Why Westworld is the best acting showcase on TV


HBO’s Westworld is a risky endeavor, with its dizzying layers of stories and ideas. It works for a simple reason: it has one hell of a cast.

So, that happened. After nine episodes of build-up, Westworld season 2 took a leap of faith in its finale and went totally bonkers. With Bernard and (virtual) Logan’s help, Dolores opened a door to paradise. Practically everyone died, and everyone who survived is now a host. Even though we have all of the pieces, the timeline remains as jumbled as ever. In comparison, the first season looks downright straightforward.

It can be easy to get lost in the show’s labyrinthine plot, with its seemingly infinite feedback loop of mysteries. Luckily, we’re not alone. Guiding us through the twists and turns – and keeping the whole thing together — is a fearless team of actors.

Before any pitchforks come out, I admit: the headline of this article is somewhat misleading. I’m not arguing that Westworld has the best acting on television. The medium is bursting with talent — and so many kinds of it; to anoint any show as the “best acted” seems pointless, not to mention reductive. How can you compare Westworld’s cast to that of, say, Brooklyn Nine Nine? And why would you even want to?

However, few current shows rely on their performers in the way and to the extent that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s does. In the end, they, not the mysteries, are why you keep coming back.

Subtlety is the key

Considering its star-studded cast, you would expect Westworld to veer into scenery-chewing. On the contrary, though, it thrives on subtlety, favoring minute looks, gestures, and vocal inflections over more theatrical displays of emotion. When it does resort to such displays, they tend to come across as unnatural. That’s by design. As Moze Halperin observed at Flavorwire, the actors tread a fine line between authenticity and artificiality, familiarity and otherness. They have to seduce the audience yet also alienate us.

This feat is most evident during Dolores’s one-on-one chats with Arnold in season 1. In the blink of an eye, Evan Rachel Wood goes from human to robot and back again, shedding or adopting emotions and tics like articles of clothing. One moment, she might be convulsing with hysterical sobbing; the next, she’s utterly composed, her eyes dead, her face a blank slate. Even within her “human” persona, she has to embody multitudes, as Dolores’s naïve façade belies and, gradually, gives way to a mind brimming with intelligence and curiosity.

Wood faces a still greater challenge in season 2. Now, in addition to toggling between “human” and “robot” mode, she has to juggle the polar-opposite roles of Dolores and Wyatt — sweet girl and killing machine. In her hands, they aren’t foils but layers, each overlapping the other; even at Wyatt’s most vicious, she betrays hints of sorrow and desperation. Several of Wood’s fellow cast members undergo similar transformations throughout the season, from James Marsden to Ed Harris. And, by and large, they work without the aid of make-up or special effects. (Yes, that was Tessa Thompson’s real voice.)

In essence, the actors have to make the acting process visible without exerting any visible effort.

It’s an actors’ show

The standout scene of season 2 is a relatively mundane one: a conversation between William and James Delos. It contains no dramatic developments or revelatory information, and the dialogue itself isn’t especially eloquent or witty. Nonetheless, it’s electrifying. I imagine that if you muted the sound, you would still be able to follow what’s happening just by watching the kaleidoscopic emotions playing across Ed Harris and Peter Mullan’s faces.

On Westworld, what’s being said is frequently less important (or less interesting) than the person saying it. The show loves to draw attention to its actors, whether through monologues, close-ups, or the use of nudity. (A full 20 percent of the shots in season 2, it seemed, consisted of Harris’s weathered visage.) Can you blame it? Frankly, if a show has Sir Anthony Hopkins at its disposal, it better let him talk. Through the sheer gravity of his voice, the man can make the most tedious exposition sound like Shakespeare.

Even when surrounded by sweeping landscapes or gruesome carnage, the actors command the screen. Just look at the ending of “Akane No Mai.” The action is presented in exquisite, slow-motion detail, Ramin Djawadi’s score throbbing in the background. But what lingers is Thandie Newton’s defiant gaze, her lips curled in a faint smirk, as fountains of blood erupt behind her.

It’s a show about acting

When outlining my hopes for Sunday’s finale, I asserted that season 2 had moved away from the meta commentary that drove season 1. Among other things, though, “The Passenger” emphasizes how closely intertwined the show’s various themes are.

If season 1 explored what it means to be human, season 2 asks the reverse: what does it mean to be a machine? The true purpose of Westworld, it turns out, is to provide a means of achieving eternal life. Using an individual’s genetic and cognitive data, Delos can transfer their mind into a host’s body. Yet, as Williams’s experiment illustrates, the host-person can’t simply pass as a person; it has to be that person. Without absolute fidelity, the illusion falls apart; the person is no longer themselves, but a copy – a machine.

By shifting its focus from the park’s narratives to its technology, Westworld also shifts its focus from the narrative aspect of entertainment to the technological side. Its tale of human-like robots taking over the world doubles as a tale about the rise of digital. After all, we live in an era when Hollywood productions routinely use CGI to make actors look younger, or even bring them back from the dead. Westworld itself is complicit, having de-aged Anthony Hopkins for flashbacks.

Like the Delos clone, these CGI facsimiles aren’t perfect; not even the best attempts so far have managed to escape from the uncanny valley. Nonetheless, they evoke justifiable anxieties about mortality and identity. If our appearance, behavior, and personality can be replicated exactly by a computer, what makes us unique? Could we become obsolete? Are we, as Dolores bluntly puts it, mere algorithms?

Tellingly, though, Dolores rejects the virtual world that Ford created, instead choosing to stay in the tactile realm. Her reasoning encapsulates show’s philosophy: “What is real is irreplaceable.” Westworld uses its actors as evidence, compelling viewers to notice their physical presence and appreciate the nuances of their performances. They’re real, it argues. How can you replace them?

Related Story: Westworld, what was the point of that post-credits scene?

Westworld has been renewed for a third season. The premiere date is TBD.