Questioning your reality: Looking back on the highs and lows of Westworld

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After four seasons and more than half a decade on the air, HBO has decided to cancel its mind-bending science fiction drama Westworld. The show began as a carefully written drama about a Western-themed android park that slowly went off the rails as its robotic denizens (known as “hosts”) gained sentience, and eventually grew into something nigh unrecognizable by the end of its run…but there was still always that convoluted special something that made it uniquely Westworld.

The series had its ups and downs over the years. But how did it go from being one of HBO’s golden children to getting axed with only one more season left to reach its long-planned ending?

Now that we can see the whole picture, let’s look back on Westworld and its winding history. There’s a lot to love about the series…but also some signs that this cancellation shouldn’t have caught anyone off guard.

Dolores and Teddy in Westworld Season 1 The Reckoning

Dolores and Teddy in Westworld Season 1 [Credit: HBO)

Westworld season 1 is still exceptional television

When Westworld first premiered in 2016, it was heralded as HBO’s next big science fiction/fantasy show after the success of Game of Thrones. At the time, Thrones had just finished its sixth season and had proven that there was an enormous appetite for big budget genre television aimed at adults. But with only two seasons left to go, HBO would need a worthy successor.

Westworld wasn’t even remotely the same type of show as Thrones, but HBO was clearly hoping it would capture some of the same audience. Westworld’s first season premiered during the wait between Game of Thrones seasons 6 and 7, in the same vaunted Sunday night time slot.

The show had some serious creative talent behind it, including stellar actors like Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandiwe Newton and Jeffrey Wright. There were also seasoned producers like Jonathan Nolan (The Prestige, Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Pushing Daisies, Burn Notice), and even Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi.

The whole production was executed with such razor-sharp precision that every plot twist landed, no matter how complicated. Even eight years later and after a run filled with speed bumps, Westworld’s debut season holds up as a truly exceptional stretch of television.

Westworld exploded out of the gate, but there wasn’t much track ahead

However, after the show’s first season ended, things started to get complicated. To understand why, we have to talk a little bit about the origins of Westworld.

The show was based on a 1973 movie of the same name written by acclaimed author/screenwriter Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, ER), which was revolutionary at the time for its special effects. Season 1 of HBO’s Westworld focused on the hosts gaining sentience and murdering their human oppressors, which is pretty much the plot of Crichton’s Westworld film. The television show expanded on the ideas presented in the original movie, turning it into an exponentially richer story.

But by the end of season 1, the show had exhausted the premise set up by the source material. Starting with season 2, the hosts would actually be fighting for their freedom and grappling with what it might be like if they ever reached the outside world inhabited by humans. Like the hosts themselves, Westworld would need to reinvent itself, to become something other than a brainy remake of an old movie.

Westworld Season 2, Episode 10

Photo Credit: Westworld/HBO Image Acquired from HBO Media Relations

I’d say that Westworld largely achieved that ambitious goal. Season 2 returned in 2018 (once more helping tide Game of Thrones viewers over between seasons 7 and 8), and it did well enough for HBO to renew it yet again.

However, this is also when the show started coming under regular fire from critics. Yes, the hosts were battling for their freedom, but some of them also wanted to go to a digital robot heaven, others were hellbent on murdering any humans in sight, and yet others had enigmatic goals that weren’t made clear. In short, in season 2 the show started to get bogged down in its own mythology.

There were still high points, such as Maeve’s journey to Shogun World, a park modeled after feudal Japan. The hosts were written to follow the same loops as their western counterparts, which let Maeve reflect on the nature of her existence. “Kiksuya,” an episode which focused on the Native American host Akecheta, still stands as arguably the best episode in the entire series.

kiksuya akecheta ghost nation episode 8 season 2 westworld

Credit: HBO Westworld

Ratings for Westworld dipped during its second season by around 24%. It’s hard to say if that was because of season 2’s more convoluted plotlines or because Westworld made fans wait two years between seasons, starting a trend that has become the norm among big budget genre shows. Westworld season 2 wasn’t a dud, but it also wasn’t a bonafide hit like its predecessor. All that said, there was still plenty of room for the series to bounce back and find its footing again, if it had even lost it.

Unfortunately, season 2’s issues were small compared to what was coming.

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