A lot of amazing things have happened on HBO‘s Westworld, but none moreso than the casting of Aaron Paul.
Paul made his debut Sunday in the Westworld season 3 premiere “Parce Domine” after months of understandable buzz. Any show landing a three-time Emmy Award winner and co-star of one of the best series of all time would be worth talking about. But particularly for Westworld, TV’s most ambitious series and HBO’s next big thing after of Game of Thrones, this was big news. The expectations created by such a match were certainly high.
But Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy knew exactly what they were doing casting Aaron Paul, and more importantly Aaron Paul knew exactly what he was doing stepping into Westworld.
SPOILER ALERT: The remainder of this article contains discussion about the Westworld season 3 premiere.
The series’ primary conceit has always been what is humanity? How is it defined? What makes up someone’s identity? It tells us a story about human nature through the paradox of characters who are artificially human (“hosts”), yet who are usually more human than “real” people. That same concept is something that Aaron Paul is uniquely brilliant at unraveling. His ability to create such complex inner lives for his characters, and yet communicate those details subtly and with such grace on the outside, is what’s made him one of the best actors of his generation.
We’ve seen him explore questions of humanity and identity in several of his best-known roles. Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad started as a reckless young man with no real sense of who he was past the next moment, and he went on an incredibly tortured journey that forced him into self-discovery and culminated with him starting a new life – and literally getting a new identity – in last fall’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. That movie, while also serving as closure to the show’s biggest unanswered question, was also an exploration of the trauma Jesse had been through and all of the missed possibilities in his life.
Paul’s next starring role, in Hulu‘s cult drama The Path, also saw him look inward, this time framed by the concept of religion. His character Eddie Lane came to the fictional Meyerism from another checkered past, and the whole thrust of the show’s first season was his belief system caving in and thus his entire life coming down with it. Eddie spent three seasons having to decide what was true, what was false, and what he wanted to believe. It was ironic that by the end of the series, he ended up being the one on the proverbial soapbox. He went from being the outsider looking for something to believe, to the person with everyone believing in him.
In a way, that’s the trajectory of his character in Westworld. “Parse Domine” lays out an intriguing arc for Caleb Nichols as efficiently as one of its many programs: he’s a war veteran who’s returned home and is now aimless in this hyper-technological world, struggling to get by and support his ailing mother but also just to fit in. Who is he supposed to be in this “new world” where machine supercedes man?
Caleb’s primary co-worker is a robot. His mother tells him “you’re not my son” when he visits her in a care facility. We find out, by the end of the episode, that the calls he’s been taking from his old military buddy are all a lie; Francis was killed in action, and Caleb has been speaking to a virtual version of him this whole time. In disconnecting from the faux Francis (and thus ending his “treatment” for what seems to be post-traumatic stress), Caleb expresses his feeling that the only way he’s going to be able to truly move on is to find someone real.
And then, ironically, he stumbles into Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) – Westworld‘s most prominent example of the real, unreal.
HBO could do an entire series just about Caleb and his post-war journey as he tries to assimilate into a reality that has completely changed. It comes off like a futuristic postscript to the network’s Emmy-winning 2008 miniseries Generation Kill. Caleb wants to move on with his life, just to be able to do the basic things of providing for himself and his mother, and this high-tech system that’s supposed to be so perfect and so much better won’t allow him to do that. Life, through the metaphor of technology, has left him behind and the only way he can survive is by committing minor crimes for extra cash – crimes which, of course, he finds through an app.
It’s a compelling story, and it’s also such an Aaron Paul story. This isn’t something that could be told nearly as well with any other actor. Paul is a master of crafting the inner monologue and playing it out so the audience can see and feel it. He can say so much with just a tone or a look or the way in which he carries himself. He always has a certain amount of vulnerability or humanity, even in his characters’ toughest or darkest moments. And even with characters who aren’t as well defined (see: Tobey Marshall in Need For Speed), he finds a way to give them an identity and a purpose.
Westworld has all these complicated things that it wants to say about people and technology, and those are fantastic, but they’re all just concepts and big shiny visuals if you can’t find actors who can make them tangible and get an audience to connect with them. With the introduction of Caleb Nichols, Joy and Nolan are putting a new heart into the series. That’s because by casting Aaron Paul, they’ve brought in someone who is able to truly communicate what it means to be human. Just by being who he is, and doing what he does, he’s accomplishing what the producers have set out to do with this particular hero.
Paul is an incredible actor, and being on one of TV’s most-talked about series is certainly another great line on his already sterling resume. But when Westworld season 3 is over, we’ll almost certainly be talking about what impact Aaron Paul had on Westworld instead of him joining this hit show. He’s already left an indelible fingerprint on it, and the season has only just begun.
Westworld airs Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
Article content is (c)2020 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr.