by Josie Kafka
HBO’s latest prestige drama has finally arrived in the station, and it’s a doozy. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s spin on Michael Crichton’s 1973 eponymous film is just as beautiful and fascinating as I hoped it would be.
The premise is complicated to explain: Westworld is a high-tech theme park with a wild-west theme. Androids—known as “hosts”—populate the world, and “guests” pay exorbitant fees to participate in shoot-outs, whoring, and old-timey gambling. In a riff on Asimov’s laws of robotics, the hosts cannot harm the guests, but the guests can do whatever they want to the hosts. It’s that privilege that many of them are paying for.
In just this pilot episode, we see guests run from an android who seems to be having a stroke, shoot an android in the neck and laugh about it (“Look at her wriggle!” cries another guest), and rape an android. Not all of the guests are working through their issues with evil: we also see a family with a young boy who just wants to explore the world.
But that family is the exception, and cruelty is the norm. Or maybe “cruelty” is the wrong word: is it bad to do harm to a robot that won’t remember? As far as the guests know, the androids are no different from NPCs in a video game, or characters on a TV show.
We, as viewers, might feel differently. In a plot that evokes one of my favorite Person of Interest episodes, the hosts are on narrative loops that allow for variation within set parameters. Teddy (James Marsden) and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) don’t always meet, but when they do, they love each other until one of them—usually Teddy—dies. It’s a credit to the script, the direction, and the actors that I cared deeply about these characters, and I felt sadness at their fates both in the particular (Teddy gets shot again!) and the general (they don’t know Teddy gets shot every time).
But not all is right in Westworld. Thanks to a new upload from mastermind Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), some of the hosts are glitching: exhibiting stroke-like symptoms, acting out of character, and even realizing that their reality is not real.
The behind-the-scenes team spends most of this episode dealing with the glitch; along the way, we learn about the team that makes this unreality a possibility: Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) takes care of the hosts and Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) deals with them when they become defective.
Both seem frighteningly impersonal, but in different ways. In one scene, Bernie stares at Theresa, then tells her that he loves the way her eyebrows move when she’s angry but trying to hide it. Can he record it for future reference as he builds more hosts? Theresa, on the other hand, seems to be making a play for the top spot, currently occupied by Dr. Ford; her knowledge or suspicions about the corporate goals will either help or hinder her ambitions.
Throughout this first episode, most of the tension is based on what characters know or don’t know. What is corporate’s agenda, and why don’t they care that the cold storage has been uncold for weeks? Did Dr. Ford know that his “reverie” upload would cause the hosts to glitch? If so, what is he planning? Do the techs realize what Ed Harris’s Man in Black is up to?
However, this is not a show that seems to be building towards a gigantic mind-bending revelation that everything we think is true, isn’t. Mysteries were solved almost as quickly as they emerged: Teddy is a host, not a guest. Dolores’s dad spouted Shakespeare, Gertrude Stein, and John Donne—no googling needed. All apparent ambiguity was quickly clarified. We don’t know what will happen, but we aren’t asking ourselves what is happening.
That’s not to say the show lacks subtlety. I loved the visual echo of the milk—which two different killers poured onto their victims—and the viscous goo that the hosts are made of. Dr. Cullen smoking a cigarette raises questions about free will and reality denial; her quick dismissal of the potty-mouthed subordinate reminds us that even in the real world, many people treat others as disposable.
My favorite moment, and the one that evoked some of the mindbendiness that Nolan is so good at, was the choice to set the saloon shoot-out to an orchestral version of the Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black,” a song about our desire to do bad when faced with good. Like any nondiegetic music, it briefly reminds us that we are watching fiction staged for our benefit. We root for people to die violent, splashy deaths, and we cheer evildoers when they are fun to watch. So how are we any different from the wealthy guests who pay for the privilege of, essentially, watching this show in live 4D?
Those sorts of questions lurk in the background: What is the nature of reality, and how much can we trust ourselves to know the answer to that question? Is our sense of free will a delusion? Nature? Nurture? Spectacle? They are interesting ideas to ponder after too many hard lemonades in a dorm room, but weak ingredients to build an entire show on. That Westworld manages to keep those ideas present but understated is to its credit.
Less understated is the landscape, which is beautiful. It evokes the old Hollywood westerns—as does the entire premise of the theme park, of course—but even some meta-awareness can’t spoil the beauty of the American Southwest, which is the most beautiful place in the world. I loved the contrast between the worlds: the wide vistas and rock formations of Westworld vs. the windowless lab where the techs work.
I went into this premiere wondering if it was going to be a total headtrip. It wasn’t. But it is beautifully acted, well written, and gorgeous to look at. It’s got Big Themes up the wazoo, and I didn’t even think about checking my email once while watching it. I cannot think of a heartier recommendation than that.
• I had a fun time playing “spot the actor,” and I’m delighted to announce that I found Rodrigo Santoro (as the bandit Hector), whom many of us know as Paulo from Lost.
• I had a devil of a time finding Liam Hemsworth (Gale from The Hunger Games), probably because he’s not in this show. The Hemsworth I was looking for is Luke, older brother to Thor and Gale. He plays Stubbs, one of the techs.
• So, are there other parks? Is there an Eastworld?
• Ed Harris’s character is called The Man in Black. Not the Man in Black from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. And not the Man in Black who goes to my (old) Trader Joe’s.
• Do you think the Man in Black is trying to figure out how the androids work?
Three out of four realities.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)