‘Westworld’ Is, Very Sneakily, an Actors’ Series


Most of you already probably know the gist of Westworld — the robot/cowboy mashup that on paper reads as a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-type project, unreasonably begging to be taken seriously.

But after the first episode (and for the press, the first four episodes) I (and clearly many others) can say that the show has pulled this off without managing to seem like the result of mere pandering to appeal to everyone’s varied genre sensibilities. The world within the show is a pandering one — one that sells violent, sexual fantasies — but Westworld somehow manages to be the first Big Serious HBO Series in a while that, despite what it may sound like, actually deserves to be considered seriously.

Did Vinyl deserve such consideration? Absolutely not. Did True Detective? Yes, initially, and then, staunchly, no. Even The Night Of, which in so many ways far surpassed what we usually see on hourlong drama television, fell into some traps that endangered the reverence it initially commanded — though of course Westworld has plenty of time to do the same. (For what it’s worth, I still think The Night Of‘s strengths far outweighed its shortcomings.)

Perhaps what makes this new series work is that Westworld — very sneakily — is an actors’ TV series. The performances aren’t overshadowed by the show’s special effects — they are the show’s special effects. Sure, Westworld has a mind-blowing budget. Sure, it features visions of wild circular contraptions that create artificial humans (and sometimes horses) out of a viscous white fluid. There are people (or, those wrought from said fluid) getting eviscerated in inventively gruesome ways, along with bank robberies, and elaborate space-age desert lairs, and enigmatic mazes — all the types of things you might assume would make a series more about the aesthetics, or the action, or the (literal) guts. But what makes it a sound series, both in sheer quality and also in its ontological musings, are its performances — and its reliance on very human interpretations of its inhuman world.

Westworld features some impressive thespian gymnastics, and some of the coolest physical acting you’ll find on TV. For those who don’t want to know anything beyond the pilot, I’ll save spoilers for bit further down, because so much of how Westworld envisions its performances is set up in the first episode — particularly in one indelibly disturbing scene. The pilot boasts a virtuosic performance from an actor who for all we know may never be seen again in the series. (But for those looking for premature answers to that question, IMDb seems to have the information you seek.)

Louis Herthum appears as Peter Abernathy, aka the simulacral thingamajig who’s currently programmed to play the father of the series’ simulacral thingamajig protagonist, played by Evan Rachel Wood. Throughout the pilot, Peter gives signs of responding unexpectedly (or is it unexpected?!) to a new update that’s been given to the non-human “Hosts” — as they’re called — of the robo-theme park in which the series is set. Which is to say that he’s starting to develop mental faculties that makes the nature of his existence much closer to that of humans. No longer an automaton, he suddenly experiences memory, and seems flooded by the pain that comes with it. (Memory, in this place where “hosts” are used essentially as shooting targets and fleshlights by visitors, is a particularly painful thing.)

Now, as he’s glitching in the examination room, he begins grimacing and uttering words that sound brutally prophetic, as though suddenly this robot were writing deathly spoken word poetry — that is, until he says, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” and it all starts to sound familiar. Turns out, he’s just been reciting Shakespeare fragments; in the past, this “host” had been programmed to play a cannibalistic professor who liked to quote famous works of literature.

This long scene — in which Herthum, seated naked on a chair, blinks frenetically, meanders between lushly poetic (they’re Shakespeare, after all) threats, sobs, and jolly southern pleasantries, before being shut off, face frozen in a menacing grin — shows the immense power of the human instrument more than anything else. In these minutes alone, we’re at once struck by one of these characters seeming sentient and rightly both horrified and vengeful — and then struck by the fact that all of these feelings and utterances of his could very well just be echoes of past programming. Can you imagine a harder acting note than, “gradually, convincingly, show us the thought process behind transforming from an object into a human — and then make us wonder how different we humans, ourselves, really are from an animated object regurgitating the language of people who spoke it in the past, using only the limited vocabulary of emotions we’ve been given by genetic programming?”

Herthum is the first actor tasked with this crazy acting feat. Across the next few episodes, you’ll see many of the show’s other stars rise to a similar occasion.

Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton play two other “hosts” who are being set up by the narrative arc to begin to understand their humanness (or something similar, and perhaps greater) — and to reconcile that with the pains of being treated so inhumanly. Evan Rachel Wood’s acting in the pilot alone encompasses an exhilarating transformation, not just as a character, but from a “bad” actor to an amazing one. If you were to come into the series blind to its concept, you’d think the first 15 minutes were just terrible, schlocky Western nostalgia — and that Wood’s performance was the same. Her emotionally vulnerable prairie girl character — who only talks about the “beauty” in this world in a sleepy southern accent, and steals away from it all to paint watercolors — is, well, insufferably naive, and played with the hollowed sheen of a million creepy male fantasies, and that is, of course, the point.

In this episode alone, Wood gets to prove her prowess: when Dolores enters “analysis mode,” a meditative state in which the human workers at the amusement park can pry certain things from their supposedly limited consciousnesses, her voice deepens, and all the levity of her programmed character is gone. Even the way Wood, in analysis mode, simply says the word “yes” — as an almost burp-like, totally dead acquiescence — speaks to the disquieting control her makers have over her. Because she plays this robotic acceptance so well, the most arresting moment in the episode is its last, a moment of tiny resistance.

The series depicts a Groundhog Day type scenario — with “Hosts” repeating the narratives of same day over and over again — and Wood thereby gets to master an arc through repetition with subtle but pointed variation. In her last scene, just after she’s been in analysis and has been asked if she’d ever hurt anyone (“No,” she says), she returns to her prairie-tale nightmare world — repeats the same day as usual, getting out of bed, coming out to the porch, saying hi to her father, and looking out wide-eyed onto the beautiful morning. When a fly lands on her neck, though, she assassinates it with a fast, callous swat, though never changing her naively optimistic expression. Again, you can imagine the impossible acting note — about playing this strange, striking duality of someone who’s been programmed to interact with the world in a very specific way, but whose burgeoning consciousness is pushing its way to the surface in the form of small, surprising resistances.

Similarly, in the next couple of episodes, the show will start to reveal Thandie Newton’s character’s awakening. As Maeve Millay, the Madame of Westworld’s saloon, her Host character has a certain power and ownership over the other Hosts in their prefabricated narratives. She’s known abuse, and the horrors of male fantasies, and she knows how to command some sense of power in the world of the Wild West because of her familiarity with the ways it works — but of course, all this knowledge is programmed to make her the archetypal Madam character, and of course, her Wild West is completely imaginary. In actuality, her brassiness and even her power is a further part of the fantasy, and what’s unsettling is that her character — who’s managed to find some sort of empowerment even in the horrors of Westworld — is neutralized (until, maybe, she isn’t) when she’s taken to the lab, analyzed, and reconstructed for the next day. Newton, like Wood and Herthum, impresses as she walks the line between humanness and the uncanny valley — then slowly seems to veer away from that line, in the direction of the former.

And then there are, of course, the “real” human characters — and I use scare quotes now because after these first episodes, the question of course becomes what constitutes realness. These characters, too, are acting within the complex (and still not totally revealed) corporate bureaucracy of the theme park: though Jeffrey Wright’s and Anthony Hopkins’s scientist characters may bristle with mischief and intelligence at their ability to invent and manipulate intelligence, they too are ensconced in the power systems around them.

Westworld’s futurism is far more allegorical than it is a realistic projection; the theme park in question would be utterly unprofitable, and in a future reality branching off from our own, everything in it would be far more likely to be virtual than physical.

Dystopias in both The Matrix or even Her — where post-humanity is suggested in virtual, non-corporeal entities — seem more in keeping with technologic trends, at least on a physical level. But it’s exactly that: Westworld‘s very physical theme park is of course a potent double for virtual reality, a narrative that uses humanoids who’re part of the physical realm as a means of mining the vast terrain opened by the question, “when does virtual reality become real?” By giving bodies to entities who’d otherwise be virtual, the show heightens the stakes of a cultural desensitization towards virtual violence. What’s so cool about the performances in Westworld is that, unlike, say, Ex Machina, where a human actor is working (still, awesomely) with the enhancements of a CGI body, these actors are simply using their own human bodies and facial and vocal tics to incite these questions.

The show’s decision to make the “Hosts” as physically real as possible — while starting the series in a place where they’re only just beginning to gain full mental realness — presents its actors with nothing smaller than the challenge of going from an object, to a subject, to perhaps something beyond what humans can even fathom. It’s at once a series of questions we’re all wondering about technology, and a series of questions everyone wonders about themselves. After all, we all start out mired in our predetermined societal standings, as society’s playing pieces, and eventually we either attempt to resist that or we don’t.

Thus Westworld asks whether humans can transcend our own limited, even primitive, social and physical vocabularies. The use of actors who are performing in a mode that’s virtuosic, strange, and new makes this a celebration and a condemnation of the seemingly boundless human imagination — prodding, consistently, with the question of just how boundless it really is.