“Since I was a child I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. I always thought I could play some small part in that grand tradition. And for my pains I got this: a prison of our own sins. ‘Cause you don’t want to change. Or cannot change. Because you’re only human, after all. But then I realized someone was paying attention, someone who could change. So I began to compose a new story for them. It begins with the birth of a new people and the choices they will have to make and the people they will decide to become. And we’ll have all those things that you have always enjoyed… Surprises and violence.” —Dr. Robert Ford, Westworld
HBO’s hit series Westworld caused a lot of social media buzz when it premiered. The show takes place in the near future, where advances in robotics and artificial intelligence lead to the development of an amusement park of sorts, where guests explore a version of the Wild West and participate in various storylines with android “Hosts.” In addition to plenty of critical praise, Westworld gained a reputation for being super confusing: Who is the Man in Black? Are there multiple timelines? Is so-and-so actually an android? What is the Delos Corporation’s bigger plan? Now airing its second season, the show has sparked dozens of fan theories, memes, and parodies. But this story of the lengths humans will go for entertainment is more than meets the eye. Let’s tackle the maze that is HBO’s Westworld. And we’ll just say this right now: Season 1 spoilers ahead, though no worries about Season 2.
42. Critics Love It—Kind Of
Season 1 of Westworld earned over 20 Emmy nominations, but only snagged four wins. It has an 88% score on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, and a 74 Metascore on Metacritic. While some reviewers praise the lush visual style and complex plot, many critics bash the intentional confusion, logical inconsistencies, and slow pacing. As with any show that gets this much hype, Westworld definitely has its fans and its haters, and both groups are seriously vocal on social media.
41. Crichton is King
The original film was written and directed by Michael Crichton, who is famous for crafting science fiction stories that spark discussion and debate about ethical issues (think Jurassic Park, Congo, etc.). Westworld resonated with audiences in 1973, but questions about artificial life and virtual reality are even more topical now. Kudos to Crichton for the solid source material!
40. Complexity Runs in the Family
HBO’s Westworld is created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, who are married. Jonathan is brother to Christopher Nolan, the creator of mind-bending puzzle films such as Memento, Inception, and The Prestige. Jonathan co-wrote several film scripts with his brother and has directed two episodes of Westworld. Lisa Joy has written for Pushing Daisies, Burn Notice, and Westworld, and she earned her first directing credit on the Westworld season two episode, “The Riddle of the Sphinx.” Imagine how fun—or confusing—family dinners must be!
39. A Lost Connection
The HBO series is produced by J.J. Abrams, whose other TV credits include Fringe and Lost. Both of those shows were known for complex mystery plotting, and so the viewing culture that has sprung up around Westworld, with its many fan theories, is no surprise.
38. There’s More to the Park
In Crichton’s 1973 version, Delos customers choose from three vacation options: Westworld, Romanworld, and Medievalworld. All three worlds get screen time in the film, though the climax of the film takes place in Westworld. Season two of Westworld is beginning to explore other “worlds” within the park, including The Raj and Shogun World—but so far, no togas or jousting.
37. Gotta Show Respect
Even if the HBO series isn’t taking all its cues from the original film, it still makes an effort to show respect for the source material. Episode six of the first season featured a brief cameo of Yul Brynner’s famous Gunslinger character from the 1973 version.
36. It’s All About Perspective
Both the film and the TV series are known for experimenting with point-of-view as a way to explore the relationship between humans and artificial life. In 1973, Westworld was the first film to use pixelated motion photography to depict a robot’s POV. The current HBO series plays with perspective by creating many twists and surprises, but the audience is definitely rooting for the robots—the park’s “hosts.”
35. Quality Ain’t Cheap
HBO is known for shelling out a lot of cash for big-budget quality programming. The overall budget for Season 1 of Westworld totaled upwards of $100 million—that’s $10 million an episode! The investment seems to being paying off for HBO, with the first season’s success making it the network’s strongest debut since Game of Thrones.
34. If at First You Don’t Succeed…
Westworld is part of a recent wave of popular media that remakes or reboots older TV and film properties. It’s based on a 1973 film, which itself had a 1976 sequel (Futureworld), and a short-lived TV adaptation in 1980 (Beyond Westworld).
The first movie
33. No Cliffhangers
The Westworld creators claim to approach each season as a self-contained chapter in a larger story, and so the season finales are meant to provide some closure—as opposed to the common cliffhanger style of many TV series. “We want you excited to come back after 18 months but that you haven’t been left hanging on the edge of a cliffhanger—that doesn’t really feel fair to the audience,” says Nolan.
32. HBO Built a Mini-Westworld
In what must have been a ridiculously expensive promotional stunt, HBO created a replica of Sweetwater (one of the “towns” in the park) for the South-By-Southwest festival earlier this year. SXSW attendees had the chance to explore the town and participate in a unique storyline, with actors playing the parts of the android hosts.
31. It’s All a Game
Westworld is a TV show. Westworld is a theme park. But the story shares a lot of similarities with video games. In fact, Nolan claims that the logic and structure of video games was an important model for writing the show. It’s also clear that the way fans react to Westworld is more like a game or puzzle than your typical TV series.
30. Coming Soon!
Even though Season 2 hasn’t finished airing, HBO has already renewed Westworld for a third season. No release date has been set, but based on the production timing between Seasons 1 and 2, we can likely expect Season 3 in late 2019, or even 2020. With the final season of Game of Thrones’ approaching, it is likely that Westworld could have a long future at HBO. Looks like it may be a while before we get out of The Maze.
29. They Had a Fly Wrangler
During Season 1, there is a recurring motif of flies, used as a way to highlight the differences between humans and androids. In order to get all of the shots they needed for these scenes, the show employed a “fly wrangler” who used partially frozen flies to get the desired effect. As Evan Rachel Wood explains it, “they would take the fly out, and then they would stick it on to my face and we would wait for it to thaw … and [then] they would roll the camera, and I would just sit there naked with a fly crawling across my face, because that’s my job.”
28. Title Sequences Matter
Like most HBO series, Westworld has an intense, dynamic title sequence. It was created by Patrick Clair of Elastic, the company behind the sequences for Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire, The Man in the High Castle, and True Detective. The sequence was slightly redesigned for Season 2 in order to reflect changes in the story world.
27. The Women Kick Butt
Despite boasting some famous male actors at the top of the bill, Westworld is a female-driven story. Dolores and Maeve are the most active, heroic characters, and many of the higher-ups in the Delos corporation are women. These strong, complex female characters are really important, especially in a story that brings up questions of sexual agency, power, and consent.
26. Paranoid Androids
In Season 1 of Westworld, we see the androids slowly become conscious of their status as artificially constructed beings. In the season finale, they revolt against the Guests and Delos investors. This science fiction trope of robot rebellion goes back to a 1921 play by Karel Čapek called R.U.R. or Rossum’s Universal Robots (but we’ve seen it repeated in plenty of literature, TV, and film since: think The Matrix, Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, etc.).
25. Everyone Is in the Dark
Westworld actors are in the dark about the show’s plot and their characters’ place in the overarching narrative in Season 2. The fact that they filmed scenes totally out of order (based on location availability) contributed to this confusion for the actors. But the cool thing is that they can participate in the fan community by weighing in on various theories without feeling tempted to spoil anything.
24. Limping in
Eion Bailey was originally cast as the mega-douche character, Logan. When Bailey dropped out, Ben Barnes got tapped for the part. Barnes broke his foot running down the stairs to make his flight out to the set, but didn’t go to the doctor for fear of losing the job before he’d even started. The pain caused him to limp on the first day of shooting, and so Barnes chose to play into it by incorporating the limp into Logan’s character.
23. Take Cover!
The series features several cover versions of popular songs from artists such as Radiohead and Amy Winehouse. These covers create an odd contrast with the dated setting of the park, and, according to composer Ramin Djawadi, remind viewers that “something is not right” in the story world.
22. From Composer to Cameo
The success of Westworld’s Season 1 soundtrack brought a lot of attention to composer Ramin Djawadi. In season two, Djawadi has a cameo as one of the android townspeople in the park. Appropriately, he plays a guitar while onscreen.
21. Writing Against the Clock
After filming the first six episodes of Season 1, production on Westworld had to shut down in order to give the writers time to finish the final four scripts. Joy and Nolan appear to have learned from their mistake, finishing all 10 Season 2 scripts before they began filming in 2017.
20. Once Upon a Time in Sweetwater
The small town of Sweetwater in Westworld is a shout out to Once Upon a Time in the West, directed by Sergio Leone in 1968. There are lots of other visual and thematic references to Spaghetti Westerns in the series, but naming the main location after Leone’s film is a big nod to one of the genre-defining classics.
19. There’s a Tragic Core
The repeated line in the series, “These violent delights have violent ends” comes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This mantra suggests that Westworld is a tragedy, so there can be no happy ending to this series.
Warner Bros. approached Quentin Tarantino to remake Westworld as a film, but he passed. While he is not involved with the HBO series, critics have pointed out that the introduction of Shogun World in Season 2 shares many similarities with Tarantino’s cinematic style.
17. Beware of Anagrams
A major twist in Season 1 (that Bernard is Arnold) is actually pretty obvious with a little bit of anagrammatic detective work: “Bernard Lowe” is an anagram for “Arnold Weber.” It’s another example of how Joy and Nolan create a game-like experience for fans. What other secrets might the characters’ names hold?
16. The Da Vinci Code
The opening title sequence features an android in the process of being built that resembles Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.” The famous sketch was based on a Greek architect (named Vitruvius)’s theories about the ideal proportions of the human body. The concept of physical perfection is definitely a big part of Westworld, especially in terms of the sexual politics in the show.
15. Play It Again, Vonnegut
Another recurring motif is the player piano, which appears in the opening title sequence and several times throughout the series. This symbol of automation is a reference to the Kurt Vonnegut novel, Player Piano, which presents a dystopian society where the mechanization of labour leads to class warfare.
14. High-Caliber FX
The visual effects in Westworld rival any major blockbuster production. One of the most stunning effects came in the Season 1 episode “The Stray,” when we flash back to a young Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins). The process involved a scan of Hopkins, an immense amount of photo reference, and a stand-in. The visual effects studio Important Looking Pirates were the ones behind this stand-out scene.
13. Harris vs. Eastwood
It may be hard to imagine anyone other than Ed Harris playing the intense, ruthless character of the Man in Black. However, during early casting talks, the creators had their eye on none other than Clint Eastwood. You can definitely see Harris channeling Eastwood’s iconic Dirty Harry role with his measured brutality and murky ethics (as well as the obvious Man With No Name connection).
12. Logan’s Run
William, played by Jimmi Simpson, travels to Westworld with his coworker, Logan. On Person of Interest, also created by Jonathan Nolan, Simpson played a character named Logan. What does it mean?!
11. Fashion Forward
Fans of Westworld pointed out that Meghan Markle’s second Royal Wedding dress looked just like a dress worn by multiple characters on the show. Even series star Evan Rachel Wood tweeted about the resemblance. It appears Westworld really has its finger on the pulse of cutting edge fashion!
10. That F***ing Corset
In addition to sleek dresses fit for today’s royalty, Westworld also does some impressive period costumes. But Thandie Newton railed against the tight corset that her character Maeve often wears in Season 1, claiming “I couldn’t wait to get out of that f***ing corset.” Newton says she actually prefers her nude scenes to those in the corset.
9. Orgy Alert!
In the fifth episode of season one, “Contrapasso,” several characters visit a town in Westworld called Pariah, a location known for its debauchery. The giant orgy sequence in Pariah, which was enough to give Game of Thrones a run for its money, actually required a sex consultant.
8. Fans Guessed All the Twists
The week-to-week recapping and theorizing during Season 1 seemed to pay off for fans. All of the major twists were in line with the theories that had been circulating earlier in the season. But that raises a question: is the point of the show to guess the twists, or are the fans missing something?
7. The Maze Runner
Throughout the series, many characters reference “The Maze” as an underlying structure of the Westworld theme park. The symbol actually better resembles a Greek labyrinth, with a single recursive path, rather than the multiple choices of a typical maze. This distinction makes sense if we think about the revelation that The Maze is really the process by which the androids become self-aware.
6. Super Bowl Hype
During Super Bowl LII in 2018, Westworld dropped the first extended trailer for Season 2, with an epic 90-second spot. The pricey advert appears to parody typical Super Bowl commercials by starting with vast, natural vistas and an inspirational voiceover, then creates a twist by exposing the violence behind the curtain.
5. City Slickers in Sweetwater
Speaking of parodies, there have been quite a few poking fun at Westworld, but none of them tops the Funny or Die video featuring Billy Crystal and Daniel Stern of City Slickers fame. The stars of the popular film reprise their roles as Mitch and Phil, now Westworld Hosts—with a few malfunctions.
4. Book Your Trip Now
Part of the promotional campaign for Westworld includes a very realistic Delos website, where users can “book” a trip to the theme park. The basic package starts at $40k per day, but premium experiences can run up to $200K/day. It’s worth keeping an eye on that website as the series progresses, since the content changes according to plot developments in the show.
3. What’s in a Name?
The Delos corporation is named after the Greek island of Delos. In Greek mythology, Delos was the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo, twin children of Zeus. The exact meaning of this allusion is not totally clear (yet), though fans are certainly digging into it. One theory is that Delos is place where mortals can never die, which may be a reference to the application of android technology to human consciousness.
2. Raising Eyebrows
In order to keep a tight lid on big plot twists, some Westworld actors were kept in the dark about their characters’ origins. Jimmi Simpson, who plays William, eventually guessed one of the show’s major twists (that the Man in Black, played by Ed Harris, is an older version of Simpson’s character) based on the way the makeup artist was sculpting his eyebrows.
1. The Creators Are Trolls
In response to the rabid spoiler-seeking fandom sparked by Season 1, Joy and Nolan released a 25-minute video on YouTube that they claimed would reveal key plot twists from Season 2. It turned out to be a trap of the Rickroll variety, done in total Westworld style: a cover of “Never Gonna Give You Up” from star Evan Rachel Wood, followed by a black-and-white long take of a dog sitting at a piano.