Disclaimer: I have never seen the original Westworld film from 1973, and neither do I intend to draw many conclusions from or references to it in my reviews of the television series on HBO. In other words, expect my Westworld reviews to exclusively cover the material in the television series – whether I decide to eventually watch Michael Cricthon’s original film or not.
Westworld is a thinking man’s television show: the kind of sixty-minute endeavor that’s recommended to be seen with one’s attention fixated in every line of dialogue, every thought-provoking facial expression, and every course of on-screen action. You simply can’t watch or enjoy it any other way, because its cast, its world and its message are impressively sprawling. Game of Thrones currently holds the reputation of being the king of “every moment counts” kind of TV over on HBO (which is quite amusing considering how Westworld‘s Sunday premiere already has people drawing comparisons to it), but with only two more seasons under its belt the network appears desperate for a successor. With its heavy science-fiction trappings and cerebral character themes, Westworld very well could be the light at the end of its “predecessor’s” dragon-clad tunnel.
But in order for this new series to help HBO succeed in its goal, it can’t just be entertaining; it needs to be relentlessly engrossing. It must be large in scope, yet ripe in detail; firm in the rules of its world, yet unceasing in its level of ethics and morals; deep in strong casting, and rich in Emmy-worthy performances. Suffix to say – and I’m proud to say this myself, as an avid Game of Thrones fan – that Westworld is all of these things, and more.
Set in a western-infused, Jurrasic Park-style theme park, Westworld questions the limits and nuances of artificial intelligence, peeling off philosophies and curiosities for the viewer to ponder through the stories of “Westworld”‘s hosts: the technologically-advanced robots that inhabit this fictional amusement world. Of which we are first introduced to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a scripted”daddy’s little girl”/damsel-in-distress that also holds the label as the theme park’s longest-running host. Her Westworld story parlays with Teddy’s (James Marsden), the cowboy with a heart of gold whose role is to fall in love with Dolores, leave town (either on his own accord or “by blood”), return, and do it all over again. We see one of their stories be violently interrupted by “The Man in Black” (Ed Harris) right around the same time the park’s science department decides to update a portion of its hosts, which calls into question the sudden off-script tendencies that they’ve recently been addressing.
It’s initially hidden and eventually proven that Dolores’s presence, being the oldest robot in the park, stands for practically every theme and story thread the show wishes to pursue, as her sanctioned conversations with the host creators bookend the episode, filling us in on the roles these hosts play while giving us a sense of Dolores’s own understanding. Through Teddy, she questions the viability of her existence, as she witnesses his murder at the hands of the same guest who drags her into her family barn shortly before raping her. That moment is played off as a nightmare: a bad dream that is actually an erased memory that enables Dolores to continue playing her everyday role. But Dolores lingers on her recollections, and regardless of what her programmers tell her she’s past the point of blind complacence. If there is one instance that goes beyond proving my point here, it would have to be her conversation with Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth), where she basically lies about always telling the truth just to save face. Another reason why I consider Dolores as such a focal point in Westworld is because we see how these little outliers in her stories have affected her throughout the episode, and considering her pedigree with the programmers it’s only fitting that she’d be the one thing standing in between a revolution and a never-ending theme park atmosphere.
There are two other perspectives to follow in Westworld, with one of them being behind the scenes. Jeffery Wright’s Bernard Lowe is the lead host programmer, and because of his enthusiastic direction we are provided with an internal conflict that falls sternly into a matter of interpretation. Unlike his colleagues, Lowe is intrigued with the possibility of advanced hosts with heightened emotions and expressions; others, like Simon Quarterman’s Lee Sizemore, prefer to leave things as is for the benefit of the guests. Bernard is enamored in the upward trajectory these robots could take, while everyone else besides Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Ford is content with make an easy buck off the rich and eliminating any potential risk the hosts may carry going forward. In turn, the internal contrast between Lowe and his workmates ignites debate amongst the viewers at home. Knowing what we know about Dolores and The Man in Black, should Lowe be given the keys to furthering the evolution of his hosts? Or is allowing the guests to roam freely within the park alongside the hosts currently on display a more feasible move?
This argument undoubtedly carries over to the third perspective: the relationship between the guests and the hosts. Already firmly established here in “The Original”, the actual living human beings who visit the park feed off of their Western fetishes, but like The Man in Black helps prove a number of times in the episode, their behavior could be counter-intuitive to the hosts remaining emotionally tied to the roles and stories they were assigned to. Of course, this will eventually lead to the hosts garnering enough influence to act on their own free will, but who’s to say that’s a bad thing just yet? Peter’s conversation with Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Ford teases the idea that the robots were created under more than a simple pre-determined image, and hints that there are supposed skeletons in the closet that we don’t know about right now. And on top of that, any host that was forced to go off-script at any point in the episode did so in a humane matter without contentiousness. Whether the hosts’ reactions vary depending on the robot remains to be seen, but the uncertainty sparks intrigue for future episodes.
Lastly, the performances all around are absolutely fantastic, but there are still some noteworthy standouts. Evan Rachel Wood juggles the circus act of a humanized robot with pathos, while Wright and Hopkins truly draw you into the human side of the story as Bernard and Dr. Robert. Wright is especially impressive, but for those who’ve seen him in other works like Boardwalk Empire his brilliance here shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Other standouts include Sidse Babbett Knudsen, who’s refreshingly sharp-tongued as the realist Theresa Cullen, and Louis Herthum as Peter. Unfortunately for the latter, his shelf life on Westworld is woefully limited after the events in this episode, but at least we got that one chilling scene between him and Ford over that picture.
It’s only been this one episode so far, but Westworld has already got me hooked. There’s appeal dripping from its pores, and once the allure of its cinematography wears off we’re left with a swarm of theories, twists and individual instances to write home and talk about. So much that this series initially has to offer is working like clockwork, and even with just a 10-episode season order I feel like it has only scratched the surface of what it has in store for those who choose to follow along. Whether you view it as the Sci-Fi drama that it is, or the multi-layered study into the ethics of artificial intelligence that’s underlined by the western standoffs and the brief spurts of prostitution – you owe it to yourself to hop on the bandwagon and see where this imaginative piece of television could take you.
+ The hosts, and the ethics and emotions they’re programmed with/slowly learning
+ The programmers and the argument behind advancing the hosts
+ Guest/host integration, theme park atmosphere, and The Man in Black
+ Standout scenes (Dolores’s “dream”, Peter’s freakout against Ford, etc.) that constantly question the viewer, encourage philosophical analysis