caring about character or motivation?
The third series, which starts tonight, sees our main robots – played by Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Tessa Thompson, and Geoffrey Wright – in the real world of future LA. And guess what? The robots are out to exact revenge. Against who? It’s unclear. Why? It’s unsure. How? If they fiddle with the timeline again, I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell you.