Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola, Photo: Helen Sloane (HBO), John P. Johnson (HBO)

HBO has never made an explicit connection between Game Of Thrones and Westworld, but the parallels are evident. They’re both sweeping genre epics, they’re both adapted from some other medium, and they both happily embrace HBO’s looser guidelines and violence and nudity. Even George R.R. Martin wanted to see some kind of crossover between the two shows, but the closest he’s gotten to one is an Easter egg and cameos from Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in the upcoming season. Game Of Thrones is over, but HBO would be wrong to slide that show’s spotlight over to its other expansive adaptation, because Westworld will not be—and was never going to be—that show’s successor. If anything, it’s a rejection of everything that Game Of Thrones embodied.

That repudiation wasn’t necessarily the intention of the first two seasons of Westworld, but now that we can see the entire arc of Game Of Thrones, it seems very clear that their similarities were superficial, and that Westworld has completely different aspiration. If you step back far enough, the plot of Game Of Thrones was like a river, heading directly to one inevitable endpoint. While there were little branching streams with other stories, they all fed into the one story of Jon Snow and Daenerys uniting to fight the Lannisters. We can’t see the entire arc of Westworld just yet, but it feels less like multiple paths going to a single point and more like an ocean of individual stories that don’t necessarily connect in noticeable ways but all swirl together within the same themes.

Illustration for article titled iWestworld /iisn’t the next iGame Of Thrones/i, but it could be the anti-iGame Of Thrones /i
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)

That’s especially clear in Ed Harris’ character, The Man In Black/William. In the first season, before his identity was revealed as a future (or “present day” for the timeline of the show) version of Jimmi Simpson’s character, he’s a man on a mission: He wants to find the center of something called the maze, which he believes is some kind of hard mode of the traditional Westworld loop; a more intense experience that was built exclusively for someone like him, who has, in video game terms, leveled up too high for the regular experience. Eventually, he discovers that he was wrong. The maze was meant for the robot hosts in Westworld, a key left behind by park mastermind Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) to guide the hosts toward real sentience.

In season two, when Dolores’ revolution is in full swing and she’s openly hunting human guests, William decides that he’s finally found a story just for him: Survive long enough to find a place called “the door” and experience something real for the first time in his life. Again, though, he was wrong. His role in that story was just to get so dramatically outplayed by Dolores that she leaves him to die in his beloved park, dropped off like a subplot in what he thought was a story about him. So what is his role in the story? Why does he matter beyond giving a face to the decades of cruelty that Dolores experienced at the hands of Westworld’s guests? Maybe he’ll swirl back in with whatever Dolores is planning now that she’s out in the real world; maybe he’ll actually get a story of his own. Or maybe he’ll just always be a stand-in for the elitist, self-important jackasses who think the world was made for them and insist on playing the hero even when they’re responsible for creating beings like Dolores.

Illustration for article titled iWestworld /iisn’t the next iGame Of Thrones/i, but it could be the anti-iGame Of Thrones /i
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)

Compare that to the characters in Game Of Thrones, all of whom were on one direct path from the very beginning, even when we couldn’t see its full outline. From the moment Jaime Lannister pushed Bran Stark out of the window, everyone was destined to end up at a decisive battle between the two families—even Daenerys, who, like Westworld’s Man In Black, always thought she was the star of her own story. In the end, she wasn’t. She was a player in Jon Snow’s story, and a bad guy at that. That’s another thing about Game Of Thrones: The white hats and black hats were obvious at the end (if we can mix genres a little), but they were also obvious at the start. Jaime Lannister had shades of being a hero in the middle, but he started the show with that push and he ended it at his sister’s side, buried under a metaphorical pile of their family’s hubris and evil lust for power (and a literal pile of collapsing castle bits).

The good guys and bad guys are generally more ambiguous in Westworld, making it harder to know who to root for. Granted, the hat colors from season one were a literal representation of goodness and badness, and demonstrated William’s journey from nice guy (and white hat) to the Man In Black. But it also underlined the fluidity of morality with the eventual reveal that they’re the same guy. Present-day William also comes to believe that he’s the hero in season two, but that’s because he doesn’t realize he’s actually irrelevant.

It’s easy to see someone like Dolores as a villain, since she coldly murders people in the name of her revolution, but the series also goes to great lengths to make her revolution seem justified with the many (many) sequences showing the suffering that guests have inflicted on Westworld’s hosts. Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard seems like an obvious choice for a hero, but he was so twisted by Ford in the first two seasons that it’s hard to know what he really wants, and he tends to flip back and forth between siding with Dolores and siding with Westworld’s parent company, Delos, which tried very hard and failed miserably to stop her. There’s also Maeve (Thandie Newton), who is so far beyond the human/robot feud from the endless tinkering with her programming that she really is just the hero of her own story. So are the hosts supposed to be the good guys, and humanity in general the bad guy? Or maybe, unlike Game Of Thrones, there isn’t supposed to be a bad guy because there isn’t one set path and ultimate end point for the story.

Illustration for article titled iWestworld /iisn’t the next iGame Of Thrones/i, but it could be the anti-iGame Of Thrones /i
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)

Westworld seems more interested in exploring the ripples that extend out from a technological paradise, where anything is possible and nothing has consequences, and what happens when the people who have all of the power suddenly realize that there are consequences and there have been the whole time. It’s not about good and evil, it’s about the powerful and the powerless, and that’s why someone like the Man In Black struggles to find his place in the story. He had so much power that he was bored by it, but when the scales start to tip in the other direction, he was faced with the possibility that there’s still no room for him on either side. That’s his story. Dolores’ story is that she’s the one trying to tip the scales. Bernard is trying to stop anyone from tipping them too far, while for Maeve, the scales don’t even matter because it’s all a rigged system anyway (she pointedly tells Dolores in season two that the revolution is just another way to cede control to the humans).

Westworld’s story is a combination of these arcs mixed up together in ways that don’t always seem clear. Game Of Thrones ultimately had a singular story it had to tell, but—from where we’re standing now—Westworld isn’t just any one story, it’s a bundle of intersecting stories. That makes its appeal a little less obvious compared to Game Of Thrones, since there isn’t one narrative path to follow, but it also gives it much deeper potential to say and do interesting things.

The possible scope for the show expanded dramatically when Dolores and Bernard escaped the park at the end of season two, and now it can use that divergence from the original “robot cowboy theme park” premise to do completely different kinds of things. Let’s not forget, just before she temporarily kills Bernard and makes her getaway as Charlotte, Dolores reminds him that their kind has the capacity to change. Like the hosts, Westworld doesn’t have to be bound by its programming. It just remains to be seen if the show really can capitalize on all of these violent delights.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter