A warning sign in the premiere of Westworld—HBO’s new world-building mind-bender about a Wild West theme park where guests pay to enact their violent fantasies on a posse of unsuspecting robot hosts—came when a grizzled cyborg daddy, realizing the horrors of the setup, tips off his daughter, with the show’s characteristically subtle touch, by grabbing her shoulders and snarling, wide-eyed, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!”
It wasn’t surprising that the robot had noticed that something was rotten in Westworld; that much seemed apparent from the episode’s opening shot, where a fly crawls across the daughter robot’s accommodating eyeball. I was intrigued, however, that in his rebellious distress, daddy robot would quote Shakespeare. His warning line comes from The Tempest, when the spirit Ariel reports the success of the stormy shipwreck his master Prospero has ordered up. Ariel gleefully recounts that Prospero’s enemies on board were so convinced by the illusion that they jumped into the sea, shouting about the relative population of devils in hell. Ah, I thought, we are in the Realm of Allegory: the scheming wizard-scientists who design Westworld are playing Prospero, stage-managing an imaginary realm to control the fate of its recalcitrant inhabitants.
But those scientists read the robot’s Shakespeare quotation another way: as a bug in his code. “He’s off script,” one engineer notes as the malfunctioning robot, recalled to the lab, continues to spew lines—a deep cut from Henry IV, Part 2 about a “mechanical and dirty hand” spliced with more familiar lines from King Lear about taking revenges that will be “the terrors of the earth” and being born “to this great stage of fools.” His daughter later reveals that he also whispered Friar Laurence’s warning to Romeo, “These violent delights have violent ends,” a line that becomes an ominous refrain in the second episode.* “Shakespeare,” murmurs the chief designer (Anthony Hopkins) almost wistfully, as though hoping he had been cast in a different drama.
In a rare moment of Westworld wit, we learn the source of the Shakespeare code glitch: The robot had previously played the role of “the Professor” in, we are told, “a horror narrative called ‘The Dinner Party.’ ” It seems that Shakespeare is meant to signify a substratum of recovered humanity for the robots, hard-wired recruits to the Dead Poets’ Society. (The married showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan were both English majors.) And as distinguished by Hopkins, who’s savored the line between pulp and prestige since his days as Laurence Olivier’s understudy at the National Theatre, Shakespeare is summoned to lend a patina of cultural panache to the show’s musings on characters trapped in a sadistic script, even if those characters end up as flies to the Nolans’ wanton boys.
What these portentous allusions don’t seem to register, however, is the actual role that Shakespeare played in the American West. Far from missing his cues, the robot homesteader who hisses Ariel’s line could have been any number of settlers who performed Shakespeare from Missouri to San Francisco on the 19th-century frontier, where gold-miners queued up to land a plum part in favorites like the bloodthirsty Macbeth or Richard III. Traveling through America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” An army scout in Wyoming traded a yoke of oxen for an edition of Shakespeare; mines named Cordelia, Ophelia, and Desdemona dotted the Colorado mountains. More recent evocations of this period link the Bard to territorial conquest, as in Helene Wickham Koon’s studyHow Shakespeare Won the West and Richard Nelson’s play of the same title. When the United States prepared to defend the newly annexed state of Texas from Mexico in 1846, Ulysses S. Grant was cast as Desdemona in an army production of Othelloin Corpus Christi. Westworld suggests that once robots start quoting Shakespeare, they can break free from their oppressors’ sadistic games. But Shakespeare’s lines aren’t the antidote to Wild West exploitation. They supplied the script for manifest destiny.
Westworld’s canniest move, in fact, is to suggest that by quoting Shakespeare, the robot was simply reverting to an earlier script, the pre-programmed “Dinner Party” narrative—“our old work coming back to haunt us,” as Hopkins reassures his team. That storyline ended up going full Donner Party, a cannibalistic nightmare where Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter could have presided with relish. But a recycled aftertaste remains. The chief narrative architect of Westworld boasts in the second episode that a new storyline he’s creating will feature “a special little something I call the whore-oboros,” a lamia that devours its own tail, which might describe any number of self-consuming Nolan projects from Memento through Interstellar, such stuff as recursive dreams are made on. The TV show itself is an update of an earlier script, Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld film, remade for the small screen under the executive producer’s eye of J.J. Abrams, king of the reboot. (Not that Shakespeare, who never met a script he couldn’t rewrite, is any exception.) Check your television programming and you’ll find old code aplenty: Script hell is empty, and all the remakes are here.
*Correction, Oct. 17, 2016: This post originally misattributed a quote from Friar Laurence to Friar Tuck.
I’m done making excuses for this show. We are on Episode 6, and it’s not getting any better. Writers! What the heck is going on??
You literally have some of the world’s best literature ever to pull from, and this is what we get? Cheap soap opera fluff? Romeo and Juliet wasn’t supposed to be great literature in its time, but at the very least it was meant to entertain. This does not entertain. It is so boring! How can a show with so much violence and death and lying and murder be so boring? Well, that’s part of the problem – there’s too much of it.
When a show becomes inundated with death and violence, it becomes like white noise. Thus, the shock factor is lost, and if that’s all there is to that show, you have nothing left to entertain.
Similarly, the characters are like white noise. There’s no complexity here – Isabella and maybe Benvolio have more than one layer, but the rest just feel so thinly written. If their lines were read out loud without the names mentioned, could we even tell who’s speaking? What is there to differentiate between these characters?
What is there to invest in them? How am I supposed to invest in a character who I know is going to turn around the next episode and back-stab the others for no good reason? The decisions of the characters and thus the main drama of the show aren’t propelled by narrative logic, but by sensational impact – essentially, the decisions the characters make won’t be based on their own unique motivations or any kind of logical thought process, but by what would cause the most catastrophic impact in the narrative regardless of story arcs or character development. In essence, bad writing.
Look at this story! Look at these characters! You have the chance to take one of the greatest stories ever told and continue it! You have the chance to create from a single reference a character who only ever before existed as a name in a line of dialogue and was then tossed away from the rest of the story, and make her amazing. Where is that character? Where is that story?? I want to see that story!
Instead, we get all this potential that’s just being squandered.
Capulet and Montague are having a pouting contest over who’s going to finish building the cathedral. This could be an interesting conflict, except their fighting is just like listening to two fifth graders snipe back and forth. We get it! You hate each other! Isn’t Shakespeare supposed to be witty? No “I do bite my thumb, sir” here, more like “My thumb’s bigger! It’s always been bigger! Yours is puny! Nyah nyah nyah!”
And it’s a shame, because I know Anthony Stewart Head is an awesome actor. I hated his guts when he played Uther in Merlin, because he was so wrapped up in the villainy of that character. That was an awesome performance; here, though, he’s not really given much to work with. Likewise, I love Grant Bowler’s smirk as Montague, but he doesn’t seem to have much to go off of, either. We know your families hate each other; maybe the problem is we never really get to see why.
In a three-hour play, it makes sense that we never get to see what started the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets; the opening brawl gives us enough information to have us buy for the next couple hours that there really could be this much hatred between two families. But for a TV series, something that goes on for hours and hours and needs a lot of commitment from its audience, we need to see more specifics about why the two families hate each other so, or else their incessant griping back and forth just gets irritating.
Could we learn who started the fighting? Is it a mystery about who started it? How long has it been going on? (Generations, apparently.) Who died from it? Did Lady Montague die from being killed by a Capulet? Is that why she’s not there? (I’m sorry, that still really bothers me.)
It becomes a battle of theatrics, with Montague pulling a stunt where a Virgin Mary statue cries blood and Capulet burning his own cathedral down. I wish I cared more.
Then we have Paris, whose hair just screams “douchebag.” He wants to be the next prince of Verona, and tries to inspire a revolt among the commoners by spreading the rumor about the “new prince.” Again, this could be a clever narrative device, but it’s let down by the writing. For ten minutes we focus on a random assassin who helps Paris kill a bunch of commoners in a chapel (it’s complicated), and he is the one who tells Escalus about the new prince. Who is this assasin? Orivo Something? It doesn’t even matter, because he’s sent to be executed for his crimes. Couldn’t this have been executed a little more gracefully? We took ten minutes off the main characters (which there are too many of, anyway) to focus on someone who ends up getting killed off. Not a great use of your audience’s time.
In the same vein, why is Rosaline so afraid of Paris? What is it that she’s heard about him? She acts like he’s a serial killer or something, but no one else has reacted this way to him before. Do they not know about his evil ways? Is it just a rumor among the servants? Then how did Livia not know about it? I hope we find out, because right now I’m just confused. If he ends up being a prison torturer or something, you would think that would be something the Capulets would want to vet before they married Juliet off to him.
Speaking of Juliet, a subplot that’s getting underplayed is Capulet’s visions of Juliet. Ghosts are all over Shakespeare’s work – Hamlet’s father, Banquo at the feast, etc. There’s always the question of whether they’re actually there or if the person seeing them is just going insane, but I think the show is trying to portray the ghost as real. I was kind of hoping Juliet might have faked her death and made a return, but ghost works, too. Apparently this is an omniscient/prophetic ghost, as the candles around her crypt go out as soon as Rosaline Capulet betrays Benvolio Montague.
How will this all turn out? I honestly can’t say, but it will probably be in the most dramatic and unlikeliest of scenarios. I really want to like this show, but there’s no excuse for thinly written characters and plot devices for the sake of plot devices.
Get it together, writers; maybe STILL STAR-CROSSED can yet be saved from a dramatic death.
Season 1, Episode 6 (S01E06)
Still Star-Crossed airs Saturdays at 10PM on ABC
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Cailin is a screenwriter and an aspiring TV writer. When not writing, she’s busy convincing random passersby that Firefly was the best show ever, converting her co-workers into Whovians, and pining for Season 3 of Agent Carter.
Follow Cailin on Twitter: @sherlocked1058
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