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In a world of robots, ‘Westworld’ wants to show us humanity’s cogs and levers

Westworld Official Facebook page)

(‘Westworld’ Official Facebook page)

“Westworld” might be “the show.”

You know what I’m talking about. The one that everyone live tweets through each premiere. The one that inspires countless think pieces, terrible musical parodies and incredibly tacky coffee mugs. The one that begets fire and brimstone across fan forums over the most insignificant details. The show that you “just have to watch.” The show that arrives at just the right time to capture the contemporary zeitgeist.

Think “The X-Files.” Think “Lost.” Think “The Sopranos.” Or think “Game of Thrones” for that matter, whose status as “the show” has become threatened by this newcomer even if it hasn’t even left the airwaves yet.

And just like “Game of Thrones,” “Westworld” is a riveting piece of genre fiction rife with fascinating characters, intrigue, meticulous world-building and a super messy narrative structure whose grand ambition is  admirable all the same.

Based on the forgettable 1973 film of the same name, “Westworld” is part western and part science-fiction, and acts as fascinating metatextual meditation on both. Set inside a Wild West-themed amusement park modeled more after the tropes and clichés of old John Wayne movies than how it actually was, the extravagantly wealthy are allowed to satisfy their wildest carnal fantasies on the robotic denizens of the park (think  an extreme form of LARPing), regardless of the moral implications.

Referred to as “hosts,” these androids are nearly identical to the “guests,” and are each programmed with distinct personalities and patterns of behavior. Nevertheless, with incident after incident of hosts going rogue and breaking away from their coded directives, it soon becomes apparent that these artificial intelligences are not so artificial after all. Treated as sex dolls and cadavers-to-be, traumatic memories of the sadism inflicted upon the hosts by the thrill-seeking guests long thought to have been erased by the Westworld personnel have suddenly been remembered. The hosts have become aware of their cage, and an existential horror arises from the realization that they have no clue how to escape.

As fans are want to do with shows that have this level of grandiosity, tiny details will be picked apart and irrelevant theories about how “So-and-so is really a robot” are obsessed over while the actual thematic ambition of “Westworld” remains ignored. Even if the way it delivers these ideas are sometimes glitched up, the show offers much insight on human consciousness and memory, free will and sentience, the ethical implications of gamification, the whitewashed romanticism of “the frontier,” and how stories are constructed in the space of just 10 episodes.

It definitely helps that “Westworld” has an absolute powerhouse cast to deliver these ideas. Anthony Hopkins plays the park’s creator – a manipulative egomaniac stricken with nasty case of God complex, and, as expected from one of the acting greats, one can see all of these gears turning from every slight facial expression.

Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden, both actors long taken for granted, shine bright here as they subvert the character archetypes (damsel-in-distress and lonesome cowboy) assigned to them. Thandie Newton, meanwhile, is absolute dynamite as Maeve, the madame of the Westworld saloon with dreams even grander than that of her creators.

My absolute favorite performance and character, though, is Jeffrey Wright as Bernard. Wright cements his status as one of our best actors as the park’s tortured co-director with a murky past in all senses of the phrase. The language he conveys through his body is unparalleled. We see a man defined by his analytical ability, and when things fail to match up with his preconceived conceptions about the universe he operates in, his entire frame contorts in revulsion.

Still, “Westworld” suffers from the usual pitfalls associated with the JJ Abrams brand, where information is revealed at a snail’s pace, and long swaths of episodes feel solely dedicated to exposition instead of actually moving the plot forward. In what seems like preemptive defense against puerile Cinema Sins-style nitpick criticisms, “Westworld” goes out of its way to over-explain every detail of its universe when much can be left to the imagination. As a result, when the narrative does start to chug along, the end result feels somewhat rushed.

Yet even if some of the payoffs work better than others (I found little reason to care about the doe-eyed newcomer William and found the conclusion to his arc both unsurprising and uninteresting). Although the show continues the repulsive HBO tradition of gratuitous sexual violence (though given the show’s commentary on player choice and the dehumanization of the NPC, it’s nowhere near as crass and tasteless as the likes of “Don’t Breathe”), “Westworld” still proves itself one of the interesting shows on the air right now – one where every thematic nugget can be chewed on and dissected for countless pages.

“Westworld” wants us to question how we define ourselves as human, analyze what guides the choices we make, and peel back the flesh to take a look at how our gears function.

Nate Taskin can be reached at ntaskin@umass.edu.

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