We could all use a little thoughtful escapism right now. And HBO's Westworld has turned out to be an unexpectedly good high-concept entertainment. The premise, based loosely on the bad 70s movie of the same title, is so ridiculously contrived, it seems impossible that it could work. And things do not get off to a promising start: The cheesy title sequence and theme music lead you to expect that this will be an exploitative, sci-fi Game of Thrones knock-off – a suspicion only confirmed by the graphic if cartoonish violence and gratuitous brothel scenes.
But after a couple episodes it becomes clear that the creators have outsized ambitions, and maybe the chops to back them up. Their theme is identity as narrative, and you can't get much higher concept than that. Interestingly, for all its glorious canyon-country scenery and wild-west gun battles, the show's most effective scenes take place in the quiet, sterile workshop where the robotic "hosts" are patched up and re-programmed to fulfill the expensive fantasies of the theme park's next cohort of human guests. Naked, completely at the command of their technicians (who are in turn proletarians serving at the pleasure of a shadowy corporate board), the hosts are treated as the pieces of capital they are, until, occasionally, traumatic memories of narratives past start to leak into their circuitry. From there: consciousness, morality, identity, and agency. Maybe.