“Westworld” started out as a fever dream of all my favorite things.
In the years since that first nearly flawless season, my relationship to the show has shifted for several reasons.
Above all, I’m still a “Westworld” fan. But boy is it starting to feel draining.
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From the moment I saw the first “Westworld” trailer in 2016, I felt like I was being dropped into a fever dream of all my favorite things.
The unique sci-fi/Western genre blend was based on a work of fiction (a specialty of mine I had been perfecting while writing about “Game of Thrones”), plus top billing included Evan Rachel Wood, Anthony Hopkins, and a Nolan brother!
Go ahead and watch that trailer again and tell me if you can guess what the hell that show is about. You can’t. I didn’t at the time. But I dove headlong into the chaos. I bought the original Michael Crichton movie and watched it to prepare. I received the first four episodes of the first season as press screeners and spent a month watching and rewatching them and telling everyone I knew that they had to see this show when it came out.
John P. Johnson/HBO
Four years later, and after what I can only estimate is hundreds of hours spent passionately analyzing and writing about this show, all of my beloved fervor has changed into something more complicated.
While I’d still call myself a devoted fan of the show, I now see my journey as a “Westworld” obsessive as a roller coaster of highs and lows, particularly as each season emerges more and more divisive among the original fan base.
The first season of ‘Westworld’ is still one of the best seasons of TV to premiere in the past decade
The debut season of “Westworld” rightfully earned an enormous, obsessive audience. At first, the draw of “Westworld” was the intriguing way the story literally zoomed out from the theme park. The pilot begins with a tight circle of exposition granted to the viewer: We learn about the “hosts,” robots so well designed that they’re indistinguishable from humans, and how those hosts live inside narrative loops in a theme park designed to look like the Wild West.
We’re also shown (again, in a tightly contained subplot) how a facility run by humans controls the hosts and their narratives, cleaning up the abused robot bodies before sending them back out for more murder and assault. There’s a mysterious man named Dr. Ford (played by the enigmatic Hopkins), a terrifying man (Ed Harris) with no name and a penchant for terrorizing the hosts, and then, of course, the hosts themselves.
Dolores (Wood) is introduced as the sweet rancher’s daughter, an innocent type who loves the rugged cowboy host Teddy (James Marsden). We’re told that she’s the oldest host in the park and that the hosts are programmed so they’re unable to hurt any living thing, even a fly.
The pilot cracks open its premise by the end with an important final shot: Dolores killing a fly as she serenely smiles, looking out over the “natural splendor” of her world.
As its first season unfolded, “Westworld” cemented itself as one of the best new shows on television. The sweeping vistas of “Westworld” — filmed on location in Utah and Arizona — contrasted with a beautifully stark design of the Delos facilities.
The composer Ramin Djawadi was already a rising star thanks to his indelible work on “Game of Thrones,” but now his bag of tricks was expanded with the “Westworld” score and playfully gorgeous piano covers of music from Radiohead and Soundgarden and more.
John P. Johnson/HBO
The episodes following the pilot brought another key host, Maeve (Thandie Newton), to the forefront with her own hauntingly beautiful story of awakening. The circle of information grew larger, zooming out to show us how human guests like William (Jimmi Simpson) and Logan (Ben Barnes) arrived in the park.
Then the theories began.
‘Westworld’ trained its audience to look for meaning in the smallest details, leading to an unwieldy external method of watching the show
Reddit has long been a hub for fandoms. It’s not uncommon for individual shows or franchises to have their own subreddits, like r/westworld, where theories and discussions and news can be shared and debated.
“Westworld” was seemingly designed for the eagle-eyed hivemind of a subreddit, with the tiniest of background details (like a label on a milk can) planted as clues of a twist. Its cocreator Jonathan Nolan is a Redditor himself and even dropped exclusive unused footage from the first season in an innocuous comment.
From the jump, “Westworld” fans tried to uncover the twists and turns of the season ahead. And they did it with an incredible rate of success.
The Westworld park’s head of programming, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), turned out to be a host created by Ford in a twisted attempt to bring his old partner, Arnold, back to life. The biggest twist of all was that Harris’ character, the mysterious Man in Black, was actually William, and that the first season had been showing audiences two different time frames, cleverly cut together to look like a single continuous story.
Even back then, keeping up with the fan theories was sometimes exhausting. The amount of information contained not just in the show but in the bonus “Westworld” content, like a Delos Destinations website, was overwhelming.
Trying to be the first to spot a new Easter egg on the website or uncover a coded message in the show was exhilarating. It was also a breeding ground for anxiety and hubris. What if you got it wrong? What if you got it right, but were still missing a key piece of the puzzle?
At this point, you’re probably asking, “Why not … chill out? It’s just a TV show.” Unfortunately, that’s not how my mind (or job) works. And while, yes, the season-one roller coaster of fan theories and being wrong but also sometimes being extremely right was stressful, it was, above all else, fun.
The first season finale of “Westworld” is still one of my favorite episodes of TV I’ve seen in the past decade. But it’s not just the finale — the pace and momentum of the first season is nearly flawless. Maeve’s story still brings me to tears when I rewatch the run of episodes from “The Adversary” to “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Every time Hopkins goes into a new monologue, I’m primed for chills. The score, the writing, the performances — it’s all phenomenal.
It was also fun to have a show crafted by two very thoughtful and detail-oriented people like Nolan and Lisa Joy. Listening to them speak about the show’s ideas — and the way they were challenging the audience to draw parallels to the real world while also sprinkling in clever Easter eggs — always brought me to new levels of respect for their approach to TV writing.
The 2nd season had higher highs, but lower lows
Have you ever woken up at 1 a.m., quietly retrieved your laptop and headphones so as not to wake up your husband in a 425-square-foot apartment, sat down on the couch to watch a full spoiler video showing what happens in “Westworld” season two uploaded by Nolan himself, excitedly seen real new footage, and then slowly, horrifyingly realized you have been RICK-ROLLED?! Well, I have.
Nolan and Joy, who had by then caught on to the way the “Westworld” subreddit was seemingly a step ahead of their twists, were trying to out-Reddit the Redditors.
I see the humor in it. And I have almost no one to blame but myself for thinking that Nolan and Joy’s practical joke on the “Westworld” Reddit fans might be real.
But that was the moment I had to relinquish some of the satisfaction I got from being a self-proclaimed expert on this show and accept that I was just a passenger along on the ride Nolan and Joy were creating — even if that meant sometimes getting the rug jokingly pulled out from under my feet.
Season two started off very strong. Again that circle of information was pulled out a little more, opening the circumference of understanding. We learned more about where Westworld was. We saw other parks for the first time, with Shogunworld and The Raj. We got a deeper understanding of how William took over the Delos company and of the corporate interests in the park’s guests and data collection.
But this time, instead of weaving two concurrent time frames to appear like a continuous plot, the story structure went topsy-turvy. From the outset we knew there were multiple time frames. But we were seeing those through the perspective of Bernard, a host whose entire memory bank had been declassified and scrambled.
John P. Johnson/HBO
Adding to the confusion was the introduction of the Cradle, a simulated version of the real world. Oh, and the fact that the actress Tessa Thompson wasn’t just playing Charlotte Hale but half the time had been Dolores disguised in a copy of Charlotte’s body.
I was able to keep most of the scenes straight, but only with a large spreadsheet and weekly updates to a massive timeline outlining the events of every episode.
Many fans were left completely confused, and not in a pleasant way. Instead of feeling exhilarated by the challenge of unpacking every scene, a lot of folks were throwing their hands in the air and saying, “I don’t know what’s going on anymore.”
Not everyone gave up, though. Almost every week, there was at least one scene or monologue or new piece of information that delivered those same season-one feelings all over again.
The real tour de force came with the eighth episode, “Kiksuya,” which gave us a long-awaited understanding of the Native hosts in Westworld. Told almost entirely in Lakota by the actor Zahn McClarnon (a host called Akecheta), “Kiksuya” was one of the most breathtaking episodes of “Westworld.”
It blew right past “The Bicameral Mind” in terms of world-building, beauty, and a reset of expectations for how “Westworld” can build itself toward flawless character-driven storytelling.
In retrospect, perhaps the bar was set too high.
The 3rd season had its own highs and lows, but this time around it was more draining than fun
Season three kicked off with some trepidation. What hijinks would the writers be up to this time? How was the show going to feel without the backdrop of the beautifully constructed Delos parks?
As new episodes began, I heard more and more from people who told me that my articles — usually in tandem with the Vanity Fair writer and professional “Westworld” podcaster Joanna Robinson’s coverage — were the only thing keeping them engaged with the show. Others confessed to me, as if I’d take it personally, that they had given up. Still more would ask me in a fretful manner whether the new season was “worth watching.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I still don’t. I’m a fervent believer in people choosing for themselves what kind of shows or movies are worth their increasingly precious time. The idea of telling someone that they must watch a show stresses me out. What if they hate it? What if they blame me for wasting their time? What if I’m wrong? (Welcome to my anxiety-soaked brain.)
There was no way I’d ever stop watching “Westworld,” so I didn’t know what to say to people asking if they should. I enjoyed the first batch of episodes in the third season and felt optimistic about the back half.
Along the way, I felt a push and pull of enjoyment and frustration. At points, that old feeling of “Westworld”-driven glee rushed back. Lee Sizemore’s reappearance and then the reveal that he and Maeve were in a simulation was a delight. Aaron Paul’s character, Caleb, was a welcome addition to the already phenomenal cast. The midway reveal that Dolores had copied herself instead of bringing actual host allies into the real world was unpredictable and well executed.
I’d probably enjoy watching Harris read the terms and conditions of a weather app, so seeing him flex his talent this season as William in a downward spiral was pure joy (even if Harris wasn’t too jazzed about his character arc).
But the thing I noticed above all this season was how my ratio of enjoyment to stress started inverting. As the weeks went on, I felt the pressure of trying to figure out exactly what was going on with each character, what the secondary story might be, what fun references and Easter eggs were lurking in every frame.
In the first two seasons, those searches and analysis-driven days were exhilarating and satisfying. But this season, for the first time, I was sometimes left feeling foolish for overthinking some scenes or subplots. Characters seemed to either speak in vague terms or overexplain their plans. Motivations were intentionally hidden from us, just so their reveals later would feel like a revelation. For example, the entirety of Dolores’ plans and her relationship to Caleb was needlessly opaque until the last possible moment.
Looking back on this season, I can’t tell whether I was being toyed with as a viewer when it came to certain story threads or whether I simply wasn’t meant to be paying this close attention anymore. But to borrow a phrase from the show: If you can’t tell, does it matter?
Either way, I felt out of sync with a show that once satiated every level of my expert-TV-watching self.
The engaging poetry of the first season and later episodes like “Kiksuya” got lost somewhere along the way for me. Again, not to say I thought the entire season was a slog, or that I was constantly getting things wrong. While I still felt connected to the characters and had satisfying discoveries as the season pushed ahead, there was something missing in the formula.
Maybe it’s not the show’s fault, but like a lot of fans, I feel drained
My exhaustion with the series is coming from a lot of fronts, both external and internal. We were dealing with Nolan and Joy’s vision of the world in 2058. It’s not their fault our real world happened to start tearing apart at the already strained seams just when the third season of “Westworld” began. But that coincidental timing likely contributed to the feeling of stress, rather than exhilaration, with each new episode.
In 2020, more people are walking around with brains that already feel like wrung sponges, and “Westworld” threatens them with an extra squeeze. The show made its debut when the rise of intense prestige drama was still around its peak — a time when that squeeze was welcomed. Now, escapist, feel-good content is having its moment, and for good reason.
So if I’m going to spend the brainpower on a show like “Westworld,” my expectations for the payoff will be a lot higher. I want that season-one quality of writing back, where the smaller details and revelations added up to a deeper character arc. I want my ratio of enjoyment to stress back to where it was before.
I’m not done with “Westworld,” not by any stretch. They reeled me in from the start, and I’m keeping myself on the hook. I would still rather wade through Joy and Nolan’s philosophies on AI and the future and technology and random art-history references than almost any other showrunner working right now.
I just wish that being a diehard of this show fan didn’t feel so draining. Hopefully by the time season four rolls around, I’ll be welcoming the fever dream once again.
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