Even before the show hit the airwaves, the discussion surrounding Westworld hadn’t been great. The big budget sci-fi drama has had a cloud following it since it was announced early this year that production was being shut down for two months to work on the scripts. That didn’t bode well in the minds of most TV writers, who are looking to peg this JJ Abrams-produced series as a Hail Mary pass by HBO to maintain their brand as producers of “prestige TV.”
But that line of thinking was always incredibly problematic to me, as basing a new series off of a pulpy 1973 film starring Richard Benjamin and Yul Brynner didn’t sound like a recipe for awards bait. More likely, it seemed as though the network simply wanted to produce a beautiful, escapist show that sprinkles in a few philosophical underpinnings to keep us critics salivating.
The debut episode reveals that both sides of the conversation above are true to a point. The first hour of Westworld is enormously entertaining, bringing us into the dual worlds of a Wild West theme park for the wealthy, populated almost entirely by very lifelike androids (or Hosts), and the high-tech facility that oversees it all. The writers don’t spell it out quite that plainly. They reveal everything in slow circles, unveiling the various layers of infrastructure involved in keeping things running smoothly, the hierarchy of the scientists and facilitators, and how those elements impact the day-to-day operations.
Naturally, things start to go wonky—and this applies to both the story onscreen and the show itself. The man who helped create and upgrade this AI technology (played with the usual gravitas by Anthony Hopkins) put an update through the whole network that is starting to cause problems. Called “reveries,” the idea to give the Hosts more depth for the guests by making them seem like they’re getting wistful as they run their finger across their bottom lip or tug at their whiskers.
The unintended effect is that the robots start tapping into previous versions of their storylines—which are supposed to repeat every day for the sake of a new batch of tourists. Instead, they become aware of their cyclical fates and start either breaking down or lashing out. The bad guys start performing random acts of violence. The rest start getting glitchy or worse. In one harrowing scene, an otherwise quiet farmer (Louis Herthum) starts having a nervous breakdown, triggered by a photograph of a woman in a modern day city that he finds on the ground.
Any veteran viewer could have predicted some version of this development. Westworld’s writers don’t seem to trust that, however. During a conversation between a studious programmer (Jeffrey Wright) and the operations manager (Sidse Babett Knudsen, best known for her work in the Danish political drama Borgen), he assures his boss that they haven’t had a problem in over 30 years. “Meaning we’re overdue,” she replies. A little too on the nose, and a little dismissive of the intelligence of the viewing audience. Believe me, we all saw this coming and not just in the previews. The tone of this first episode demands that we understand it, no matter if we need an explanation or not. It insists that we catch every bit of foreshadowing and symbolism, and the show suffers as a result.
Still, Westworld leaves plenty of meat on the bone for us to rip into. There’s the character known only as The Gunslinger (Ed Harris), a regular visitor with a sadistic bent and a leonine intensity who seems to be seeking the men and women behind the theme park’s curtain. And we have the nagging question of whether the creator of this world knowingly set the wheels in motion for his androids to become self-aware.
The juiciest storyline will certainly belong to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a young sensitive soul who, at the start of the episode, enjoys painting landscapes and gently fending off the romantic intentions of her beau, Teddy (James Marsden). She’s also the daughter of the glitchy farmer who, in the throes of his meltdown, feeds her a bit of Romeo & Juliet (“These violent delights have violent ends”) that unhinges her. Wood plays this with such subtle perfection. The wide-eyed joy that marked her features at the beginning are shaded just so with a ferocity and determination. Bad things are about to happen, and she’s going to be at the center of the maelstrom.
Much like riding a horse for the first time, Westworld is riding into the untamed TV landscape a little uneasily so far. What will keep it trotting along is the quiet confidence that it exudes. For all the bloodshed and bosoms displayed throughout, the show exudes a healthy reserve. If the writers and directors and actors (the fidgety Simon Quarterman, playing the park’s narrative director, is the only sore thumb to be found) can maintain it, this could be a fresh feather in HBO’s dusty Stetson.
Robert Ham is a regular contributor to Paste and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, out now via Regan Arts. Follow him on Twitter.