Why Westworld’s Music Is Its Greatest Weapon

While the fourth episode of Westworld: Season 3 features some of the biggest reveals yet, that’s not the only reason fans are abuzz over the series’ latest installment. This episode also features composer Ramin Djawadi doing what he does best, sneaking in a new instrumental arrangement of a hit pop song. In this case, fans of The Weeknd will be pleased to hear a string quartet version of “Wicked Games” playing during the masquerade ball.

This is hardly the first iconic tune that’s been reinterpreted for the futuristic Westworld setting. The Season 3 trailer features an instrumental arrangement of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and past seasons have included arrangements of everything from Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” to The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” This latest musical mash-up is another reminder of something we’ve known for years – Djawadi is the true secret weapon of Westworld.

Westworld is nothing if not a challenging watch, with dense, multi-layered plots carefully constructed to show us only exactly what we need to know and disguise major twists until the last possible moment. And while that often means the series is rewarding for devoted fans, it can also result in a lot of unnecessary frustration, especially given how long the gaps between new seasons have been. And that’s to say nothing of the show’s other flaws, including an overly self-serious tone and some very heavy-handed visual symbolism.

But where Westworld’s storytelling reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, the music has always been dependably great. Djawadi is a master of composing motifs that wring the maximum possible emotion out of a scene without becoming melodramatic or maudlin in the process. The score never fails to set the mood in Westworld. Rather than filling the theme park with a Spielbergian sense of wonder and awe, Djawadi’s music shows us the park as it truly is – a somber place full of death, suffering and enslavement. The music does more than any other aspect of the series to highlight the existential despair of being an android trapped in a playground for bored rich people.

And nowhere does the music succeed more than when Djawadi relies on these arrangements of famous tunes to accompany key dramatic moments. As critically divisive as Season 2 was, most fans would agree “Kiksuya” is one of the true highlights of the entire series. Perhaps no moment in the entirety of Westworld hits with a bigger gut-punch than the scene where Akecheta roams the Delos lab looking for his lost love Kohana. His tragic search is accompanied by the haunting notes of “Heart-Shaped Box,” culminating in a heartbreaking shot where Akecheta finally finds the deactivated Kohana standing amid a sea of discarded Hosts.

This moment is all the more poignant because it brings to mind the life and lyrics of the late, great Kurt Cobain. It’s hard not to be reminded of Cobain and his art when Akecheta muses:

That was the moment I saw beyond myself. My pain was selfish. Because it was never only mine. For everybody in this place there was someone who mourned their loss. Even if they didn’t know why. We were all bound together. The living and the damned.

Season 3, Episode 4 doesn’t tug quite so painfully on the heartstrings with its use of “Wicked Games,” but it is still a fitting choice of needle drop considering the complex war of deception being waged between Dolores, Serac and the other major players in Season 3. “The Mother of Exiles” again shows how well Djawadi succeeds in combining inspired musical homages with just the right subject matter. It’s a reminder that Westworld is often at its best when it gets out of its own way and focuses on combining haunting images and music.

Even looking back at Djawadi’s other big HBO series, it’s obvious how essential his music is to creating the perfect tone. Djawadi was among the most critical storytellers involved in making Game of Thrones what it was. He helped define the desolate yet engrossing land of Westeros and bring order and meaning to the countless parallel storylines over the show’s decade-long run. Just like Westworld, so many of the most iconic moments in Game of Thrones hinge on Djawani’s powerful compositions. Even in the critically divisive final season, Djawani was always a source of stability and emotional weight. There’s a reason he won an Emmy for the climactic “The Long Night,” and by all rights he’ll be able to add a few more to his collection with Westworld.

Either way, whether you prefer your HBO dramas full of swords and dragons or psychologically tortured androids, Djawadi has the right music for any occasion.


Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.

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