Westworld is HBO’s newest drama series, a show about a futuristic theme park in which visitors pay to visit an ersatz Wild West populated by realistic robotic “hosts.” The show comes with high expectations for HBO. The network hasn’t premiered a mega-hit since 2011’s Game of Thrones, an awards juggernaut and ratings smash for the premium network that also happens to be wrapping up in two years. HBO needs another popular series to fill the gap, or risk losing subscribers. Westworld, then, has a very specific pedigree to live up to. It can’t be an arty drama like The Leftovers or a difficult, squirm-inducing comedy like Girls; it needs to be something more akin to Thrones or even The Sopranos in its whackings-and-strippers mode: really high quality trash.
Does the season premiere deliver? Trash: yes; high-quality: not quite, not yet.
The show begins, and somewhat nominally centers around, a host named Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood. She goes to town and runs into Teddy (James Marsden), an old flame who’s unexpectedly returned to town. He’s a guest, we suspect, those of us in the audience who are familiar with the premise, except the show has a twist for us, delivered when Dolores and Teddy are attacked by the Man in Black (Ed Harris): Teddy’s not a guest after all, he’s a host like Dolores, and the evil Man in Black is a guest, which means that Teddy’s bullets can’t kill him, and that the Man in Black can do whatever he wants to Dolores.
It’s a clever reversal, successfully getting us to empathize with the inhuman hosts rather than the human guests by wringing our hearts out at the injustice of what’s happening to Dolores and Teddy at the hands of a guest paying to rape and kill without consequence. This is a persistent theme throughout the premiere: within the confines of Westworld, its the hosts who have weight, depth, and substance, while the human guests come off as callow tourists. (The show’s premise originally came from Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, who hated theme parks, I guess.) But the opening gambit is also a depressing indicator that Westworld may emulate Game of Thrones‘ more problematic qualities: its overreliance on sexual violence as a plot point, and the lazy method of using rape and sadism to establish certain characters as villains.
The premiere also introduces us to the women and men behind the curtain, the creators of this Wild West make-believe. They are Jeffrey Wright as Bernard Lowe, Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, and a female corporate boss whose name I didn’t quite catch. Lowe and Ford are the ones programming the hosts to be more lifelike, and a glitch in their latest update provides the underlying conflict for the premiere, perhaps for the whole series. Ford and Lowe—who approach their robotic subjects shades of affection, fascination, and even awe—have taken the step of giving the hosts subconscious memory banks, which may have had the unintended effect of giving the machines…sentience? Self-awareness? Free will? It’s not quite clear, but the possibility that the hosts may rise up against their makers is the one that gives the series its urgency. Though, not too much urgency—HBO wants a hit series that runs for years, no doubt, so I expect the threat of robot uprising to be akin to that of White Walkers on Game of Thrones: ever-present but moving forward very, very slowly.
Where the series may run up against some issues is in the subplots it tries to unspool on both sides of the curtain. When the show is in full Wild West mode, the problem is primarily one of tone. The theme park’s staff includes scripters who maintain “dozens of interconnected storylines,” but these writers are evidently hacks, because their take on the Western genre is trite and cheesy, far more Gunsmoke than Deadwood. There’s a wry barkeep, poker games, a brothel run by a cynical madame, a sheriff trying to pull together a posse. The dialogue rarely rises above the originality of “There’s bandits in them hills!”
A late scene in which wanted criminal Hector Escaton and his gang ride into town and initiate a shootout illustrates the problem, moving abruptly from the tone of grim, self-conscious dread that HBO dramas usually thrive in and tap-dancing right into camp. Rodrigo Santoro plays Escaton as a sort of smirking, six-shooter-wielding Zorro; he saunters into the saloon and shoots the barkeep dead before pouring himself a whisky and exchanging some forgettable banter with Thandie Newton’s brothel-keeper—all as the score adopts the dirgeful strains of “Paint It Black.” (Because Escaton’s wearing black, GET IT?) People die by the dozens in the subsequent shootout, but the scene lacks suspense because the only people getting shot are hosts whose bodies will be restored and memories erased at the end of the day. The scene is so eye-rollingly bad it’s a relief when a guest wanders in to the crossfire and shoots Escaton in the neck, interrupting what was sure to be a poorly-written monologue.
Storylines in the “real” world of the theme park workers present pitfalls of their own: in particular, the lure of the Puzzle Box Mystery. Westworld is produced by JJ Abrams and his Bad Robot production company, and there are hints here and there of some of the elements that made LOST so initially fascinating and ultimately disappointing. The Westworld staff speaks in hushed tones of “the Company,” which is implied to have mysterious aims of its own in financing the park. Meanwhile, Ed Harris’s Man in Black discovers a strange labyrinthine symbol underneath the scalp of one of his host victims—a symbol that had me thinking of the Dharma Initiative symbols on LOST’s bunkers, and which looks as though it will make further appearances on future episodes. The Puzzle Box Mystery is a plot often attempted in television, rarely (if ever) successfully. Hopefully that’s not the only trick Westworld has up its sleeve.
The premiere ends on a strong note, though, with Dolores and her father hauled in to Westworld for deprogramming. Dolores’s porch-sitting father had earlier experienced an emotional breakdown over seeing a guest’s photograph of the real world; face-to-face with Ford and Lowe, he falls to quoting literature and hysterical philosophizing about meeting his maker. Dolores, meanwhile, appears to be unaffected by the glitch: she still believes her world is real, and she has no desire to hurt any living thing—not even a fly.
But then, in the very last scene, she says good morning to her father (a new model, now) on the porch, looks out on the horizon, seems unperturbed by the fly that lands on her cheek—then slaps it dead.
Odds and Ends:
• Performances: Evan Rachel Wood is great as Dolores, a natural optimist with growing unease about her world. Also excellent is Jeffrey Wright, playing a man who’s more fascinated by his work programming the hosts than he perhaps needs to be. Ed Harris is scary; James Marsden lets his boy scout face do most of the work; and I can’t tell if Anthony Hopkins is doing a good job or phoning it in and trusting decades of accumulated gravitas do the rest.
• Whenever the park staff take in a host to do work on them, the host is required to sit naked in a chair with a blank look on their faces. This allows the show to fulfill one of the important requirements of an HBO hit: lots of gratuitous nudity. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that we saw more female flesh than male.
• “These violent delights have violent ends.” That’s a quote from Romeo and Juliet, and it’s what Dolores’s father whispers to her on their porch. It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing that the “violent delights” the guests enjoy in the park will have “violent ends” if the hosts choose to fight back. It’s also, potentially, a bit of meta self-consciousness and even anxiety on the part of the show creators. Like the staff of Westworld, they have been tasked by their corporate overlords (HBO rather than the shadowy “Company”) to create a fictional world of violent delights. But what consequences, what purposes, what ends are there for creating such a world? More on this in weeks to come, no doubt.