TVD: ‘Westworld’ reborn, ‘American Gods’ debuts, the beginning of the end of ‘Game of Thrones’

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood in HBO's 'Westworld'

Westworld: Season One – The Maze (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD)

Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld was a clever science fiction thriller about a theme park that provided interactive adventures with robotic hosts. The 2016 series developed and produced for HBO by Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and his creative partner and wife Lisa Joy uses the same premise as the basis for an ambitious drama that explores the darkest human desires and impulses unleashed, the evolution of artificial intelligence into self-awareness, and the definition of intelligent life and personhood. Subtitled “The Maze,” the first season of Westworld (2016) sets up the premise (not just the park but the issues of artificial intelligence, memory, identity, and humanity), opening on the idea of evolution and ending on the cusp of revolution.

Warner Home Entertainment

The setting is a high-tech theme park where the rich can play cowboy in a western town populated by lifelike robot “hosts” programmed to play out specific storylines and sophisticated enough to improvise while interacting with humans. Ed Harris the unnamed Man in Black, a guest who enjoys playing the villain but is on a quest to learn the secret of the park, and Jimmi Simpson is a newcomer who becomes convinced the hosts are alive, but the hosts themselves provide the most interesting journeys, notably Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, the veritable farmer’s daughter who has flashbacks of past stories, and Thandie Newton as brothel owner Maeve, who wakes up in the laboratory and discovers she’s a machine and starts to hack her own programming to escape.

It’s HBO’s most expensive and ambitious show after Game of Thrones but more than the spectacle or the collision of western conventions and modern science fiction, the fun is in the inventive storytelling: the flashbacks, the revelations, the way we watch the scripted storylines loop around and change each time the hosts interact with guests, and how subtle changes in the responses of Dolores and unscripted breaks from programming exhibited by Maeve contrast the different evolutionary paths to self-discovery. Nolan, who wrote the short story that his brother Christopher’s film Memento was based on and co-scripted the timeline-skewed Interstellar as well as creating and producing the flashback-dense Person of Interest, uses time, repetition, and one brilliantly-woven flashback story to powerful effect, both narratively and emotionally. And the use of contemporary music scored for player piano and orchestral accompaniment by show composer Ramin Djawadi is quite effective as an echo of colliding timelines. Neil Marshall and Michelle MacLaren, two of the go-to directors for ambitious and demanding TV, each direct an episode, while Nolan directs the pilot and the season finale.

10 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray (both titled with the Season One subtitle “The Maze) with the introductory featurette “Welcome to Westworld” (7 minutes) and behind the scenes “Realizing the Dream: First Week on the Set of Westworld” (11 mins), half-hour featurette “Crafting the Narrative,” with creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy guiding viewers through the major storylines and dramatic turning points of the season, “Imagining the Main Title” (14 mins) and “The Keys to the Chords” (8 mins) with Nolan, Joy, and composer Ramin Djawadi, and a handful of shorter featurettes that run under 5 minutes apiece, plus a clever “Corporate Guidebook” booklet in the design of an introductory brochure for new employees. The Blu-ray also includes an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the season.
Westworld: The Complete First Season [Blu-ray]
Westworld: The Complete First Season [DVD]
Westworld: The Complete First Season [4K Ultra HD Blu-ray]

American Gods: Season 1 (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)

Based on the best-selling fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman, the Starz original series American Gods: Season 1 (2017) stars Ricky Whittle as an ex-con named Shadow Moon who comes out of prison to find his wife and best friend dead. With no prospects, agrees to work for the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who he meets conning his way into a First Class plane ticket.

Lionsgate

Shadow Moon is ushered into a different kind of underworld, this one populated by the old gods, once powerful and revered but now shabby and struggling as the old religions and beliefs have given way to the new: TV, social media, technology, and a commercialized Christianity. As Shadow plays driver and bodyguard to Wednesday on his journey to secure commitments from old gods, his dead wife Laura (Emily Browning) is raised from the dead thanks to a lucky coin from a mad leprechaun (Pablo Schreiber) who wants his coin back.

Author Gaiman draws from myths, legends, and folk tales and weaves them into stories of the modern world and producer Bryan Fuller, who developed the series for cable with Gaiman and Michael Green, expands on the novel, filling the narrative with stories and storytellers that provide backstory to various old gods and define the show as a drama of the power of stories and belief. Fuller gives the show an amazing visual design, a mix of beauty and horror and fantastical imagery within the material world. Gillian Anderson has a recurring role as Media (she first appears as Lucy from I Love Lucy talking to Shadow from dozens of TV screens) and Bruce Langley, Orlando Jones, Peter Stormare, Corbin Bernsen, Jeremy Davies, Kristin Chenoweth, and Crispin Glover appear as gods old and new. This is a richly-drawn show, a modern mythology with a vivid visual style and storyteller’s flair, and should appeal to fans of modern fantasy. And it’s the best Starz original series since Outlander.

8 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray, with two commentary tracks on the pilot episode and video commentary on the season finale, the 146-minute documentary “The Road to American Gods,” an interview with author Neil Gaiman, and six short featurettes.
American Gods: Season 1 [Blu-ray]
American Gods: Season 1 [DVD]

Game of Thrones: Season 7 (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD)

Game of Thrones, HBO’s sprawling fantasy epic adapted from the novel cycle by George R.R. Martin, was originally slated to run seven seasons but HBO convinced producers David Benioff and D.B Weiss to extend the final season with additional episodes and present it in two parts. So in essence the 7-episode Game of Thrones: Season 7 is the first half of the final season, pulling the vast number of storylines together as Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), the Mother of Dragons, brings her armies to Westeros to claim the Iron Throne from Cerci (Lena Headey) and Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) defends the Westeros from the undead Walkers, who breach The Wall in the final episode and threaten to destroy all human life in the kingdom.

Warner Home Entertainment

The series has outpaced Martin’s novels and you can see it in the storytelling, which has become more dramatically urgent and narratively dense as it brings disparate characters together and lays the groundwork for an epic finale. And it continues to deliver spectacle on a scale unseen on television—epic battles with massive armies, armadas of ships, and fire-breathing dragons flying into battle—as well as compelling human stories as the characters choose sides and proclaim allegiances, from Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) declaring war on his sister as advisor to Daenerys to Stark sisters Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) reuniting with suspicions stoked by the manipulative Little Finger (Aiden Gillen) to Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) struggling to support Cerci as her decisions conflict with his moral code.

This is HBO’s signature series and one of the most popular shows in the world with devoted fans who will be eager to revisit the show while awaiting the finale, slated to run sometime in 2019.

7 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on each episode, featurettes, and in-episode guides, and the Blu-ray also features an exclusive bonus disc with the 45-minute Game of Thrones: Conquest and Rebellion, an animated storybook narrated by members of the Game of Thrones cast.
Game of Thrones: Season 7 [Blu-Ray]
Game Of Thrones: Season 7 [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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