Before I watched the first episode of HBO’s Westworld, I had no idea what it was about, and thus, no expectations as to what I was about to see. I just knew that it had an average episode score of 94% in Rotten Tomatoes, and higher pilot ratings than the network’s current frontrunner, Game of Thrones.
Now these alone don’t always guarantee that I would enjoy a show. Deadwood was consistently fairly popular with critics and viewers alike, scoring a spectacular 98% critics rating in the Tomatometer during its two-year run, but I couldn’t stay interested enough to finish a second episode. Meanwhile, Entourage’s second year was its lowest ranking of its six seasons at a whopping 27% (and a one star accrued rating in IMDB), but it was the first season I watched of the popular series, even before Season 1, and it made me a lifelong fan. (yes, even of the terrible, terrible movie). I forgave the producers for allowing that silver screen atrocity, because at least it was another chance at seeing my favorite characters again.
Meanwhile, I had no such attachment to any of the actors in Westworld, nor to the 1973 film in which it was based. While I was once Vampire Queen Louisiane’s biggest followers when Evan Rachel Wood played her character in True Blood, I had not seen any of the actress’ former films, or any recent ones for that matter (not sure if her cameo in the Green Day music video for Wake Me Up When September Comes counts). I am a huge Anthony Hopkins fan in movies, but I initially could not imagine him in a TV series. Also, I am always surprised whenever I see James Marsden in any other character than his breakthrough role as X-Men’s Cyclops.
In fact, there are a few more reasons why I should not have watched this TV show beyond the first episode. For one thing, I have not really been a big fan of sci-fi series after the nineties’ Quantum Leap and Sliders. Secondly, I thought there have just been too many old movies that are being recycled into TV series (that are frankly not very good) recently, and the sci-fi genre seems to be a particular favorite of networks these days, what with films like Dennis Quaid’s Frequency and Brad Pitt’s 12 Monkeys being adapted for TV by the CW and Syfy respectively. Finally, I initially thought that Westworld’s main arc – the robot uprising – was not exactly a fresh and hot-off-the press idea.
I certainly did not expect to be completely blown away by the first episode. Three hours into the first season and I was completely hooked, and the mind-boggling, much-discussed finale left me wishing the second season was not still a few more months away. As far as TV series go, I’d say this goes down as one of my favorites of all time.
In this article, I’ll list the reasons why, despite an overused plot and unusual cast and crew, this story worked so well for me, and, and judging by the anticipation over its second season, for so many others as well.
Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to write a spoiler-free account, it is next to impossible, because expounding on a few concepts is necessary to illustrate my point, but I’ll try to keep the real shockers and plot twists off the list.
- Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Robert Ford, the genius creator, chief programmer, and chairman of the board of the eponymous park, is so on-point it is downright perfect. It is one of those castings which make you suspect that the entire series was developed with that one actor, for that one specific role, in mind (like Alexis Bledel was so perfect for the role of Rory Gilmore, that in no way could the series have worked so well as it did, had it been given to another young actress. I mean can you imagine anyone else there? No? Me neither.). The fact that I am a fan of The Silence of the Lambs film franchise may be considered a bias, however. I knew from the beginning that the good doctor was up to some really messed up shenanigans, just by looking at those eyes – they were the eyes of a madman, although maybe not quite as cannibalistic, but equally ruthless. This role is another powerful illustration of why Hopkins is a film legend.
- While robots suddenly gaining human consciousness and plotting to take over the world is not exactly a unique idea, I loved how the series developed characters and different storylines to slowly explain how it is happening. No, it is not as simple as one motherboard one day receiving an update that made it god-like, like in that very strange Scarlet Johansson movie Lucy, and it’s never what you initially thought it was about a few episodes in either. Understanding how the robots began to slowly wake up from their “bicameral” state of mind, was just as much a part of the story as the park’s bloody western narratives. It is also one of the reason why it is not a good a good idea to watch this series passively – you go to the toilet or answer a text without pressing on pause, and you’re probably going to miss something important, and thus find yourself scratching your head somewhere down the line and thinking if your own state of mind is the one malfunctioning.
- Speaking of bicameralism, one of my favorite books is one written by a controversial 70’s psychologist named Julian Jaynes. It comes with a mouthful for a title – The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – and may seem like a daunting read at first what with its plain white cover and hieroglyphic-like illustrations, but the concept is pretty simple. Much like how Darwin explained the evolution of life on planet earth, Dr. Jaynes tried to explain the process in which humans gained true consciousness, from what was previously a brain divided into two simple lateralized functions, into the intricate and complex system of cognitive processes that we have today. The bicameralism theory in psychology posits that early humans (and even those as late as 1000 BC), lived in a non-conscious state, with no real awareness of their surroundings, or the ability to do any deep level of introspection. Dr. Jaynes cited as evidence ancient texts like the Iliad, some early Vedic literature, and even the Old Testament – all written, Jaynes argues, by humans in a pre-conscious, or bicameral state of mind. The concept is still highly debated, and is not even discussed in great detail in any college psychology course, but I found the author’s thought process fascinating, and extremely original. In the same manner, Westworld takes viewers into a journey of how the robots began to see the world around them outside of the narratives created for them by the park’s oblivious writers.
Even with these revelations, there is still a whole lot twists and turns to keep viewers reeling throughout the entire season.
Have you seen Westworld? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.