Westworld and Ramin Djawadi’s music: Choosing to see the beauty in HBO’s sci-fi drama’s disarray

If you love Westworld, you don’t mind that it makes your brain hurt at times. Even if the Season 2 glitches often made you want to hurl yourself off a cliff. Even if the Season 3 system malfunction makes you eager for a memory wipe — at least up to a time before Westworld moved out of Westworld. You didn’t mind the unsolvable “Mazes” and inaccessible “Doors”, the timeline shifts and plot twists, and that most everyone speaks in riddles and metaphors. And while the line must be drawn at the mix-and-match game of “Host or Human?” creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy made us play this season, what does act as a soothing balm is the music.

First, a short review of the

As always central to Westworld‘s science and storytelling is its soundscape. Ramin Djawadi’s music gives coherence to its many complexities. In a series which brings together two distinct worlds (the hot, dusty Wild West-themed amusement park and the cold, sterile futuristic laboratories controlling the operations), the music becomes all the more important in bridging the gap. This is reflected in Djawadi’s choice of orchestral arrangements within the park, and the electronic instrumentals in its “real world”. It also plays into the ambivalent nature of the park and the protagonists.

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Given Westworld moves to the real world this season, the music distils its cyberpunk anxieties into a sombre synth-heavy soundscape. So, you don’t hear a lot of mellotrons, acoustic guitars and orchestral arrangements, like you did in the previous seasons. But you get plenty of dark string and piano sections, which capture the beautiful disquiet and the disquieting beauty of the “real world’s” high-tech urban dystopia.

Djawadi is like TV’s Hans Zimmer. His scores don’t boast the sweeping dramatic textures of John Williams. They don’t really blend orchestral instrumentation and electronics into an ethereal eargasm, like Jóhann Jóhannsson did. His success lies in sticking to a tried-and-tested formula combining them all into his own MO. In Season 3, he opens with “Di Quella Pira“, an incendiary aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il trovatore, as Dolores breaks into a former Delos board member’s house to find files related to Incite. Claude Debussy’s “Reverie“, a Westworld and Djawadi favourite, makes a return. Heard diegetically and non-diegetically across the three seasons, it comes to symbolise the very subconscious of the hosts, a musical manifestation of their consciousness, thanks to the update of the same name (from the first season). “Reverie” thus becomes a sustained echo of their existence and fight for freedom.

Djawadi is also known for reworking contemporary pop/rock favourites into old-timey piano tunes. Similar to the sitar version of “All Along the Watchtower” in Battlestar Galactica, these covers take something familiar and give it an otherworldly twist, highlighting the artifice of the world in the process. The reinterpretations of these familiar songs initially seem camouflaged due to the use of atypical instruments, until certain notes firmly rooted in the collective consciousness capture our attention. Even though we don’t hear the words, they resonate in our memories, and we make associations with the emotions of the characters we see on screen. More importantly, this anachronism creates a fragile link between the past and present, real and artifice, a link which the hosts aren’t privy to but sets the stage for their daily ordeals.

An omnipresent element in Westworld — from the opening credits to the self-playing instrument in the saloon to the covers — has been the piano. Of course, the self-playing piano is less a piano, more a record player reproducing a human expression to robotic perfection. It becomes a metaphor for the human soul trapped in (g)hosts’ shell. The music thus becomes less a background element, more an externalisation of their emotional inner-worlds. For the viewer, it becomes a vital tool to discern the host or human nature of a character.

At times, these instrumental covers make us recall words even though we don’t actually hear them. When Radiohead’s “No Surprises” plays in Episode 2 of Season 1, Maeve is stuck in a loop turning tricks at the saloon — and you can’t help but imagine her sing the words: “A job that slowly kills you/ Bruises that won’t heal.” Episode 4 features The Cure’s “A Forest” as she begins to question her reality, and the lyrics — “I hear her voice/ Calling my name/ The sound is deep/ In the dark” — feel like it’s her consciousness calling out to her. Later in episode 8, once she bootstraps her consciousness, you can hear the weight of the words, “I died a hundred times”, in the cover version of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black”.

Still from Westworld Season 3 | HBO

In the first two seasons, we were also treated to memorable covers of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun“, Nine Inch Nails’ “Something I Can Never Have“, Kanye West’s “Runaway“, Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” among others. Radiohead (“Motion Picture Soundtrack”, “No Surprises”, “Exit Music [For a Film]”, “Codex”) too were a regular feature. Their music is filled with the kind of technological anguish and existential alienation that feels right at home in Westworld. Interestingly, Season 3 has no Radiohead track (as far as we could discern). What we do get is a cover of Moses Sumney’s “Doomed“, which features in in Episode 3 when Charlotte (or rather, the Dolores replica) is brought in to meet Serac, and the title aptly foreshadows her eventual fate. When Dolores and Caleb go to a charity sex auction, an orchestral cover of The Weeknd’s “Wicked Games” can be heard in the background. Barring these usual suspects you may have already added to your Spotify playlists, we recommend three more — Massive Attack’s “Dissolved Girl“, Björk’s “Hunter” and Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” — worth a listen.

In an ambitious episode (‘Genre’) this season, Caleb ends up taking a drug which sends him on a genre-hopping trip. It’s like Fantasia in a pill. It alters his perception by turning reality into genre codes, and we get the opportunity to vicariously test the goods through five stages as Caleb and Dolores escape from Serac’s men. First, we enter a black-and-white film noir with a Roy Webb-like score, expecting to run into Humphrey Bogart and Jane Greer in the suspicious alleys and seedy atmosphere. Second, we’re in a car chase of an action movie with Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” blaring in all its dramatic grandeur. This brings to mind the pilot, where Djawadi’s orchestral arrangement for The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” adds a pulse to the drama, adrenaline to the danger when Hector and his group of bandits arrive in Sweetwater to rob the Mariposa Saloon. With each step and with each shot, the notes add to the intensity of the scene.

Third, in a moment of serenity amid chaos soundtracked to Francis Lai’s “Love Story” theme, Caleb gazes longingly at Dolores as she shoots down Serac’s gang of goons. Fourth, as they enter the subway, the neon-lit station throbs to the opening bars of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”, evoking memories of its usage in Trainspotting. In an interlude where he regains his sense of reality, Caleb sees Dolores leak Rehoboam’s files on everyone to the public, and thus liberate the human population from its control. Here, we hear a gorgeous string quartet version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, before panic and chaos breaks out over the revelations. Fifth, Wendy Carlos’ iconic theme for The Shining plays in the final stage of Caleb’s trip. He breaks down in horror below the docks where Rehoboam had foretold he would kill himself, contemplating the choices he can now make.

Occupying that nebulous zone between soundtrack and score, the Westworld music destined to endure will inevitably be Djawadi’s covers. Stylistic gimmicks or not, these covers are infectiously catchy, and arguably boast a higher replay value than the series itself. The series wouldn’t have had half its pop culture impact otherwise. Even if Dolores somehow survives (this ending seemed more final than the previous deaths but who are we kidding) or the show does go past the fourth season, Westworld‘s music is sure evocative enough to live on its own.

Listen to the Westworld Season 3 soundtrack here.

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