HBO Wants a New Cash Cow, But Westworld Is Not the Right Choice

In the interest of transparency, I must confess: I love Westworld. It’s probably one of my top three interests. That’s why I’m intrigued (and a little worried) that HBO ran its first Super Bowl ad in 20 years on Sunday — for Westworld.

If you haven’t seen it already, Westworld’s anticipated season two trailer premiered during Super Bowl LII.

According to Quartz Obsession, the estimated cost of a 30-second spot during Super Bowl commercial breaks is a hefty $5 million dollars.

On an omniplatform scale, Westworld’s season one finale, “The Bicameral Mind”, was watched by over 12 million people, making it the highest-rated premier season of any HBO series ever.

For comparison, Game of Thrones’ first season finale, “Fire and Blood”, earned that show over 3 million viewers. Keep in mind, this was 2011 — prior to Smart TVs and other streaming devices becoming fixtures in many homes.

It’s clear that HBO’s planning something here. The high cost of advertising Westworld during Super Bowl LII needs to prove some sort of return on investment for HBO — perhaps another breakout show to satiate Thrones fans once the show is over.

I’m really worried that HBO is trying to launch Westworld as the next Game of Thrones, because of what that might mean for the series and the effectiveness of its themes.

It’s no secret that Game of Thrones is ending soon — the final season will air in 2019. The highly-acclaimed prestige drama has become a cash cow for HBO, converting tons of average-Joe viewers to ‘genre’ TV.

The high cost of advertising #Westworld during #SuperBowl52 needs to prove some sort of return on investment for HBO. - @alderaani Click To Tweet

Despite this, Game of Thrones relies heavily on turns of narrative to tell its story that are damaging to its audience, including racist portrayals of characters of color, regular instances of sexual assault and rape, and violence that serves no purpose other than to shock and titillate viewers.

Westworld is definitely guilty of some of these things. The portrayal of Native Americans through the “Ghost Nation” narrative reduces these characters to stereotypical brute fighters, which does nothing to further representation of Native Americans on screen or to steer away from White America’s diluted narrative of Native cultures.

Dolores’ character — among others — has experienced numerous counts of sexual assault (which I wrote about here). The show certainly doesn’t skimp on violence — a rogue ‘host’ park android bludgeons himself to death with a boulder in graphic detail in the third episode.

Furthermore, Westworld and Game of Thrones are both series about power — those with power and those without. The big differentiator in these narratives is how they demonstrate characters’ agency, and how they can push back against bad situations.

In Game of Thrones, the Stark children are clearly presented as ‘the good guys’, those characters we’re supposed to root for — yet again and again, they climb up only to get absolutely shit on. This happens to all of the ‘good guys’ on the show — which perpetuates the theme of bad things happening to good people.

The Starks — especially my favorite character, Sansa — consistently have to act in ways that are against the more traditional moral code they were brought up with in order to survive, regardless of their own wants.

Westworld frames itself in an unexpected way. Viewers of the original 1973 film will remember the protagonists being guests of the park escaping ‘rogue’ fixtures like Yul Brynner’s “Gunslinger” android.

The HBO series couldn’t be more different. Westworld frames itself as being sympathetic to the hosts rather than the human guests, the latter portrayed as brutal at best and irredeemable at worst.

The series portrays nudity as grotesque in order to cause uneasiness and worry regarding the hosts. Park guests’ repeated acts of physical and sexual violence committed against hosts are framed as atrocities. Even those guests we meet that seem good — like William (played by Jimmi Simpson) — are eventually revealed to be despicable.

As Westworld demonstrates how human beings are often utterly rotten to the core, it simultaneously pushes the narrative of Artificial Intelligence gaining sentience as the hosts regain their agency. They manage this in spite of not having control in most situations, which is a testament to the power of self preservation.

Game of Thrones has never explored this theme in any deliberate way, which is just one of its many failings. The show’s executives — and HBO, presumably — are more interested in narratives that will bring in audiences and their wallets than narratives that reveal these despicable human tendencies.

So — Game of Thrones is ending, but Westworld doesn’t occupy the same space on HBO’s roster, nor among the network’s audience. Game of Thrones’ series finale presents an opportunity for HBO executives to find a new series to bank on in order to maintain their standing as the rulers of the prestige drama genre.

It’s easy to imagine execs hiring writers with similar mindsets to Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss onto Westworld’s staff, ones who care more about generating ratings through violence and harmful acts rather than through telling a compelling story.

So — #GameofThrones is ending, but #Westworld doesn’t occupy the same space on HBO’s roster, nor among the network’s audience. - @alderaani Click To Tweet

If you’re looking for proof, HBO’s already greenlit a new prestige drama called Confederate helmed by Benioff and Weiss. Confederate is billed as an “alternate history” series posing the question, “what if the South won the Civil War and slavery never ended?”

The mere concept of this show is something we don’t need to see. After all, black Americans  are enslaved through the prison industrial complex, disproportionately murdered by police, and subjected to “everyday” racism all the time.

Confederate has seen significant opposition from fans and non-fans of Thrones, especially black critics. During the most recent season of Game of Thrones, #NoConfederate (co-created by April Reign, who is also behind the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag) trended right alongside the show’s hashtag during every episode after Confederate was announced.

This hashtag is just one way that fans and critics can push back against HBO’s decision to greenlight such an openly racist series helmed by two white men. Keep in mind, Game of Thrones is a show with a largely white cast, and the characters of color on the show aren’t handled respectfully.

Even more recently, Disney and Lucasfilm announced that Benioff and Weiss will helm a new Star Wars trilogy. Yet again, these two white men — who are notorious for their shoddy grasp of narrative structure and mistreatment of various marginalized groups — are offered a prestigious project to the detriment of more diverse creators who would do a significantly better job.

There is already online criticism of Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy’s overall handling of the Star Wars franchise’s attitude towards women of color and other groups. According to Variety, 96 percent of people who have had a hand in shaping the films are white men.

The last thing we need is people like Benioff and Weiss to further this trend.

With the convoluted narrative of the most recent season, HBO’s audience is already losing faith in Game of Thrones’ direction. Even mainstream media outlets such as Forbes are finally beginning to catch wind of this.

Game of Thrones brought the idea of ‘thinkpieces’ to the forefront of media journalism — it’s hard to miss long, cerebral pieces about the show on Monday mornings. Where these pieces used to be written about the show’s themes and character development, now they are more often than not just analyses of story structure and what went wrong.

If Westworld becomes HBO’s new cash cow, there’s a strong case to be made that the same dangerous tropes that made Thrones so popular will push into the narrative of Westworld. This kind of on-screen violence — especially toward people of color — doesn’t need to be presented again and again.

HBO’s use of its status as a ‘premium’ channel, allowing it to show more explicit scenes than broadcast or even cable TV, allows these sorts of stories to be told.

My excitement for the upcoming season of #Westworld doesn’t come without a slight sense of fear that my new favorite show will go the way of my old favorite show. - @alderaani Click To Tweet

Westworld has a lot to work on. Still, the show has been cited by critics as using its characters, like head of park narrative Lee Sizemore (played by Simon Quarterman), to comment on the types of stories HBO airs.

Now, don’t get me wrong – my eyes were glued to Twitter all night during Super Bowl LII in hopes of seeing the Westworld trailer finally drop. (I loved it, by the way.)

But my excitement for the upcoming season — and the attention being paid to the series — doesn’t come without a slight sense of fear that my new favorite show will go the way of my old favorite show. And I really don’t want that to happen again.