The Greatest Show on Earth

Last week, HBO released the trailer for the second season of Westworld, the hit science-fiction series whose first season broke records for the network and captured the attention of millions of viewers, including me.

I first watched Westworld on a flight to Germany last summer. I didn’t know much about the show going in, but by the end of the first episode, I was entranced. Never before had I seen such brilliant acting, intriguing storywork, and high production value all in one program.

Westworld is inspired by a 1973 movie of the same name written and directed by Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, and its premise is similar to but no less intriguing than that more famous work. In the near future, the ultra-rich pay tens of thousands of dollars a day for the ultimate theme-park experience: a totally realistic and immersive replica of the Old West complete with bandits, bar fights, saloons, shootouts, debauchery, and, most importantly, hyperrealistic robot residents.

These androids, known as “hosts,” are the key to what makes Westworld so unique — and what keeps the park’s guests coming back for more. The hosts are utterly convincing — they have natural speech, behavior, and improvisation — which gives the guests an avenue to indulge their most lewd and murderous appetites without the consequences that come with slaughter, torture and rape in the real world.

Westworld could have made this its central theme. The treatment of synthetic beings is an increasingly pressing question in a world that edges closer and closer to true artificial intelligence. But it is also a question that has been explored countless times before, as has the idea that dangerous human creations might break free and wreak havoc upon their masters (see: Jurassic Park and the original Westworld movie).

But showrunners Lisa Joy and husband Jonathan Nolan recognize that philosophical questions alone are not enough to keep an audience captivated. Rather than focus on android rights or the ethical concerns of the park, they choose to tell a more self-contained and complex story concerning the mystery of whether or not the hosts are conscious beings. Nolan is the brother to Christopher Nolan, the adored director of Interstellar, Inception, and the Dark Knight trilogy. Like those films, Westworld’s plot is so convoluted that it is, at times, hard to follow. But, somehow, that complexity is one of the show’s greatest strengths, keeping a firm grasp on your attention and building to some of the most surprising and satisfying plot twists I’ve ever seen.

Westworld’s central storyline kicks off with several hosts malfunctioning, which has the park director (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her corporate overlords worried that the guests (and Westworld’s profits) may be in danger. One such host is Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a farmer’s daughter plagued by haunting visions that make you wonder if she might just have the capacity for conscious thought.

Wood is enchanting as Dolores. Her screen time is roughly equal to that of the other protagonists, but she distinguishes herself as the main character through the sheer strength of her performance. She switches between robotically cool and genuinely emotive in an instant, imbuing Dolores with depth and relatability that blurs the line between human and android and drives home one of the key themes of the show.

Despite its intriguing script, Westworld might have tanked if not for its talented actors. Thankfully, though, Westworld’s performances are stellar across the board. Jeffrey Wright plays Bernard, the park’s chief behavioral technician. He’s tasked with figuring out why the hosts are malfunctioning and how to fix them, which leads to his discovery of shady corporate activity and multiple encounters with the hosts’ almost-godly creator, Dr. Robert Ford (Sir Anthony Hopkins). Both actors are fantastic in their respective roles, infusing a hefty dose of nuance and intelligence into characters that could have been bland in the wrong hands. They are fascinating to watch, particularly when they share a scene. Bernard and Ford have a sort of father-son relationship that serves as a vessel for much of the plot and thematic development throughout the show.

The supporting actors are also great. Ed Harris plays the terrifying Man in Black, a ruthless guest with a mysterious connection to Wood’s Dolores. Knudsen and Tessa Thompson are regal as Westworld’s corporate queens, as is Thandie Newton as Maeve, a host who seemingly gains consciousness and plots to escape her theme-park prison. It’s refreshing to see so many women portrayed in positions of power and badassery, especially in such a big-budget show.

But what makes Westworld truly unique is its sky-high production value. It has a tone of sweeping, cinematic grandeur I’ve only seen in blockbuster movies. More than any other TV show, it feels like an epic of cinema in the vein of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. This is largely because everything — not just the acting — is immensely well done. The cinematography is crisp and smooth, establishing the park as an incomprehensibly massive, twisted adult playpen. The sets are equally masterful; the shadowy, glass-walled chambers where Bernard and his subordinates maintenance the hosts are particularly effective at reinforcing the show’s dark, haunting tone.

Westworld takes a similar approach to digital effects as many of Christopher Nolan’s films; like The Dark Knight and Dunkirk, it uses them only when absolutely necessary. In such cases, the visuals are much more convincing than most Hollywood blockbusters.

I’ve likened Westworld to Christopher Nolan movies several times throughout this review. That’s intentional. Nolan is one of the few filmmakers capable of crafting blockbusters that are just as intellectual as they are entertaining. Interstellar, Inception and The Prestige are genuinely puzzling films, but keep viewers captivated with sympathetic characters, suspenseful action sequences, and intriguing mysteries.

Westworld marks the first time something like that has come to the small screen. Its fusion of great acting, great writing, and masterful execution is a wonder to behold. If you’re looking for something to binge-watch, this is the show for you.

The second season of Westworld premieres on April 22nd.

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