Westworld’s Least Exciting Action Sequence, And Why

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 10.854% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So on last week’s Westworld, we had everything we needed for A Big Exciting Action Setpiece: our heroes, trapped on a train.  The villains outside with a gatling gun.  Fierce western-stereotypical Indians waiting in the wings with deadly arrows and savage might!

(It’s all cliche, but that’s the point of the Westworld park: it’s a game designed to satisfy its rich patrons, and so the game itself is almost relentlessly packed with hoary stereotypes.  I mean, if you went out to a fake-western theme park to live out your fantasies and a grizzled gold miner didn’t ask you to help find his secret treasure, you’d be disappointed.)

Anyway, what followed was an eight-minute chase with explosions and daring escapes and heroism and nobody cared.  It was airless.  Shiz was blowing up good, but most people felt like it was a wasted eight minutes…

And the reason why is fascinating from a narrative perspective.

Now, I’m going to argue that a good action sequence must fulfill one of two goals, and ideally both:

  • Put our characters in danger in exciting, stake-raising ways, and;
  • Reveal what our characters do under duress, demonstrating who they are when the shiz hits the fan.

So what stakes do our characters have in this not-so-exciting action sequence?

There are two characters involved in this chase, and one of them is invulnerable.  That’s because William is a guest.  He’s been shot in the chest before, and it hurt, but this Disney theme park is not about to kill its paying customers.  Part of the story is that, yes, the guest is actually starting to believe the theme park is better than the real world –

Yet this is a staged event, as part of a plotline.  Like a videogame, the villains exist to provide a surmountable challenge; they’re not really out to kill William, but rather to provide him with some fun.  If they capture him, they’ll tie him up in a cave somewhere and then a sympathetic villain will stage an exciting breakout.  We’ve seen this happen before.

So William is in no physical danger; all the arrows in the world won’t hit him.  And he’s not in real emotional danger, either; if he gets kidnapped, maybe his vacation will be ruined, but he’s not in so deep that he’s psychologically unhinged.  William loves the park, yes, but at this stage in his journey, having his exciting chase fail would mean he’d have to come back and try this all over again.

(Admittedly, he’s blown off his brother-in-law to get here, so that’s a mild complication, but it’s not stated anywhere that “leaving his asshole brother-in-law behind in another section of the park” means “He can’t ever come back to Westworld.”)

So there’s not much at stake for William.  It’s like watching someone really enjoying themselves on a Disney ride and wondering what’ll happen if the ride breaks down; loooooow stakes.

Now, the other character, Dolores, is a host – a robot designed to be abused for the guest’s convenience.  If the character’s a white hat, like the guest who’s currently with her, she’ll be rescued and treated well.  But if she’s met by a black hat guest, well, could be a Silence of the Lambs night in store for her.  And if no guest shows up, her default storyline is that she and her family will be killed and molested by bandits.

Dolores has some dim awareness of what’s happening to her, but she’s handicapped because her storyline keeps resetting.  She learns more about herself, but at the end of every storyline she wakes back up on her family’s farm with most of her memories erased and has to start over.

Unlike William, Dolores has severe stakes in the whole issue.  William’s plotline is, unbeknownst to either of them, leading to a place where Dolores could potentially free herself.  If this chase catches Dolores, she loses all the progress she’s made, she loses the ally who’s brought her to this little-explored side quest in the game, she loses knowledge that this side quest exists.

Except she doesn’t know that, and neither does William.

So even though we as the audience understand that there’s an abstract danger in this chase, neither of the characters are aware of it, and we’re not given an avenue to feel it viscerally.  We know the things the characters are concerned about won’t hurt them, and the things that would hurt the character are things they’re not concerned.

Which is the fascinating thing about Westworld’s narrative: normally, if the characters don’t understand the danger, you have a third party there to remind the audience that the danger exists.  Traditionally that’s either a villain waiting to see the heroes get hurt (“Yes, walk closer to my secret trap door!”), or a sympathetic character doing their damndest to alert the characters to the danger (“Dolores, look out for the trap door!”).

But Westworld’s setup is so unique that literally nobody knows these characters are in danger.  There’s no villain who is personally persecuting Dolores; there are people in charge of the park, but her abuse is systematic.  She’s one of 1,400 hosts whose job is to get shot, raped, and traumatized, and the only reason she’s gotten as far as she has is because people are mostly ignoring her.  She’s got advocates within the company, but nobody’s watching through a videoscreen at this moment going, “Yes, Dolores, escape!  Escape!”

So there’s very few stakes – not because those stakes don’t exist, but because the shape of the narrative has made it literally impossible to focus on those stakes.  There is not one person in this entire story who knows what Dolores has to lose, including Dolores.  William doesn’t know he’s helping her – he thinks she’s helping him.

Now, what about the second function of a good action sequence?  You can have an action sequence with low stakes that reveals who the character is, by displaying what they’re willing to fight for.

And alas, Westworld fails here, too.  There’s almost no character moments; the emphasis is on this artificial danger, the gatling guns and the exploding bodies and the cleverness – but it feels as empty as a videogame cutscene, because yes, people are dying but they’re all people who were literally designed to die.

There is precisely one beat in the middle of his long chase that forwards either of those moments – and it’s when William, who’s been reluctant to put himself in the path of even artificial danger, goes instantly back to rescue Dolores after she falls off the horse.

But not only is that a low bar, that’s not even a new beat.  They had a love scene earlier where he told her the park was making him more real, forcing him to make hard choices.  So in a long action sequence, the one new thing we learn about the characters is something we were told half an hour ago.

And it’s interesting, because Westworld is smart.  Reddit is loving it because it’s threaded through with Easter Eggs and metanarratives and offhanded shots that seemed badly-constructed at the time but yes, turned out to be very important hints.

There is a theory that William is becoming someone else.  (I won’t spoil it if you don’t know, but here’s the link if you wanna explore.)  And I wonder if the showrunners knew how unsatisfying this whole action sequence was, knew that there was a disjunct between what William’s adrenaline-soaked experience was because he was experiencing this for the first time and our boredom because we’ve seen this before.  And I wonder if that’s their subtle way of cueing us into what William will be when he realizes how hollow and repetitive all the joys of the park have become.

Or maybe it was just a crappy action sequence.

Three episodes left.  Let’s see how this goes.

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