It has now been almost a month since the final episode of HBO’s Westworld aired and it has allowed time for reflection. So much so that despite having a mountain of films and TV shows to catch up on I took the executive decision to re-watch Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s take on Michael Crichton’s iconic 1976 novel.
Now with two full viewings behind me – one a traditional week-by-week viewing and the other a four day binge watch – I can safely conclude that it is a modern masterpiece.
In fact, I’d go a step further and say that it has set a new benchmark for TV narrative that will take something truly epic to eclipse.
The idea of binge watching a TV show certainly isn’t a new concept, it’s existed since the rise of the DVD and become a staple since the revolution of video-on-demand. Yet many shows miss the potential that this method of consumption offers, failing to truly tailor the show for the binge watchers by including unnecessary and largely pointless breaks in the overarching narrative with slow burn or tangent filler episode, such as monster-of-the-week.
To explain what I’m getting at, think of the 12 hours plus extended cut of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and imaging it as a 12 episode TV show. It would have a coherent flow, with a controlled pace allowing the perfect presentation of the narrative, ensuring the audience is fully engrossed in the bigger picture, where even the minor details add up to the grander scheme.
For me, no show has really encapsulated the concept of a TV series as one stand alone story, crafted so each episode links together seamlessly, a sum of its individual parts resulting in a conclusive and rounded finale. True Detectives came very close to it, but probably had a few episodes too many to feel truly legion. Another of HBO’s stellar dramas, Ray Donovan, tries very hard but struggles to fill all the screen time with a singular coherent narrative, littered with many sub-plots that sometimes take precedent and distract from the overall plot. British made dramas tend to fair better, with the mini serials such as The Missing, Broadchurch, and Line of Duty all feeling like an extended features. although by their nature are designed as a stand-alone, one-off story.
Westworld absolutely nails it.
It was one of my most highly anticipated TV shows of all time as it came from a respected production team. I’m a massive fan of Jonathan Nolan’s previous work; a broadcaster that constantly sets the standard in HBO. Basing his work on that of a much lauded author in Crichton, it follows in the footsteps of a truly outstanding 1973 film and features a drool-inducing cast of Hollywood heavyweights.
Yet with that anticipation, came massive pressure and the challenge to deliver was equivalent to a blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound 107 year old man trying to climb Everest. I expected it to fall short of the extreme hype and ultimately disappoint me, mainly due to concerns over how they could present a story with real longevity and depth.
The pilot set the tone very well, presenting the utterly gorgeous world of Delos and introducing us to the assembled cast of hosts and their “gods”. The second built on this positive start by bringing more of the characters to the fore, building the foundation of the adventure that was about to unfold. And the third set the scene further, bringing in the first signs of the inevitable discontent. However, in episode four “Dissonance Theory”, while still being executed to near perfection, it was starting to wain at what seemed to be a lack of substantial story progression in a 10 episode series – a pattern that was sustained over the next few episodes. My preconception of how the show would engage and was proving to be disappointingly accurate, with the beautiful presentation and absolutely terrific performances not compensating for the lack of a strong and forceful narrative.
Yet that all changed in “Trompe L’Oeil”, the seventh entry in the series. This was an utter game-changer and not only reinvigorated the stale narrative, but made everything that had come before fall into place. Jaw-dropping revelations aside, this was an episode with a hell of a lot of meat on the bone and ultimately stuffed a plot that had only the previous week felt utterly famished. It sparked the charge to the climax, with each subsequent episode building gracefully into a multilayered and enthralling story. A show that appeared to be flapping rudderless in its own aesthetics had quickly morphed into the most edge-of-your seat adventure, revealing that everything that had come before was masterfully crafted to achieve such a spectacular crescendo.
And as far as crescendo’s go, Westworld‘s final episode, “The Bicameral Mind”, was probably the most engaging, emotive and well executed episode of television I have ever witnessed. And I have watched a hell of a lot of TV over the years!
Not only was it a frankly outstanding 90 minutes of viewing, it managed to pull everything together. Take “The Maze” McGuffin for example – it now all made sense. An elaborate 1000 piece jigsaw. It all came together with every single piece adding to the overall picture. Nothing had been left to chance. The little details that you missed or never quite made sense of in the first episode were now illuminated in blinding clarity.
Westworld is not only a utterly fantastic TV show, it is a step toward true auteurism in the TV medium and the single greatest example of a concise narrative tailored to the binge watchers.
Given the explosive revelations of the finale, I made the very easy decision to venture back through it. Second time around I didn’t miss a beat – it swallowed me up and swept me away. In my now host-like state of being fully aware of the world I was in, it allowed me to follow in Maeve’s footsteps and turn my awareness to maximum, focussing on the detail and all the pieces that would be welded together to form the masterpiece. I found even more beauty in the mise en scène, awake now to the sheer scale of production and effort undertaken to make this all fit together so sweetly. It became blazingly obvious that this didn’t feel like I was watching a TV show – it felt like I was undertaking the viewing of epic film.
Sure, there are a few loose ends that are left open, but that is inevitable in the world of TV when a second season is in the works. Audiences need a hook, and tidy conclusions simply don’t work – as HBO’s True Detectives demonstrates quite perfectly.
Westworld has truly raised the bar on what the ever growing medium of TV can achieve. It teaches us that shows being bloated with throwaway filler episodes really is detrimental to the overall vision. Less is most definitely more and with the right cohesive approach to storytelling, TV can far out-muscle anything film can throw at it.
For me, it is already considered one of the greatest TV shows of all time, but it is very early days. I now have to wait until 2018 for the next instalment, my levels of anticipation at truly uncharted levels. But I’m also excited to witness it’s legacy, how other show runners and writers react and how they are inspired by the style and approach of Westworld.
Cause make no mistake – this is a new dawn in TV storytelling.