What sets Westworld apart from all the other sci-fi series on television?

There is nothing on television quite like Westworld. And with a new season set to debut on Sunday, the question of what sets the series apart seems like it’s something worth considering.

As the current roster of science-fiction television – Star Trek: DiscoveryAltered Carbon, and yes, even the beloved anthology series Black Mirror – bends itself backwards into half-baked genre exercises, Westworld offers viewers something more than an empty morality play about technology being inherently bad. Is it its prestige network HBO? Is it the original source material, Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie Westworld, chock-full of interesting ideas about the interactions between humans and our technological creations? Or is it something the show-running team, married partners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, bring to the table?

“What sets Westworld apart, like all good sci-fi, is that it’s based in reality,” says Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Dolores, one of the hosts at the park. “The writing and storytelling are so complex and detailed. The themes are about human nature, our creations turning on us, and technology – all things that are really relevant right now.”

For Wood, her character’s transformation from a dainty farmer’s daughter to what the actress describes as a combination between the Terminator and Sarah Connor required such deliberate, intense work that it triggered her own personal traumas. “I could literally burst into tears talking about it. The things that she has to do are very difficult and very lonely for her. You’re terrified of what could happen if you speak up or fight back. We’re often so afraid of the consequences or backlash. I think where’s she’s at and where I’m at, and a lot of other people, too; whatever backlash, it can’t be worse than not doing anything.”Unlike the disposable, cipher characters of a show like Black MirrorWestworld builds labyrinthine and mysterious stories about its hosts and humans alike. Dolores, for example, suddenly remembers the many repeated traumas inflicted on her by the guests, memories which are supposed to be wiped clean after every reboot. Her sentience triggers a deep-seated need for revenge. By the end of the first season, other hosts join her in waking up to their reality – including bar manager/madame Maeve (Thandie Newton) — and turn on the uber-privileged humans who can afford to visit a park that allows them to play out their most twisted fantasies.

Female empowerment is undoubtedly a major theme in the show’s second season — Maeve, Dolores and others, including Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), become powerful anti-heroines on their respective missions — but political movements like #MeToo were not the driving catalyst in the writers’ room. The show’s themes and events of the last year happened to coincide. “I didn’t need a harassment scandal to break out in Hollywood or misogynistic people in government to know they exist. Anybody who’s a woman, a minority, or a thinking, perceiving male can see that it exists,” says Joy.

All characters regardless of gender undergo an evolution. Joy says the western genre inspired the writers to play around with the qualities associated with masculinity. “Traditional westerns typify some of the hardships men face: you have to be rugged, silent, stoic. It’s a man against nature, against the world. What must it be to walk in those shoes? What an isolating, alienating challenge that must be. Feeling trapped in identity isn’t just the purview of women and minorities. I think that’s one of the things that unites us.”

Hector and others, notably Teddy (James Marsden), face the social challenges of shifting power dynamics presented by their more assertive women companions. The journeys Santoro describes take on a Game of Thrones-like narrative structure in Season 2. Once chaos breaks, groups of characters begin nomadic passages through different sections of the sprawling expanse of the park, which includes not just Westworld but a ninja-slashing trek through Shogun World.It’s easy to apply the lone-wolf description to the leathery-faced Man in Black (Ed Harris) and the younger, idealistic William (Jimmi Thompson), whom the show (and many reddit fan theorists) revealed to be the same person in different time periods. But the second season adds depth to side characters, and adds new faces, as well. “The thing about Hector and all the hosts is that they’re all on their own journey and getting deeper,” Rodrigo Santoro says about his character, the bad-boy bandit who becomes Maeve’s right-hand man.

The densely plotted first five episodes also play around with flashbacks that tease at the underlying motivations to build the park. “You get more of a backstory into the characters and into the park. There was this ominous thing in the first season about the real reason of the park. We’re definitely delving into that more and why it’s there. I don’t think it’s just for entertainment,” hints Wood.

For a show that was already dark — the comparisons to Game of Thronesremain accurate given the amount of violence — Season 2 reaches new levels of “mayhem and madness,” according to Joy. “I fell in love with those characters, even the villains,” she explains. “I empathize with their pain and darkness because I think everybody has some darkness. Hopefully not as much darkness as our villains, but there’s something deeply human about their performances.”

While there is no real-world park like Westworld — yet — the parallels to human experience had some of the actors question their relationship to technology. “One of the reasons why this show excited me was the subject matter is really what we’re going through right now. There’s not a better time to talk about it,” says Santoro. “I don’t think the show is critiquing [technology] but raising a lot of questions. Look at our cell phones, our dependency on that, who’s in control. I value moments where I’m not fully connected with the virtual world.”

Joy says her relationship to technology has come full-circle as she and Nolan try to outwit the reddit theorists, who deduced the Man in Black’s identity before the show’s own reveal. A week before the Season 2 premiere, the couple released a video promising to deliver to reddit all of the twists and turns in advance, only to end as a Rickroll, with Wood and Angela Sarafyan (who plays Clementine) performing Rick Astley’s classic internet-trolling ballad “Never Gonna Give You Up.”Wood says that Joy and Nolan have talked to tech visionaries in Silicon Valley, including Elon Musk. “You get insight into what’s coming and how real it actually is. It’s a cautionary tale,” she says, predicting that “like any good sci-fi show, when you watch it years later, it’s not sci-fi anymore, it’s just real. And you think wow, they knew what was going to happen.”

“The joke is that for a show about how technology can leapfrog the human mind, reddit is a perfect example of harnessing a collective consciousness,” says Joy. “We didn’t anticipate how much the hive-mind would act as an accelerator. With reddit, you can thumbs-up and push to the top of the list the theories that have the most cogency and appeal.”

Joy doesn’t have a problem with this degree of fan devotion given that the intricate narrative is written as a mystery. “Characters are trying to be the detectives of their own lives. We’re trying to drop a cohesive clue trail, so it’s no wonder the audience, in being able to look at the characters piecing it together, have a macro new level of viewing.”

Wood, the obsessive fan theorist on set, also views the hosts’ sentience more figuratively.

“We’re living in this false reality that we’ve all agreed upon,” she explains. “There are rules, this story being written for you, who you’re supposed to be, how you’re supposed to act. So if you pay attention to the show it‘s telling you a lot about your own reality.”

Originally published in National Post (April 17, 2018).