Westworld: Sci-Fi Sleight of Hand

“Are you watching closely?”

These are the first words in The Prestige, the first (credited) film that Jonathan Nolan co-wrote with his brother, Christopher. In Westworld, helmed by Jonathan Nolan, this cryptic first line became a writing mantra. Warning: spoilers to follow.

If someone asked me to some up HBO’s newest hit series, WestWorld, in two words: I would choose ‘consciousness‘ and ‘deception.’ The third would be ‘cowboys.’  In this article, let us focus on that second word, as it occurs early and often throughout the series… and on multiple layers. Not only is this a show about the characters deceiving one another, the writing staff appear determined to consistently pull the wool over the audience’s eyes.

Westworld showrunner Jonathan Nolan has a background in writing - primarily on projects directed by his brother.
Westworld showrunner Jonathan Nolan has a background in writing – primarily on projects directed by his brother.

For those who don’t know, Westworld is a science fiction story set in the (near) future, where a company has created a theme park designed to deliver the ultimate wild west escapist fantasy. To do this, the park has been filled with robots, called hosts, designed to perfectly impersonate characters that one would find in an old west setting. There’s prostitutes, sheriffs, barkeeps, bandits, farmers – the whole shebang. All of these hosts have been designed to be as human as possible, so that the guests receive a realistic experience.

See how the deception comes in?

Right away, the audience is treated to Teddy (James Marsden) sitting on the train that enters the park. Teddy enters and seems to be taking in the sights and sounds with all the other visitors. The hosts react to him as if he’s a newcomer. It isn’t until Teddy interacts with Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) that the first clue arises: Delores remembers Teddy. Given what goes on at the park, it would be horrific if the hosts could remember any visitor. Of course, Teddy is revealed to be a host as well, one that was hidden among the visitors as they arrived.

Teddy's reveal is also timed to fully display the horrific sense of helplessness that the hosts feel whenever they understand their true role in life.
Teddy’s reveal is also timed to fully display the horrific sense of helplessness that the hosts feel whenever they understand their true role in life.

The first sequence immediately tells the audience that things will not always be what they seem, in addition to introducing viewers to the rules of Westworld. It’s an effective foreshadowing to what will unfold throughout the first season. The deception is crafted like a magic trick – with the audience never really knowing how it is done until the magician decides to reveal the secret. What makes it better is it isn’t simply the same method reused over and over.

The visual trickery comes in multiple forms. At its simplest, it is that the hosts look identical to human beings. There is no immediate way to tell them apart. This makes it easy for the show to hide twists like Teddy and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), who are both initially assumed to be humans.

Westworld plays around with the hidden identity concept in much the same way as Battlestar Galactica did.
Westworld plays around with the hidden identity concept in much the same way as Battlestar Galactica.

The more sophisticated visual trick relies on the overlaying of different time periods into the same story. In doing this, the audience can see the Man in Black (Ed Harris) for nearly a full season without being able to figure out that he is an older William (Jimmi Simpson).  By cutting back and forth between the stories, and avoiding repeat characters, it gives all the visual instruction that the two narratives are happening simultaneously.

Note the visual storytelling in the wardrobe choice: young William is good and wears light colors. Man in Black is evil and wears dark colors.
Note the visual storytelling in the wardrobe choice: young William is good and wears light colors. Man in Black is evil and wears dark colors.

In addition, Westworld plays with the idea of heroes and villains. William is one the few clear heroes of the story until the Man in Black reveals his true identity. Likewise, Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is seen as a manipulative, controlling villain – with his chief motive being keeping full control of the park. This is changed once he reveals his intent: not to control or free the hosts – but rather to create a narrative that leaves the choice in their hands (Delores chooses freedom, Maeve ((Thandie Newton)) chooses imprisonment). It is worth noting that the final choices of Dolores and Maeve are polar opposite to the characters they initially seem to be.

Deception is so prevalent that Westworld walks a fine line between brilliant and convoluted in its writing. That final decision is left to the subjectivity of the viewer. That said, Westworld is definitely a show to watch for those looking to experiment with advanced storytelling.

Westworld's first season actually shares much in common with Rise of the Planet of the Apes - both are tales of dawning consciousness and choosing liberation. Those wondering what season two will bring should give Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a watch for one possible storyline.
Westworld‘s first season actually shares much in common with Rise of the Planet of the Apes – both are tales of dawning consciousness and choosing liberation. Those wondering what season two will bring should give Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a watch for one possible future storyline.

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