Warning: Spoilers for episode one ahead.
Machines, you can't live with them, can't catch Pokémon without 'em. But as long as humans have used machines, we've feared what they might do to us. From the Terminator to HAL 9000, killer machines bent on our destruction have been a staple of fiction since at least the invention of the stapler. Yet, in recent robotic tales, artists have started shifting our sympathies to the machines. In last year's Ex Machina, we cheer as Ava kills her creator/torturer, and in Spike Jonze's Her, it is the Siri-like operating system whose character grows and discovers herself before peacefully leaving humanity (and the loser played by Joaquin Phoenix) behind.
Kicking open the saloon doors of this particular milieu is HBO's much-anticipated Westworld. The premise: a near-future Wild West theme park populated by robots where the ultra-rich can get out of the office and rape or murder a machine or two. It's glamping meets The Purge. Well, until everything goes inevitably wrong. (If this sounds like a robot cowboy version of Jurassic Park, it basically is. And, in fact, is based on Michael Crichton's mostly forgettable 1973 film Westworld.)
With Game of Thrones set to wrap up in the next couple years and True Detective bombing in its second season, HBO is looking for a hit drama. They've tossed everything including the bathroom basin at this, and it shows. Westworld is gorgeously shot and meticulously costumed, presenting all the beautiful vistas and thrilling gunfights you'd expect from a Hollywood Western with a cast to match: Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, James Marsden, and more populate this somewhat overpopulated first episode. But can the machines replace the dragons? Let's dive in.
The Flies in their Eyes
Westworld signals its inversion of the humans being attacked by evil-machines trope from its opening shot. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) sits in an examination room as a fly crawls around her face. (Flies come back again and again this episode to signal who is human and who is machine.) When she's asked what she thinks of her world, she beams with naïve optimism: "I choose to see the beauty. To believe there is an order to our days. A purpose." Sure, Dolores, there's a purpose, but it ain't pretty.
Next, we get Teddy (James Marsden), arriving in town on the train that brings the guests, and soon he and Dolores are acting out a somewhat clichéd—but likely intentionally so—Western romance that quickly turns to tragedy when they ride to her home to the sound of gunshots. Teddy looks like he'll save the day, well, what's left of it, after Dolores's parents have been butchered by milk-drinking bandits, when suddenly a black-clad gunslinger (Ed Harris) appears. Harris always cuts a good villain and looks particularly menacing in his all-black outfit that is a deliberate callback to Yul Brynner's in the Westworld film. If you thought Teddy was a human guest who had fallen in love with a machine, wrong-o! His bullets don't work, inexplicably disappearing in the air when he fires. Ed Harris smiles, then drags off Dolores for a good old-fashioned HBO drama rape (this sadly seems to be some kind of requirement with the network these days).
Someone's Got a Case of the Mondays
Time resets in this horror Groundhog Day, for the robots at least. Dolores wakes with starry-eyed optimism, Teddy dozes on the train into town. Over at the command center, a large soulless facility that remains somehow darkly filmed despite every wall being glass, technicians inspect humanoid and equine robots in transparent cells. We're introduced quickly to a number of characters, all of whom seem grumbly and depressed: schlubby programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), his eager assistant Elsie (Shannon Woodward), dour boss lady Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), macho security dude Ashley Stubbs (Thor actor Chris Hemsworth's brother Luke), and bratty British writer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman).
More memorable is the creepy genius behind the park, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who we meet having a chat with old jittery robot pal in the back of a haunting room filled with endless decommissioned hosts.
The corporate characters suffer this episode from being used to provide a lot of (perhaps necessary) exposition. Here's what we learn: The "hosts" can't hurt humans by design, their memories are wiped so they don't remember what happens, and yet many of them have been updated recently with a quasi-memory code that will make them more lifelike. This worries security and the bossy lady. "All kids rebel eventually," says the military dude, and the boss lady says that the park is due for a catastrophe, which, inevitably, will come later in the episode.
Problems with the Upgrade
Another fresh day. After an interlude involving Teddy and a group of bros followed by an uptight couple on a ride0along with a malfunctioning sheriff, we get the boss lady, who wants to take the estimated 10 percent of hosts with updates offline due to the malfunctions caused by Ford's upgrade.
A more interesting malfunction happens with Dolores's daddy who finds a photograph in the dirt. It's of a woman standing in traffic in a big city. It's a mystery to him. Also a mystery: Why does any guest still have a physical photo? Is Instagram outlawed in this future?
Deep Thoughts with Dr. Ford
Bernard is (literally) afraid to inform Dr. Ford that his new code is fucking everything up. As they talk, we witness a robot model being built like a toy in a giant 3D printer.
Earlier, Ford was in meta-mode talking about how entertainment isn't about "giving the guests what you think they want. The guests don't return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details." Ah, is he talking about HBO shows in general?
Basket of Deplorables
You want buckets of blood in your TV? Well, Harris literally gets three buckets out of a dealer robot, torturing him above a very scenic landscape.
Harris isn't just torturing for fun, though. He's been coming to the park for 30 years and has decided there is a "deeper level to this game," and apparently the entry code can be found by scalping robots.
The other murdering outlaw is a programmed one, Hector, who comes to town with his gang and opens fire on everything. It's a fun shoot-'em-up scene, although again makes me feel like the show could have started smaller. The characters doing the killing and those being killed are almost entirely ones we've never seen before this scene. Compound that with the fact that they are robots who we know won't actually die, and there is no emotional stakes at all here. We do get one of the episode's only moments of comedy though when Hector is murdered by the uptight guest who wussed out on the sheriff mission earlier in the episode right before Hector can deliver his newly written speech. Asshole writer dude is shattered.
A much more engaging scene follows, where we see the Dolores back in the examination room from the opening shot. Evan Rachel Wood is by far the acting star of this episode, doing a fantastic job switching from hysterics to cold robotic recitation as military dude instructs her "no emotional affect" and to "lose the accent."
After her daddy gets decommissioned with a nose drill, Dolores replays her day, this time with the bartender bot as her father. But when a fly lands on her this time, she kills it.
What's Next in the Rodeo?
Westworld sets up about a bazillion characters and mysteries in this pilot. What is the "deeper game" that Ed Harris seeks? What is the greater purpose of the park? What is causing the malfunctions? What will the robots do when they discover their reality? The show also sets up a lot of potentially fascinating themes about the nature of reality, consciousness, and exploitation in an age of inequality.
This is a gorgeous show, but, for a first episode, it is trying to do a little too much and doing so a bit too gloomily. In recent years, it seems prestige TV has gotten the idea that every "serious" drama has to be serious in every frame: shot with dramatic music, serious expressions, and grim lighting. Everyone is troubled, light and love only exist to be instantly snuffed out. Has HBO forgotten how hilarious The Sopranos was? Or how full of life Deadwood felt? Westworld—like many other contemporary dramas (giving a side-eye at you, House of Cards)—could use that kind of tonal variety.
That said, without spoiling anything, I will say that reviewers were provided with the first four episodes and episode three and four were significantly more engaging for this reviewer than the pilot. Westworld is overloaded with potential, and it wouldn't be the first OS to be a bit janky in beta.
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Westworld airs on Sundays at 10 PM on HBO.