The following article contains potential spoilers for Westworld.
Over the past two decades Home Box Office (HBO) have been the ruling power behind for some of television’s greatest achievements. They are quite simply, the Michael Jordan of premium television. I could literally sit here and list every single television series HBO has been responsible for – but I don’t need to because you already know them, and if you don’t well… shame on you. The past two decades have seen them become one of those instantly recognisable forces in the world of media. Let’s be honest, does anybody call them Home Box Office these days?
From Band of Brothers and The Wire, to The Sopranos, Chernobyl and yes, Game of Thrones, HBO has shaped television as we now know it. And as a twenty-something year old living in the United Kingdom, who has grown up with these shows, I find it difficult to imagine why anyone is still watching Eastenders (For our American cousins, Eastenders is a popular soap opera that focuses on family relationships and every now and then somebody gets murderer). Sorry, that just came out – it’s 2020 you deserve better.
This month will see the release of the third season of their criminally undervalued Westworld, a show which has thrilled geek audiences worldwide, launched countless detailed discussions on reddit, and caused high degrees of paranoia. I’m just joking, but season two’s infamously super-complicated storytelling experience, well and truly caused a malfunction in the system.
For those of you who do not know, Westworld is a dark odyssey that follows the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin. Yes, someone actually wrote that as the shows synopsis. Season one took place in a park called Westworld, rather unsurprisingly, and it was built by humans to live out their fantasies and sins.
The first series received a positive response from critics and fans alike when it hit screens in 2016 and was immediately renewed for a second ten-part season. That second season was supposed to push on from what was a successful first, but Westworld is a show which has continually been haunted by its expectations.
HBO had to shut down production of season one for two months, in order to provide its producers, one of which was J.J. Abrams in an executive role, more time to develop the show and work out where it was going. It was continually compared to Game of Thrones before it had even been released, which was some three years after it was originally announced. And whilst you could argue that season one’s reported $100 million budget was comparable to Thrones, Westworld was always on a completely different trajectory.
Unlike Game of Thrones, its path was never clearly defined from the outset. Thrones had a popular series of novels on which to lay its hopes. That provided it with an existing, die-hard fanbase, but even then I don’t think anyone imagined it becoming such a mainstream, popular juggernaut of television. It will more than likely remain a one-off in that respect.
Westworld is and was the polar opposite, based on a cult film of the same name and continually demanding its audiences full, unaltered attention. Westworld is beautiful niche television, for an engaged, intellectually active audience – with violence thrown in for good measure.
When season two began, we were told early and often that if a character died, be they human or android, it was for real. Which in theory, should have given the series more weight than its predecessor, but it turned out that dead was only partially dead and sometimes, not even that. Which led to large levels of confusion, amongst an invested and continually reducing audience. It’s very difficult to understand what’s going on in a series which is taking place across multiple parks (or worlds), with different characters that are sometimes the same character, in a different character’s body. You still with me?
Over the course of ten episodes, Westworld season two became that annoying show that you just kept watching because its production values were so outstanding and the acting was so good, you felt like you’d miss something if you switched off. All the while realising that it didn’t really matter that not a lot of it made sense and that any character who ‘died’ could have their consciousness transferred into another body or end up in some sort of magical android world where others of a similar non fleshy nature had fled.
The outcry surrounding season two’s confusing story, would have sent other networks running, but HBO is different. HBO appears to me at least, to enjoy speculation and buzz, and in some cases considers it more important than ratings.They are a network which wants people talking about its shows, that generates interests which in turn increases viewership, even after a seasons conclusion. It’s a model which only works now, with buzz around television series such as this, driving people to sign up to subscription based services and ultimately rewarding the networks patience. Traditional year-to-year ratings gains or losses, don’t matter in 2020.
With season three, creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have reportedly looked to directly address the malfunction of confusion, providing a more streamlined storytelling experience, focused on the androids in the real world. On paper at least, it should be far easier to follow Evan Rachel Wood’s vengeful Dolores and a few of her companions, with the storyline now taking place in a futuristic Los Angeles. Yet Westworld isn’t known for its linear objectives and with the introduction of Aaron Paul’s (Breaking Bad) new character Caleb, a curveball is bound to come our way. Will they really take onboard the criticism that got so many people interested in the show in the first place? That question remains unanswered, but a breakdown of the latest trailer, despite its obvious Los Angeles focus, shows Thandie Newton’s character, Maeve Millay fighting Nazis in the Second World War. Perhaps therefore, Los Angeles is just another park after all and we’re all subject to the mindfuck that is Westworld.
Despite its flaws, this a show that deserves your attention, and you can catch it on Sky Atlantic, starting March 16.