Three months ago, the premiere of HBO's "Westworld" was followed by a slew of articles comparing it to HBO's biggest show: Is it the new "Game of Thrones"? Is it better or worse? Is it more or less lucrative? The comparison stuck. As recently as mid-November, The New Yorker of all places published an article titled, "The Latest 'Westworld' Reveal Shows It's No 'Game of Thrones.'" What is wrong with how we watch TV?
Of course "Game of Thrones" has more complex settings, character arcs and narratives than "Westworld" -- it's been on the air for six seasons! And of course HBO's newly minted series will never replicate the fantasy sprawl of "Game of Thrones" -- it's not trying to. The problem is, when the critics' first impulse is to compare every new ambitious show to whatever seems popular, they miss the point.
No matter what you think of "Game of Thrones," "Westworld" is doing something special: It's changing viewer expectations for TV quality. It's a show everyone should watch, a show you should watch, for the magnificent cinematography, the spring-loaded story, the editorial wizardry. You should watch for stars Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright and Evan Rachel Wood. You should watch to introduce your brain to its own limits. "Westworld" holds fire in its belly, and by some magic, it blows no smoke.
A story deconstructed
"Game of Thrones" has some spectacular moments, but the core experience it offers isn't game-changing. The story moves forward at a predictable pace, the world is believable, the characters feel real -- it meets all the standards we expect out of contemporary stories.
"Westworld" bends the rules. Watching it is totally different from almost any other television show available now. Its editing keeps viewers on their toes, surprising us with revelations from the past when we thought we were watching the present. The cinematography constantly pulls us back and forth from stunning Western vistas to steel-and-glass sci-fi offices. The visual effects are brutal, and would feel at home in any summer flick at the theater.
An actor's paradise
Award-caliber performances aren't new to HBO, but much of its best acting has been in less popular fare, such as "Show Me a Hero" or "The Night Of." "Game of Thrones" is a different beast, with a massive yet surprisingly consistent cast. But that leaves only a few standouts (namely: Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage and Jonathan Pryce). And even the best performances take time to really connect: Headey and Dinklage (as Cersei and Tyrion Lannister, respectively) don't get a chance to show real complexity for a few seasons, and other great actors don't show up till later in the series.
But practically any performance in "Westworld" would steal a season on "Game of Thrones." Hopkins (as the park's creator and mastermind, Dr. Robert Ford) is simply transcendent, even with meager screen time; Newton (as brothel owner Maeve Millay) sells a perilously complicated character arc in a matter of episodes; Jeffrey Wright (as the park's head programmer Bernard Lowe) folds subtlety into a role that could've easily been overplayed; and Ed Harris is irresistible as the Man in Black.
The rest of the cast, especially those who show up for half an episode like Dolores' dad in the first episode, surprise and delight viewers with pathos punctuated by the whirs and stutters of their malfunctioning operating systems. "Game of Thrones" has good acting, but the performances in "Westworld" are next level.
Wild, wild West(eros)
The world of Westeros in "Game of Thrones" is a fascinating setting, full of intrigue and secrets. But within the first few episodes, the most critical of these secrets are revealed. We know the White Walkers are coming (very, very slowly); we know who killed the King's Hand and Robert Baratheon. We understand the basic rules of this show because we've seen worlds like Westeros before. It's another fantasy world based on late Medieval European history -- not bad, but not new or particularly distinctive.
"Westworld," by contrast, takes a unique idea, a futuristic Wild West theme park, inspired by Michael Crichton's '70s flick, and spends 10 episodes spinning out its mysteries for viewers. Sure, any character could die just like in "GoT," but any of them could be human or robot, hero or villain, future or past.
What you get with "Westworld," much like the special effects these puzzles depend on, is an enigma that unfolds to reveal further mystery. And unlike past shows based in such continually unfolding worlds ("Lost" for example), there's a singular end in mind the whole time -- a beating heart in the chest.
'These violent delights'
During the sixth season of "Game of Thrones," I placed bets with friends and family on characters' mortality -- how and when they'll die. It was one of the most enjoyable seasons of TV I've experienced. But aside from predicting plot lines and the demise of characters, conversations about "Game of Thrones" rarely transitioned to anything more substantive. Why? Because it is so predictable: The universe is brutal, and people are brutish. Thematically, "Game of Thrones" is a Thomas Hobbes wet dream, set in the Dark Ages with dragons.
Conversations about "Westworld," however, quickly turn to its deeper themes: violence and sexual exploitation in the stories we tell and what those stories say about us; our commoditization of the human experience, and what experience truly makes one human.
Dive a little deeper and you find nuanced commentary on gender, sex and race, and how they all shape the roles we're given. Suddenly, after rejecting her role as a prostitute and unshackling her mind from the code that limits her intellect, Maeve's rebellion is all the more powerful. The questions "Westworld" asks viewers don't just matter inside its own universe, they matter deeply to us.
"Westworld" might just keel over after season one, like "True Detective" did, or it might turn into a massively successful super-series. But debating its future as a show, or how it compares to other shows, kind of kills the magic. So when the "Westworld" finale airs this Sunday on HBO, I won't be thinking about "Game of Thrones," I'll enjoy an hour and a half of TV that's like no other show I've watched before.