Posted on Monday, October 10th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Few hours of television have given me as much to think about and dwell over as “Chestnut,” the second episode of Westworld. No fancy introductions to this one. Let’s just dive right in.
Are We Asking the Right Questions About Westworld?
The first episode of Westworld was one of HBO’s biggest series debuts in years and television fans (many of them looking to fill the spot in their heart temporarily vacated by Game of Thrones) have flocked to it. After only one hour, critics and real people across the internet were digging into the show, discussing its subtleties, exploring its mysteries, and generally giving it the kind of obsessive attention we usually reserve for shows that have been on the air a fair bit longer. And like with anything that becomes popular, some debate over whether or not people were enjoying it correctly began to emerge.
This is certainly not a new phenomenon when it comes to television. Walk back 17 years and you’ll find people yelling about how some people just watched The Sopranos for the gory murder scenes and gangster antics while not engaging with the show’s vicious dissection of the American dream. There seem to be two chief groups of people who are enjoying Westworld (with plenty of overlap between them): those who enjoy it as a science fiction mystery rife with clues and puzzles to solve and those who enjoy it as a searing and smart indictment of 21st-century entertainment.
But honestly, I think this is a case where the show can eat its cake and have it, too. Yes, Westworld is rife with ideas and rich in thematic ideas, but the show is very specifically structured to hold its cards close to its chest. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have created a show that feels perfectly capable of catering to both audiences. Like the actual park in the show, there is more than one way to enjoy Westworld. How you choose to grapple with it is entirely up to you. This may be the first TV show that is aware of how modern audiences watches and picks apart television. It transformers viewer expectation and viewer interaction into the actual subtext of the show itself. That’s brilliant and everyone wins.
To address the question proposed in this section: I think any question being asked about Westworld is the right question. My goal in these ongoing recaps is to find time for questions that dig deeper into the mystery and to find questions that will allow us to explore what the show is trying to say.
Can I Compare This Show to Red Dead Redemption For a Moment?
“Chestnut” reminded me of Red Dead Redemption, the 2010 release that remains my favorite video game of all time. In the game, players take control of a Wild West outlaw and are dropped into the middle of an immersive “open world” landscape where you are free to explore and wander and tackle the game’s narrative from whichever angle you choose. But the second episode of Westworld‘s first season didn’t remind me of Red Dead Redemption‘s sublime single player mode. Instead, it reminded me of the multiplayer mode.
In the multiplayer mode, you and other players are allowed to wander the game’s massive western landscape together. When I first fired it up, I imagined the possibilities: I could wander the range until I saw another player on the horizon, passing by and tipping my hat. I would meet temporary new friends and go on adventures. Maybe I’d rescue someone from a bear attack. This was a world with few obvious restrictions! Unfortunately, no restrictions also meant no rules. Minutes into my first Red Dead Redemption multiplayer game, a posse of five players descended upon me and murdered me in seconds. Not because I had done anything wrong, but because that’s how they decided to play the game. I respawned, but I respawned too close to where I died. That same posse found me within seconds and murdered me again. Rinse. Repeat. After about 15 minutes of this, I turned the game off and never played Red Dead Redemption‘s multiplayer mode ever again.
As frustrating as that experience was, it was ultimately something silly that I was able to get over quickly. “Chestnut” reframes that experience in a genuinely chilling fashion. Here is a meticulously realized western world, a place that has been handcrafted by artists and writers and designers to provide a beautiful, memorable, and utterly unique experience. Every nook and cranny is cinematic. Every area is packed with options. Every horizon begs you to explore. And yet, one group of friends saw Red Dead Redemption‘s multiplayer as a chance to troll other people, to be their worst selves and to have a laugh. It’s easy to understand the frustrations espoused by Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) in the series – here’s a world where you can do anything and all you want to do is fight and fuck?