Westworld episode 1 review: The Original

HBO's Westworld grabs you utterly in its first, ambitious episode, which arrives on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Tuesday the 4th of October...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 The Original

Like that long awaited locomotive pulling into Tucson for the first time, Westworld is finally here. Many at HBO have anticipated this day with just as much reverence and optimism as the 1880 denizens of that famous railroad town from the Old West, watching anxiously as the smoke clouds plumed beneath the fading Arizona light. Of course, in spite of the dust, horses, gunplay, and even coal-powered engine from that oft-romanticized era, Westworld is not a Western; nay, for all we know it’s not even located in North America.

Rather, this is the culmination of several years’ worth of work, reshoots, ballooning budgets, and the high expectations that come implicit for the prestige network, particularly when it plays into genres as revered as oaters and science fiction. And when all of that is coupled with the fact that Jonathan Nolan, screenwriter of The Dark Knight and Interstellar, co-created and adapted this series with Lisa Joy from the Michael Crichton cult classic, the series premiere’s hype is as formidable as any automated killing machine.

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Luckily, it’s happy tidings that this iron horse brings to town tonight in the first Westworld episode, The Original. Whatever problems the series might have had behind the scenes, the finished product is (at least in its first hour) as seamless and impressive as one of Dr Robert Ford’s animatronic creations.

This craftiness is on display in the very opening scenes where those familiar with Crichton’s 1973 movie of the same name are thrown for a devious and perfectly orchestrated loop by Nolan (who also directed the episode) and Joy’s script. For those who may never have seen the original Westworld, the general set-up is that two buddies from Chicago plan to get their rocks off by visiting Westworld. For one of them, it is his first time in town while the other is an old pro. Within minutes of arriving, however, they’re both shooting Yul Brynner’s infamous Gunslinger robot (the Man in Black) dead and being the toast of the town.

Conversely, Westworld (2016) opens with a seeming variation on the same vignette, only now told from one of the robot’s perspectives. Her name is Dolores Abernathy, and as played by Evan Rachel Wood, she is the image of sweet rosy-cheeked innocence. While initially we view Dolores as being tested by Jeffrey Wright’s soothing voice, checking to see if she’s developed any true hint of self-awareness—kind of like the Turing test in Blade Runner (not be the last similarity between those two)—the actual beginning is showcasing how lifelike Dolores really tends to be.

We know she’s synthetic, but everything else about her reads as genuine, including her love for her father, her passion for watercolours, and her deep appreciation for the sweeping vistas of God’s Country. She even has something resembling a sincerely developed social life. Thus enters Teddy Flood (James Marsden), fresh off the literal train. We know from the Turing test that Dolores is programmed to think newcomers are simply wonderful, and this is deliberately contrasted with Teddy’s arrival, signalling him to be the same kind of greenhorn as the protagonists of the Westworld movie: a tourist looking to play the proverbial white hat around pretty robot girls.

Dolores remembers Teddy well, suggesting perhaps these robots have memories that last longer than a day, and she even takes him home to meet her daddy… only Teddy’s not the newcomer; Ed Harris as the Gunslinger is. The Man in Black. Despite quoting all of Brynner’s lines in the original film as the villain—a relentless machine that hunted James Brolin into extinction—this Gunslinger is made of far more wicked stuff than glass and steel. He is a man, flesh and blood, and his idea of a fun first night in Westworld has nothing to do with saloons, cards, or booze. It’s murdering Dolores’ father, her sweetheart, and then presumably raping and killing her 50 feet from their corpses in the barn out back.

It’s shocking, unexpected, and a blatant announcement that this is definitely not your father’s Westworld.

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Undoubtedly, opening an entire new series with such a horrific and visceral terror is already spawning a thousand reactionary think pieces. But there is an obvious method to the madness, and already it’s challenging audiences in the profound kind of way that the 1973 film could only ever dream about. As Harris makes explicit before gunning Teddy down for what might be the umpteenth time that he’s done this, these two were designed simply so that a nice guy like Teddy would “lose.”

What does that mean about Dolores? Is someone created with such sweetness and pure happiness simply there only to fulfil perverse rape fantasies for Westworld tourists? Does she serve any other purpose to this park, or is she literally a piece of meat that is supposed to be brutally savaged for the most twisted male fantasies—and by extension audiences who tuned into an HBO series promising robot sex? Is this what viewers secretly desire?

It’s a question with no easy answer that already has us thinking, and the series hasn’t even begun in earnest.

Westworld works well out of the box with almost every scene sprinkling the seeds for a new quandary of dense storytelling potential and heady sci-fi concepts—and nary one reliant on typical TV pilot narrative strands. There aren’t any breadcrumbs about potential shipping romances or anti-heroes with hearts of gold. At the present, I’m not sure there will ever even be a human character that audiences will particularly like in the traditional sense (we have the robots for that).

Instead, the series is deliberately and ambitiously following complicated ideas in almost every direction of its vast and gorgeous scenery. And while none can be truly measured in the first hour, those hungry eyes are quite seductive at first blush.

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From almost any shot, fascinating curiosities are raised on Westworld. The lush scenery of tall mountains immediately evokes the grandeur of John Ford Westerns from the 1940s and 50s, yet is this even in a real outdoor park, or is it every bit as digitised as the map from which the rest of the Westworld overlords view and control the proceedings? Can you really go anywhere within this breath-taking landscape or is the infinity hinted at by open space just another illusion of choice that’s as dishonest as the vague hope that Dolores serves another role beyond her repellent “narrative” function for horny guests?

Indeed, if Westworld conforms to any single TV narrative trope in the offing, it is that this has all the markings of an Upstairs, Downstairs-style drama. Just like Downton Abbey—or perhaps more appropriately, given this is a story about slaves on the cusp of revolution, Starz’s cultish SpartacusWestworld follows in the footsteps of developing two worlds that are irrevocably linked, yet separated by a vast narrative chasm (for now).

The first is the one lived in by tourists playing Cowboys and Indians with the hardwired-set. For the moment, only Dolores is given enough proper development, but the overall confines are still well established. Thandie Newton’s Maeve Millay is the Madam of the local whorehouse, and there’s a bandit named Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) roaming the countryside. There are also nubile young things for fraternity brothers, or the prospect of joining a sheriff to round up some bad men in need of law and order.

Yet, even in the series’ R-rated version of a Fantasy Island, strange groundwork is being laid. At one point, Dolores meets a young child of a family vacationing in Westworld. Exactly what kind of attraction is this theme park meant to be? Obviously, it offers a thrill to adults who enjoy experiencing all their best and worst instincts, namely murder, sex and cruelty. Is there a kids’ version too?

In the meantime, much more is explored “downstairs” with the true gods of this realm. The behind-the-scenes area of the Westworld theme park look a lot like if Jonah Nolan’s brother had had the chance to adapt one of Michael Crichton’s most sterile (and cynical) sci-fi novels. It is all bleak greys and blacks reflected against the robots’ milky white. Also as a credit to Westworld, the series shows itself to be an equal opportunist exploiter by displaying as much male nudity as the female kind in these scenes (or in other words far more than Game Of Thrones has in six seasons).

In this realm, and acting as God surveying all of His creation, Anthony Hopkins is a delight and the manifestation of subtle restraint. It is inferred that Westworld as a park is at least 40 years old, and it seems Hopkins’ Dr Ford has been here from the beginning. He sometimes goes down to the storage area to marvel at his old favourite hosts, who depict the quivering hands present in the robots of the 1973 film.

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In another tantalizing thread, it is heavily implied that “management” has more on its mind than simply continuing to curate a resort for rich assholes who want to play dress-up. But in nearly half-a-century, Ford has apparently lived happily by creating more and more robots intended to fill the park’s “stories” and “narratives” for city slickers. Beyond a God Complex, his motives remain almost as ambiguous as this whole world’s history. Apparently, Westworld broke down 30 years prior to the series’ beginning and some guests may have died (could this actually be a sequel to the movie?). For that reason, Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babbett Knudsen) acts as something of a game warden, sceptically waiting between bouts of chain smoke for a motive to be given for her outright hostility.

She is constantly trailed by Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), an over-caffeinated Brit who writes the narratives and dialogue for the robots, implying that despite the park having 200 storylines that the in-world mechanics can change at the drop of the hat (as they do in the episode’s third act).

Sizemore also provides a query to Cullen that is straight out of Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park where Dr Henry Wu tries to argue that they can make the park safer by creating more docile, “better” dinosaurs to an uncaring John Hammond. Sizemore similarly suggests as much for this Westworld while brownnosing with his boss.

If people come for the fantasy, do they really want to think the robot they’re shooting is a dying man, or the machine they’re screwing in front of their wife is actually a beautiful woman? But as with Hammond’s dinosaurs, I imagine that the answer is yes; people want, or think they want, reality instead of seeing the strings. Still, Sizemore’s suggestion of these robots having applications beyond the park could be the basis for a whole new season down the road.

In the here and now, these people and their careers in lurid, high-tech entertainment is enough to keep an exposition-heavy premiere tightly moving and full of intrigue. And walking between all of them is the Man in Black, the one human “guest” who seems to be a major player inside the confines of Westworld. Harris is of course always sublime in everything he does, but here his pretence of being a badass who scalps competitors and assaults innocents intentionally suggests a well-groomed pose.

Inevitably, these robots are going to be more than just subservient, and Harris’ Gunslinger resembles less a true badass than he does a kind of pathetic, lonely gamer who keeps replaying a single-player campaign he’s mastered so much that he gets his jollies from exploiting the glitches, as opposed to actually enjoying the story. He runs around like he’s in Grand Theft Auto, but he has very few places left to go while searching for his supposed game-within-a-game that lies deeper in the Westworld code.

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Meanwhile, Ford and his protégé, Bernard Lowe (an excellent Jeffrey Wright, who seems to be reprising his Beetee part from The Hunger Games), have introduced a new upgrade to make the robots yet even more human. The latest novelty are “reveries,” which create a kind of muscle memory from repetition within the machines. We glimpse one prostitute robot experiencing a reverie on her lips, which may become more twisted in future episodes since we later see that same motion splashed in blood during a shootout.

Apparently, these tics make them appear even more human, but they’ve also spread like a sickness of self-awareness amongst the robots. Ironically, the more human these artificial intelligences become, the sooner they hasten their own hellish demise of being depowered in a vault somewhere. Such is the fate for Peter Abernathy, programmed to be Dolores’ father. He is also played with a teetering balance between sympathetic despair and creepy knowingness by Louis Herthum.

As it turns out, this model has portrayed several roles within the park, including a Shakespeare-quoting cannibal from a previous abandoned storyline based on the Donner Party (I smiled at Ford’s admission that he would on occasion repeat Gertrude Stein; “the last one is a bit of an anachronism, but I couldn’t resist”), and due to the combination of his “reveries,” and seeing a picture of a girl in Times Square, he is remembering. He is remembering everything.

Even Ford seems shaken by Peter’s insistence on meeting his creator. The showdown is straight out of Blade Runner where Roy Batty connives his way into the gilded top of the Tyrell Corporation, and it could end just as bloodily. Like all sentient beings, Peter wants to know his maker, as well as know why his life is a finite one that is meant to suffer and lose.

Again, here is a bigger question, now theological, about Westworld being a microcosm for all our anxieties: are some of us in our real world only here to lose like Teddy? It is also the first hint of an inevitable revolution amongst the robots. They put Peter away into storage, but as he steals a line from Romeo & Juliet about how “violent delights have violent ends,” we know he and his demands will be back. How can a park built on the thrill of danger end in anything less than the real thing?

Also, once more, it raises new insights about Dolores’ purpose. She is apparently the oldest robot still operating in the park. She’s “the original.” That means she has a lifetime of reveries, decades of them, waiting to be awakened like her one-time father. Memories of abuse; memories of exploitation; memories of this world being far less than the vastness of rose-tinted potential.

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Where she, or the series, will go from there is still way too early to know. However, already the hooks are in. It is a very difficult thing, even for HBO’s best shows, to grab viewers so completely in the first hour, but Westworld is firing without any blanks at the moment. Despite being based on a movie of meagre length, the premiere suggests a vast web of story threads to carry the series for what could easily be years to come. 

Westworld episode 1 airs on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Tuesday the 4th of October at 9pm.