HBO used to be a bastion of quality.
I’m fairly young, but not too young to suggest that at a certain point, between The Sopranos, The Wire, and capitalizing on my favorite medium, the miniseries, with such stellar hits as Band of Brothers and John Adams, not only had the Home Box Office predicted far ahead of time the current streaming of everything, but it did so with a sort of gravitas. You go to Netflix to see the machine, how the sausage is made, but you invite people over with tray passers for HBO.
That is now not the case.
After the tragedy that we all collectively felt with Game of Thrones, HBO has been struggling to come up not only with powerful ideas and stories to treat viewers to meaningful experiences, it does so at the expense of some of the best technical feats I’ve ever seen on television. The size and scale of shows like Westworld and Game of Thrones feel less like stories and more as vehicles to showcase the incredible artistic temperament still present. Yet they are held back by sloppy plots and silly dialogue.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR WESTWORLD
It is the week before the season three finale of Westworld. I was hoping that the show, after a disastrous season two, could hit the reset button and take the themes of the Westworld park to the “real” world. They tried, and I was sorely disappointed.
The season follows several characters as they either incite or quell the ongoing revolution for hosts from the park. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is a Neo-like character, planting pieces on a chessboard that no one really knows but her, and like any enlightened character in science fiction, she has lost any inkling of her past personality. Skeptics might claim that her early Dolores was weak-willed and naive, and that may be true, but her character now, while yes is one that is wiser, is nonetheless more of a plot deliverer and, much more perniciously a sort of ghost for new arrival Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul). Showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan claimed that their use of Dolores for Caleb is like that of the ghost of Christmas past from A Christmas Carol, which is strange, considering the usual gentleness embedded in that character (Scrooged actually uses this stereotype to its advantage with slapstick). But even more surreal is the fact that Dolores cowtows to Caleb’s character arc in order to persuade him to do the bad things. More on this later, but for Dolores to escape one place as subservient to a story, only to land with the task of guiding someone else’s story again was the first problem I felt.
Maeve (Thandie Newton) is wasted potential. After having sent her daughter to the sublime (just go watch the show), she has decided to take steps to be reunited with her. However she finds herself caught in yet another loop, this time a digital simulation orchestrated by the new villain of the season, Serac (Vincent Cassel). Serac makes her an offer: you kill Delores and I’ll put you wherever you want. According to the plot, Serac needs Maeve for her incredible mind, which since season one has been artificially altered to be incredibly intelligent and, to a certain extent, telepathic. She can access networks and even control hosts.
In season one, Maeve was privy to some of the best scenes, including the realization that she had no free will by seeing her exact dialogue play out on a tablet that gave me goosebumps. Now however, Maeve and Delores are arranged to be rivals a la Xavier and Magneto from X-Men, and in each manifestation of the core goals, unlike the mutants, these two hosts feel as though they are talking past each other. It seems utterly simply for Maeve to team up and defeat Serac, and both get what they want, yet some writerly handwaving makes that all but impossible.
Unlike Game of Thrones, Westworld doesn’t know how to kill characters. William (Ed Harris) has largely exhausted his character, and his diatribes now as an attempt to reboot him are so laughable and embarrassing that I get up to make tea so I at least don’t have to look at the screen. William apparently has had a violent upbringing, and his great revelation this season (after beating up his alternate egos in an AR therapy session) is to beat up every single robot until he saves the world. Delusions of grandeur called upon by violence? William hasn’t changed at all. If anyone tells you “That’s the point of his arc,” please slap them.
Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) have great chemistry that is used for little more than fetch quests. One could have imagined a season three of just these two, following and commenting on Delores as she wreaks havoc in a way that builds her character as a legend and allows these two to drink more beers in hotels and shoot the shit.
I’ll be brief with Caleb. He is simply another attempt by the writers of introducing a core memory and then subverting it in order to create a plot twist that shocks and surprises the viewer. Unfortunately, that has already been done before (and to a much better extent) with Bernard in season one. After learning that he is a robot, Bernard is then forced to kill his lover. It’s almost Greek tragedy levels of success. Caleb is a human who went through brain changing therapy in order to alter memories, and seeing this again in season three, we sort of hand wave it now and go “yea yea yea.”
The reason for this has to do with opportunity cost. In a season with eight episodes and so many characters to keep track of (including introducing new ones!), it becomes very difficult to write a successful show without some corner cutting or plot contrivances. And there is plenty of that here in the third season. Serac is one of the richest men in the world, is described as a black hole, and can assassinate major players as well as manipulate whole governments. We’re meant to assume that if the world were to receive a data sheet that detailed just how much surveillance learned and curtailed our lives towards its ideas of “success” that we would literally hang ourselves just moments after. The show has always catered to a cynical view of humanity ever since season one, but for some reason the tone and the writing of the show did not translate at all from the park to the real world, and the expository heavy dialogue is so unwieldy, yet the viewer is supposed to take what they say as gospel. There’s no time to actually have events play out, in fact, all of Westworld season three could actually be an interesting stage play. Just count the amount of times that one character tells another character who they are, and take a drink if you want to. You won’t wake until the next day.
All of these problems add up, and now I do not even have to see the finale to know that so much of HBO’s problems are right here, in a show that tries to brute force its goodness and topicality on its viewers. It is such a beautiful show, with a blank check given to every set, every costume, and I look forward more to the post-episode features just to see smart people at work. But instead of having to prop up a dead puppet, why not inject some intelligent writing? Why not find talented storytellers and start there? Without the core memory, it’s just dead on arrival.