I’ve actually been sitting on this blog post for a while. Originally, it was a discussion of why I was finding it hard to engage with Westworld longterm, but I wanted to watch the latest episode and tweak things to match before sharing it with the world. Well, the rest of Westworld’s first season later, I haven’t been able to motivate myself to catch up. Even putting “WATCH WESTWORLD” on my to-do list didn’t work. So now, this is more of a “why I quit Westworld” post.
Westworld deliberately challenges the idea of relating to and rooting for fictional characters, and although that’s philosophically interesting, it doesn’t make for the most engaging television. At least, not if you’re a viewer who watches precisely for that character connection.
As viewers, we have nothing to distinguish characters like Dolores from ‘real people’ like William. They’re both Not Real. They both follow a narrative that’s been set down for them, speaking pretty-sounding lines that have been written by somebody else to make things seem particularly sweeping or compelling. So whenever the show attempts to distinguish between robots and “real people,” it jolts us out of its own story. In episode four, the show specifically discusses how Dolores’ “pretty” speech about emotion was “adapted from the scripted dialogue about love.” The moment purposefully shatters our suspension of disbelief about Dolores. It’s purposefully saying to us, “Hey, those emotions, those words? They’re not real.” But once we think about how one set of characters supposedly aren’t real, and are just reciting a script, it doesn’t take much to see the entire show as fiction.
And, unfortunately, the non-host characters aren’t engaging or developed enough to fight this. I know that there are revelations relating to this in the second half of the season, but we have to care enough to get to those episodes first, and every non-host character seems to suffer from writing that’s lazier than the stuff within Westworld itself. They lack defined goals or personalities. “Guy from The Hunger Games” is the most defined of them, but even he doesn’t have much. He’s intrigued by the idea that Dolores might be more human than they thought, is hooking up with That Important Lady, and had a daughter who died. “Researcher with Ponytail” wants to know what’s going weird with the robots. Anthony Hopkins is creepy. They lack fully imagined personalities and lives — rather like the tragic backstory of Teddy, which the writers in the show had never bothered to fill in. The only one pursuing a clear goal by the middle of the season is The Man in Black, and if the villain is the only one we can even vaguely understand, then we have a problem.
The biggest contrast between hosts and “real” people comes with Boring Guy and Jerk Guy, whose names I had to look up before I started writing this post (William and Logan, I discovered). Honestly, I care very little that William has gone on a trip and wants to be a white hat and kind of sees the hosts as human and took a risky step to help Dolores. I care even less about his not-friend. And even short-term goals don’t seem that clear. Why were they pursuing nitroglycerine in ep 5? Maybe they told us and I just missed it because I had stopped caring. But it’s really hard to care.
Again, I realise that William’s dull plotline here is building up to a big payoff at the end of the season, but characters can’t just be interesting in retrospect, once you’ve watched about 11 hours of TV and seen the big reveal. They’ve got to compel us in the moment too, and Westworld has a fatal mix of ‘holding back information for later plot twists’ and ‘constantly reminding us that fictional characters aren’t real’ that really underlines the shallowness of the characters and their writing.
Dolores has a similar lack of focus, but she’s more able to get away with it. We don’t really know why she continues to follow William or what she wants mid-season, but the narrative gives us a clear reason why she might seem somewhat vague and undefined. She wasn’t written to have a place in this story, and she’s slowly filling in who she might be. Every time she does anything, it comes off as exciting and badass, because we know that it’s growth. We have goals in mind for her, even if she doesn’t yet have them herself, so she’s immediately more compelling than the supposedly real people who don’t feel real at all.
Westworld is a story about fictional characters fighting to go off-script, but all the characters are fictional, and that’s a real problem for the show. The fictional fictional characters are allowed to be somewhat one-dimensional, for now. The fictional humans (or the ones we think are humans) aren’t. And when the fictional fictional characters feel more real and well-defined than any of the supposed humans, and the show reminds us that they aren’t actually real or well-defined at every opportunity it can, then our emotional connection wanes.
This obviously isn’t a problem for everybody. From what I can tell, this season of Westworld has been catering to the puzzle solvers, the viewers who always want to figure out the answer to all the mysteries and love a good reveal, rather than the character watchers. People who see unexplained gaps as intriguing opportunities, not lapses in character development. But to me, it’s boring. What am I investing in when the characters are mostly two-dimensional, either by mistake or by design? Sure, plot twists are fun, but I need to care about the characters enough to get there first, and on that score, Westworld really didn’t provide.