I had been planning on watching Westworld in the way I’ve planned on watching most of the new shows that HBO and Showtime have rolled out over the last three years or so–just barely remembering to set the DVR, not paying attention to who the leads are until the opening credits. I know the shows will feature compelling visuals and fine acting; I also have faith that they almost invariably feature strong writing. (Although season two of True Detective severely tested that faith. Severely.) I never question if these shows will be good; it is always a matter of whether the story will appeal to me. Even with the shows that I like, though, I tend to be lackadaisical about getting around to watching them; I only have an hour or two a day to pay attention to a TV show on weekdays, and I find that they often benefit from being watched in longer chunks than an hour at a time, so I save them up for weekends when I do the ironing.
Shows that I like so much that I simply lack the patience to save up several episodes for a mini-marathon are increasingly rare–there was The Killing, the first couple of seasons of Downton Abbey, Borgen, season 1 of Rogue, last year’s Deustchland 83, and now Westworld. I read a few conflicting reviews, one focused on Evan Rachel Wood and another, more critical, claiming that the show “starts off with a bang but then falls down a rabbit hole of Lost-style strangeness.” I disagree particularly with this last, as much as I usually like Vox’s reviews–my impression was the show’s writers and producers know exactly what they want it to be, there is one central mystery of which all the “disconnected” mysteries are threads, and if the rest of the season measures up to this first episode it will be a fine and particularly creepy exploration of our fear of AI. Just because it’s subtle doesn’t mean it’s a mess–there is no bad here, as far as episode 1 goes.
And there is this cast, this amazing how-did-they-cram-so-many-awesome-people-into-one-show cast. Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Sidse Babette Knudsen, Evan Rachel Wood, Jimmi Simpson, Ben Barnes, and most of all Thandie Newton, who was the heart of the aforementioned Rogue until she left it and it was ruined.
I’ve loved Thandie Newton’s work since I saw Flirting on TV one afternoon, years and years ago. It was one of my favourite films for a long time, until I read about the director John Duigan’s abusive relationship with her; I haven’t been able to watch it since. In some cases I can separate what is on screen from what happened off-screen, but this is not one of them.
Fortunately there is a wealth of other excellent work Newton has done since, in addition to being an outspoken women’s rights activist and having, from all indications, an enviable family life. She’s never fallen into the trap of being typecast, doing comedy, drama, and action–she’s as adept at costume drama as she is at being a total badass, on screen and off. This will serve especially well in her role in Westworld, which, if the hints in episode one pan out, will be far more complex than simply an android sex worker. I find it a bit frustrating that all the articles I’ve read on the series thus far have been either breathless or cross in discussing the presentation of sex in the show (and most of them refusing to acknowledge that there is a difference between portraying sexual violence with the aim of highlighting its negative effects and doing so gratuitously), but only a few have mentioned the questioning of the nature of free will that the show explores, and none at all have even touched on the matters of consciousness and identity that made this first episode so compelling to me. I’m thrilled that Newton has a new role as promising as Grace in Rogue was, and I look forward to seeing where she takes Maeve.
Further reading on some of the activism Newton is involved with, and her own blog:
TED Talk: Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself