Game of Thrones's popular refrain, "Winter is coming," not only marks a finality for the characters we've come to love and revile over the past five years, but is also a somber reminder that time is ticking down on us, the viewers since there are only 13 episodes of HBO's flagship drama left. One can't help to feel a little like Arya Stark, the "girl with no name." Except, we the viewers are being left as the "people with no show."
The fantasy epic filled a void for HBO after closing the books on other favorites like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Boardwalk Empire which solidified the premium cable provider as one of the most reliable and inventive in the TV sphere.
But with Game of Thrones already a confirmed causality, the pressure is on for the network to refill and replenish their fusion of drama with fantastical elements. Their hope is that Westworld is just that.
Originally scheduled to premiere in 2015, Westworld was pushed to 2016, and then rumor swirled it would be pushed once again to 2017. Ultimately, the show is scheduled to premiere this Sunday.
The oft-changed premiere date has caused people speculate that either the show is a complete mess, or HBO and its creators, Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher and co-writer of The Dark Knight and Interstellar) and his wife Joy (Burn Notice and Pushing Daisies) have been taking their time to make something truly remarkable.
In an interview with io9, Nolan said, “I’ve read a lot of bullshit about this show. I’ve read more fucking nonsense about this project than anything I’ve ever been involved in—which is kind of amazing, given how much nonsense I read about the Batman movies.”
He specifically points to Westworld's cross-genre blend which has proved challenging - something that Game of Thrones often faces.
“We’re doing a period Western, and a science fiction [movie],” said Nolan. “Basically, we’re shooting Alien, Days of Heaven and Unforgiven simultaneously, and then cutting them all together... It’s just a massive, massive undertaking.”
MINOR SPOILERS TO FOLOW
From the very outset, we are transported to a different time and place - much in the same way we were introduced to Westeros in Game of Thrones. But instead of a medieval backdrop chock full of dire wolves and beheadings, we get the sprawling vistas of "Sweetwater" which indicate a time and place associated with the lawlessness of the Old West. A coal-powered chain cuts through arid terrain. A meddlesome housefly buzzes. A sheriff entices townsfolk to drop everything they're doing and engage in a manhunt for a murderous fugitive. A father rocks back-and-forth on the porch and warns his daughter to be home before dark. It has all the constructs of a honky-tonk chart-topper.
The stock Western genre tropes stop there and are interrupted by a gun battle between Teddy Flood (James Marsden) and The Man in Black (Ed Harris) which doesn't play out how one would normally expect. We soon realize that the cause and effect of a gunfight doesn't apply for everyone in Sweetwater. Something is amiss that is much more sinister than a rattle snake lurking in the brush.
Whereas Game of Thrones always hints at what lies beyond the Narrow Sea, Westworld is forthright in showing us what is behind the curtain; mainly, that Sweetwater is an elaborate construct of scientists, engineers, writers, and strategists who allow people to enter the rural sprawl for $40,000 USD a day to live out their wildest and most depraved fantasies. It's sort of a reverse Truman Show.
In order to ensure that there is ample excitement for those that sign up, Sweetwater is populated by "hosts" - a more vague way to say "robots" - who are completely lifelike and been programmed to enhance narratives like the aforementioned fugitive manhunt which is one of many storylines that people can take part in.
At first glance, it has the feeling of Jurassic Park meets The Matrix. Except, picture a scenario where Sam Neal's Dr. Alan Grant, or Keanu Reeves's Neo, decided to engage in orgies or started scalping people in a quest for a greater understanding of what is happening. In Jurassic Park, people wanted to interact with dinosaurs. In Westworld, people want to be the dinosaurs.
In that respect, Westworld and Game of Thrones are cut from a similar cloth. Neither is apologetic about what is taboo. GoT creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have a wonderful understanding of we the audience and what will get us agitated and riled up. For the scientists constructing Sweetwater, it has the meta feeling like they are showrunners themselves who know what kind of story arc a paying customer needs to go through in order to feel like he/she got their money's worth. In that regard, Westworld's pilot is equal parts entertainment as it is cultural criticism about what makes people want more of something. Essentially, the scientists in charge provide patrons a "Red Wedding" every time they swipe their credit cards.
"It's a good hard look at humanity, actress Evan Rachel Wood said. "In our show, the humans are the monsters."
The original Michael Crichton film in which Westworld is based centers on a parent company called Delos which contains three parks: Western World, Medieval World and Roman World. It was a wise decision for Nolan and Joy to avoid any medieval connotations in their works for fear that they were literally trying to replicate Game of Thrones. The Western backdrop is the perfect setting to evoke a similar sentiment without feeling like a spaceship had simply been plopped down on King's Landing. Westworld never feels like more of the same.
There's a real sense of impending doom for all the characters introduced in the pilot. On the technical side, Sir Anthony Hopkins's Dr. Robert Ford, Jeffrey Wright's Bernard Lowe, and Sidse Babett Knudsen's Theresa Cullen, recognize all is not right with their "hosts" following an update orchestrated by Dr. Ford who is on a continued quest to make each vessel all the more human to the dismay of the board of directors who feel it is best that visitors understand that their depravity is not actually hurting someone "real."
For confirmed hosts like Evan Rachel Wood's Delores, we get the slightest hint that although her life is an endless loop to satiate park visitors, events of the pilot episode may have unlocked a deeper consciousness. Finally still, Ed Harris's The Man in Black, is a potent antagonist whose motivations seem to fueled by his understanding that he is a puppet in a game.
The notion of technology turning against its creators is not a new thought; but the how and when in Westworld suggests you shouldn't get too attached to anyone.
Westworld's biggest flaw is that once you understand the dynamics of the universe, it pales in comparison to Game of Thrones which has always felt like a three-dimensional globe as opposed to Westworld which initially seems more like a board game played on flat surface. Thus, GoT has created a setting where it seems impossible to revolve the various stories in the remaining 13 episodes, while Westworld has left me to ponder just how they will manage to populate nine more during season 1.