Mild spoilers for "Westworld" lie ahead.
Even though "Westworld" has been in development on and off for decades — hell, even though a popular 1973 movie exists that HBO's upcoming series is based on — the project has been shrouded in secrecy since the pilot was picked up more than two years ago.
We know that the original "Westworld," which was written and directed by "Jurassic Park" scribe Michael Crichton, featured a fairly straightforward plot about cowboy robots from a futuristic theme park malfunctioning and murdering some human guests. But from the get-go, the HBO version has been touting itself as something more; something deeper ... and more importantly, for the sake of this story, the buzz around the project has touted it as a worthy successor to "Game of Thrones":
From a business standpoint, this all makes sense: "GoT" is set to end in a couple of years, and with nothing on HBO's current roster even coming close to its mammoth success, "Westworld" seems like the best bet the network has to sell more T-shirts.
It's also very expensive, has a large, esteemed cast, takes place in multiple locations, and will take over "Thrones's" Sunday night at 9 pm time slot beginning October 2 ... but after screening the first four episodes made available by HBO, it's pretty clear to me that "Westworld" has about as much in common with "Game of Thrones" as "Sex and the City" had with actually having sex in New York City.
Unlike "Game of Thrones," "Westworld" is not here to make things easy for its viewers.
Whether you've read every page of George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series and know the history of House Karstark or you forgot who Gendry was after he didn't appear in Season 4, you can still follow "Game of Thrones" with moderate success. It has dozens of characters and even more balls in the air, sure, but at its core it's still a simple story about human beings competing for power, money, and family. It knows what it is; it knows where it's going.
"Westworld" is not so simple. "Westworld" doesn't just want you to root for its heroes to succeed and its villains to flounder — to predict who will die, how, and when — it wants you question what it means to be human. It wants you to see the astonishing technological heights our world has achieved, and wonder if our ambition has come at the cost of our souls. It wants you to see that people can be cruel, but also loving and kind in the worst of circumstances. (The worst of circumstances here being "being a sex robot.")
In short, it wants you to think, often, and it poses so many questions — via conversations dripping with subtext — that it seems to have more in common with something like "Lost" or "Hannibal" than "Thrones," which favors far more straight-forward storytelling. The first four episodes given to press are the slowest of slow burns, to the point where I wonder if HBO viewers will even stick around to see the heart-stopping conversation between Dr. Robert Ford, the creator of the park played by Anthony Hopkins, and his bureaucrat operations leader (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in episode four; a conversation that seems to suggest a more clear direction for the series than the world-building stuff that comes before it.
But I hope they do, because even though "Westworld" comes in swinging with a lot more ideas about things than straightforward plot direction, I'm hooked and ready to see where these wacky ideas might take us.
At its core, "Westworld" is about three groups of "people": Those who run the titular futuristic theme park, its wealthy guests, and the Artificial Intelligence (AI; called "hosts") who unknowingly serve as its main attraction.
Led by Evan Rachel Wood's dreamy Dolores Abernathy, you can have sex with hosts, murder hosts, and pretty much anything else you could possibly think of as long as you can pay the park's hefty $40,000 fee. Due to some scientific advances that aren't really touched on in the first four episodes, hosts can't physically do anything to harm you, though ... and at the end of a given "narrative" — the park's term for one of multiple programmed story lines an AI can have with a guest — Westworld cleans and resets them, so no harm no foul, right?
Not so fast. Some of the scientists behind the magic, most notably Jeffrey Wright's Bernard Lowe, feel not-so-great about the fact that these bots are so advanced, they still feel and process what happens to them as normal human beings do. So when they or their loved ones die, they feel it ... even if they don't remember it the following day. (And for what it's worth, not every park guest is a rape and murder enthusiast, either — Jimmi Simpson's park-goer, William, begins to feel that maybe something deeper is in play at Westworld when he bonds with Dolores during a narrative gone haywire.)
Add Ed Harris's mysterious, murderous guest The Gunslinger — who is searching high and low for a hidden secret to the park — Dr. Ford, who is building a top-secret new attraction (Westworld is ever-changing at the whims of its creators), some bureaucratic plot lines involving said new attraction, and the multiple host-guest narratives playing out week by week within Westworld (it gets difficult to keep track of which bots have been reset when; which may be a challenge for the series moving forward) to this central moral conundrum, and you have a sprawling brain-burner that might be just a little bit head-y for someone who just wants to spend a Sunday night watching Daenerys Targaryen burn things.
... However, much LIKE "Thrones," "Westworld" is a gorgeous, sexy-as-hell epic adventure that is as much about its characters as its sprawling plot.
Here's where the good news kicks in for "Thrones" fans: High budget, out-of-this-world scenery is very much present in "Westworld," to the point where Utah better get ready for a tourism boom after Season 1. (Be careful, though. Those Mormons water down their alcohol.) But even more importantly, so is the thrill of watching an atmospheric, slow-burn story play out in several vibrant locations, anchored by a compelling cast of core characters that you really grow to care for (or hate; the park-makers are capable of great cruelty) by the end of episode four.
So is the violence, but unlike in "Thrones" — which has been guilty of raping and murdering mostly female background players throughout its run to provide tantalizing window-dressing —almost all of the horrifically violent sequences we've seen thus far in "Westworld" serve a specific purpose. (The violence against women, most notably Dolores, Thandie Newton's saloon madame Maeve, and Maeve's best girl Clementine Pennyfeather, will likely be a deterrent to many people. I cannot fault them for this, though I do think we're rapidly approaching a point where Westworld's hosts, the most abused of which are unfortunately women, will fight back.)
This all just goes to say that if you're looking for some of the purely visual elements you enjoy watching "Thrones" on a Sunday — and if you're looking for more downtrodden underdogs to root for — "Westworld" is a safe bet.
You won't be buying "Team Dolores" or "Team Bernard" t-shirts, and you probably won't always know where the "Westworld" train is going week by week, but the sheer possibility and excitement you'll find in Westworld itself should help you get over how much you miss Queen Sansa.