East of Westworld

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HBO’s latest Sci-Fi smash hit Westworld proves that the network continues to offer engrossing programs to watch, while also melding the tricky territory of science fiction and western genres. While the finale was light on actual payoff, season one was 10+ hours of free will vs programming, destiny vs determinism, right vs wrong; basically a decent primer for the Image series East of West by Johnathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta… 

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Hickman is one of those writers that on the surface I can follow, but I have to look deeper to fully understand what’s happening. It’s a requirement for me to read his books in trade paperback collections as anything else is too brief to hold my attention or pull along in the narrative.

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From my viewpoint, East of West is about Death trying to reunite with his family while the three other horsemen of the apocalypse seek to end the world. There’s a wide cast, all with their own goals and alliances. Like Westworld, robots and artificial intelligence are common in Hickman’s series as well as Native American mysticism and other planes of reality. Set in an alternate history where America is shared by five different nations, it’s decidedly constructed as a Western in attitude but with the addition of lasers and other advanced technology.

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Westworld follows a premise similar to (because he wrote the stories for both) Micheal Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Where Jurassic Park was a story about an amusement park featuring live dinosaurs escaping and terrorizing the humans, Westworld is about androids rebelling against their human masters. The androids of Westworld, which in the show are referred to as hosts, are sure they themselves are human and act based on their programming to fulfill set roles, unable to harm the human visitors seriously. The humans are free to do whatever they wish to the hosts, who are cleaned and repaired each day to start the process over again. Gradually, some start to remember their previous experiences despite having them wiped away and search for ways to break the cycle of being continually destroyed without ever truly dying.  The show’s writers are adept at investing the viewer to the struggles of certain hosts, most of whom do bad things for the ultimate goal of becoming free. Many of the humans, in contrast, view the hosts as disposable machines that don’t merit consideration. Understandably, a few people view the hosts cautiously or fearfully on the off chance they decide to break the Laws of Robotics. It’s this conflict between hosts and humans that creates the compelling story of Westworld.

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Where Westworld and East of West overlap are certain character arcs: a cynical man searching for a higher meaning to life, another for the woman he loves, an older figure plotting from afar, a femme fatale with close compatriots seeking to end the Status Quo, a woman who has suffered tremendously and forced into a role she must take for a larger purpose, etc. Both of them deal with individual choice in a world unconcerned with it.

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Watching Westworld I was struck by seamless integration of Western tropes with bleeding edge technology, bringing Hickman and Dragotta’s comic to the forefront of my mind. Before I’d heard that a live-action adaptation would be too expensive for television, yet HBO continually makes shows like Game of Thrones look fully realized and arresting to follow. It might be a stretch to ask the network to add another sci-fi western to his lineup, but I don’t see why East of West couldn’t eventually wind up on TV from another network or after Westworld concludes.

Aside from The Walking DeadPreacher, and Outcast, every other comic show airing on any platform features or involves superheroes. As such, they tend to adhere to certain cliches that become tiring 6-8 times in a row. Instead of simply doing less comic book shows, it would benefit networks to consider more nuanced stories like East of West.

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East of West features a diverse cast with Asian, Native and African-American characters in the forefront, all three being severely underrepresented demographics in television and comics. The subject matter is also more unique than the ubiquitous saving of the world or “getting the girl”, aside from Death’s quest to reunite his family the series is almost nihilistic in tone. The nations of the world fight for control or power when everything could be destroyed in a short time. Most of the leaders themselves feel entirely irredeemable despite their entertaining personalities. The series at times can make you question whether the World is worth saving or if the smallest search is the only worthwhile pursuit. Contrast that with villains of the week and cheap little moral lessons that won’t lead anywhere.

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There’s also the added appeal of the Western atmosphere. Something about those visuals; a lone gunman traveling through the desert, viscous shootouts that can happen in the blink of an eye, people of a duplicitous nature, just begs for engaging storytelling. East of West is chuck full of those things as well.

While Westworld is more or less a triumph in television it doesn’t have the same ambition as East of West in exploring the subject matter presented, it’s done well but also seems to rely on Crichton’s original plot. East of West could offer something fresher to TV that is crowded with generic procedurals and sitcoms, and show the rich imagination that comics is capable of given the artistic freedom.

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