HBO aimed high with its new gunslinging-robots series Westworld and hit its mark big-time with a sophisticated, sumptuous premiere. I haven’t been this excited since I started watching Lost, and that has me a bit scared. Westworld, at least at its start, has just the right balance of lofty philosophy, plausible-sounding technobabble, and heartstring-tugging human drama to keep me totally engaged—except the humans are either arrogant mad scientists or guests embracing their inner GTA-addicted teenage sociopaths. The most “human” humans are actually androids flickering into unchecked sentience.
And behind these existential short circuits? There’s a hint of an overarching mystery that begs initial comparison to Lost’s own Dharma Initiative.
Of course the show is being co-produced by J.J. Abrams, Jonathan Nolan (Inception), and Lisa Joy (Person of Interest). So I shouldn’t be so surprised. And yet…
The way Westworld treats its own mythology in the first hour reminds me a bit of a different Lost creator’s HBO series. Damon Lindelof’s melancholy and tense paranormal drama The Leftovers approaches its obvious question—What caused the Rapture event?—with restraint and basically asks you to ask a different question: does it matter what caused the Rapture when no explanation will cure anyone of feeling like shit? There might be a larger dream-within-a-dream at Delos’ corporate headquarters and perhaps that’s what Ed Harris’ murderous Man in Black character is after, but will any revelation be as compelling as watching the androids’ next evolutionary step unfold?
Evolution is “the product of a trillion mistakes,” Dr. Robert Ford tells his Director of Westworld Programming. And it appears that Ford’s mistake in his latest park-wide software update was including “reveries,” unique affects the androids display that are tied to memories of older versions of themselves and were included in a patch to make the hosts seem even more lifelike.
Think of Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Ford as Vincent Price’s Edward Scissorhands character, the Inventor.Or Jurassic Park‘s John Hammond. An aged scientist creates “children” in his lab to perhaps feel a sense of control over his own impending mortality. We’ve seen this role before, but how often do you get to see an actor as talented as Anthony Hopkins in it?
But I think I agree with Simon, the super aggressive scriptwriter who develops Westworld’s hundreds of narratives designed to amuse the guests: people don’t want anything too lifelike. Westworld goes beyond the uncanny valley and, somehow, no one can seem to fathom a robot rebellion. Or they truly care about profit margins that much to ignore the warning signs—that, at least, seems believable. But maybe this Skynet-in-waiting is Dr. Ford’s ultimate design.
Why program robots to love? Will “true love” be the downfall of Westworld? Does Dolores really love Teddy? The latter is definitely being built up as a key question and, right now, the one I’m least interested in. I’ve never found James Marsden a very memorable actor and while he’s not Scott Summers-level bland, he definitely doesn’t shine as bright as the rest of the impressive cast.
I mean, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris and… James Marsden. But he could surprise me. I thought Josh Hartnett was the poor man’s Ethan Hawke until I got a few episodes into Penny Dreadful. And I admitted I was wrong.
Playing with expectations and tropes worked to great effect with Ed Harris’ character. I was so damn sure Harris was playing what was essentially Yul Brenner’s iconic homicidal robot baddie in the film version of Westworld, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. While the Man in Black isn’t an android, I’m not quite certain that he’s human, either. What’s up with that maze?
I’m quite certain some of the androids fit the definition of “alive.” I loved those little moments when Dolores, played by a convincingly dead-eyed Evan Rachel Wood, switched off her accent and emotional response to talk through her creators’ interrogation. That is Dolores, the oldest robot in Westworld, programmed intelligence written over and over and repaired to be made of the newest parts. Does her scripted optimism and goodness only mask a lie or is her character’s center in her (its?) core code, too? Is she “the Judas steer” who will lead the other robots to freedom?
- There were a lot of pre-premiere articles talking about Westworld and rape, to the point where I was considering not tuning in because Game of Thrones has so made my blood boil with its depictions of sexual assault and the subsequent heated conversations (read: objectors being accused of being too sensitive a SJW or history denier or whatever) that I just didn’t want to tread this territory again. I don’t need a fictional show to lovingly detail how depraved humans can be. I’ve got the news for that. Did I like Dolores’ off-screen rape? No. I don’t understand why one of The Man in Black’s first tasks in Westword is to get a gross sexual thrill. But I’ve watched the first four episodes of Westworld and nothing sickened me as much as Ramsay Bolton.
- Is this show universe like The Walking Dead‘s, where zombie movies don’t exist? Has Dr. Ford never seen The Terminator or Ex Machina or Richard Stanley’s Hardware? Let’s move on from robots—Ford’s read Gertrude Stein but not Mary Shelley or Isaac Asimov? Okay, Westworld, I’ll try to swallow that no creator saw this coming.
- I’m kind of imagining Wright’s character Bernard as Beetee from the Hunger Games and I don’t feel too wrong.
- Adding to the “Here’s what the NPCs in Grand Theft Auto would do if their AI went rogue” vibe? The bandit that killed Dolores’ “dad” was played by… the man who voiced Trevor in GTA V. I’ve slaughtered a LOT of fictional Angelenos with that character. I’d know that voice anywhere. So I can’t point fingers at much of what Westworld’s residents blithely do.
- Robert Ford is also the name of the man (or coward) who killed Jesse James. Yeah, in this cowboy world, it can’t be a coincidence. A showdown between Ford and the Man in Black maybe?
- The way Peter Abernathy stutters and seizes up before saying “I wouldn’t have it any other way” during his interrogation was just perfect. I loved that whole scene’s creepiness, the revelation of his old cult leader personality, and the questions it raised. Who planted the picture?
- Haven’t even mentioned how beautiful the scenery was. And the music, from GoT’s Ramin Djwadi. That Ennio Morricone-tinged “Paint it Black” for Hector’s dramatic debut made me grin, big-time. He seems like a fun guy. But doesn’t Westworld know adding Rodrigo Santoro to your cast is usually a ratings killer?
Next week: We see the park through the eyes of two guests and spend more time with brothel madam Maeve.
Westworld airs Sunday nights at 9PM E/PT on HBO.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com covering TV, book reviews and sometimes games. She’s also gotten enthusiastic about television for Boing Boing, Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast and Den of Geek. Reach her via pony express or on Twitter.