Spoiler Alert: The following discusses plot points from Sunday night's Westworld premiere, "The Original," written by executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and directed by Jonathan Nolan.
If you haven't watched the episode, save this recap to read later!
In short: Welcome to the near(ish?) future, where it seems humans have vanquished a big chunk of mortality problems and what's left is a good amount of boredom. What do we do? We use technology to make an Old West, virtual playground brimming with created, and intensely programmed, humans to play-act the fantasies of their high-paying customers. The opulent park is called Westworld.
Founded by Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Westworld is like a John Ford-directed Jurassic Park. On the outside, it's a lush period backlot complete with a picture-perfect entry town, Sweetwater Park, and harsh terrain that's rust-colored and full of terrors (if that's your thing). But the internal workings are set in a sparse lab full of glass, minimalist seating and lots of naked lady droids. Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and his underling, Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward), are the personality tweakers of the Hosts, the official name of the androids to the Newcomers, or Westworld paying clients. In particular, Lowe is the middleman for Ford's brilliant progressions with his creations, and the corporate division that operates the public park, and is paranoid about the increasingly authentic park players that could be a threat to their bottom line. Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is the chain-smoking head of security who is all over Lowe and his team for any slips in the android scripts that create aberrant behavior. She's a less fun Samuel L. Jackson from Jurassic Park, but with equal nicotine addiction.
With that setup, the pilot episode introduces us to how the park functions via Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a beautiful Host-on-the-prairie who loves her daddy, the potential of every new sunrise and Teddy (James Marsden), the handsome cowboy who returns to Sweetwater Park to get back together with her. It's all pretty idyllic until we see what the narrative programming does when thieves murder Dorothy's parents, allowing Teddy to save the day, only to be thwarted by the Man in Black (Ed Harris), a 30-year Westworld customer, who set up that vile scenario as disgusting foreplay to assault Dolores in a violent manner; something he implies he's done over and over again.
Bloodied and bruised in the lab, Dolores is cleaned up and then wakes up, a la Groundhog Day, to start once more as glass-all-full Dolores. That's what happens to all of the androids shot, maimed or even scalped on the job. The lab workers throw around the flesh, clean it upl and make sure the mental faculties work, and then it's rinse/repeat with Newcomer requested adjustments every day.
But things get shaken up on two fronts: Ford's latest upgrade to the Hosts is causing glitches with some players, frying their responses during the narrative. It's a larger security threat that Cullen and her team don't like. In particular, Dolores' father discovers a randomly lost image of a Newcomer in NYC, and it fries his curiosity circuits and disrupts the cycle for his daughter.
And meanwhile, the Man in Black's last attack on Dolores and her family has crossed him over into boredom-land with the same ol' horrific role play. He wants to get deeper into the "game," so he targets a low-level player, slits his throat, takes him out into the desert and demands that he give him information to achieve the next level of gamer high.
All of this plays out like a beautifully shot, thematic mash-up of the aforementioned Groundhog Day and Jurassic Park, along with Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, and generous visual references to Blade Runner, Ex Machina and any Western shot with a wide-angle lens. But this is not a straight remake of Michael Crichton's story that was the basis of the 1973 film starring Yul Brynner. It's a very different take on the sentient android playground story, and that's both good and bad. Let me explain ...
First, Jonah Nolan directed a gorgeous pilot. He made the most of his location shooting amongst the red rocks of Utah, which is an inviting locale for the high-concept story. Plus, we like the Newcomers, are immersed in the fine details of Sweetwater and its environs. There's always something fascinating in the frame with its extensive world-building, both in the Old West and in the sterile Westworld labs.
The cast is also excellent. In Sweetwater, Evan Rachel Wood is a beguiling Dolores and Ed Harris is convincingly horrible as the Newcomer who is old hat with this rodeo, so he has no compunction about treating the Hosts as expendable meat for his fantasies. Behind the monitors, Anthony Hopkins and Wright are equally enigmatic men of science who are clearly enamored with their creations, and how they are evolving. A personal favorite is Hopkin's chat with a first gen Host in a ghoulish cold storage tomb where recalled androids go to stand, or lay around, in sleep mode for eternity. It's a chilling interaction and visual.
As for the narrative of the pilot, it unfolds in a clever, albeit slightly confusing way, as the Nolans demand the audience pays attention from the very first voice over in order to piece together how the world operates. There's a lot of exposition to unpack, but they are smart about how they present, and frame, the majority of it. It's a successful curiosity piquing exercise.
Shout out to composer Ramin Djawadi for another lush and immersive series score. In particular, I really enjoyed the subtle inclusion of unexpected drops like the player piano version of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" and the symphonic version of The Rolling Stone's "Paint It Black," of which I'm sure both have lyric implications for the story at hand.
By the end of the pilot, it's clear that Westworld leans on concept before character. We'll see if it remains that way, but by the first episode's end, I wasn't bonded to any of the characters which is problematic. I fall in love with a show because of characters. With Westworld, I was absolutely curious about where the story was going to go, but I wasn't on the edge of my seat with concern for Dolores, or Bernard back in the lab, or anyone else. The story had me, but not the players yet.
Why? The concept of the series makes it hard to bond with the Hosts because they essentially get wiped every day. Yes, the core conceit of Westworld's narrative is that some androids (especially Dolores) seem to be evolving, or at the very least remembering their past assignments even though they are supposed to be gone, but overall the androids are still playing out a repeating script in the pilot. It's the slight deviations that get our attention, but that's plot motivated. There's no real insight into their point of view and that's distancing. Dollhouse also had this problem back in 2009 with its protagonist Echo, and that show only got truly engaging once it threw the weekly assumed personality trope out the door. I'm hoping Westworld gives us a one-off sooner than later where we get a Host POV narrative, be it Dolores, or Teddy or Maeve (Thandie Newton), where we can really understand what a Host might be sustainably thinking and feeling.
I'm also not feeling the stakes because the Newcomers can't be killed. The pilot certainly had some visceral violence, but when the humans can't be killed and the Hosts get refreshed after every massacre, my actual concern for everyone is nil. I kept waiting for a Newcomer death that would flip the panic button in the park, and behind the scenes, but it never materialized and that's another problem for me. If I don't know anyone to genuinely care about them, and the Hosts are just repeatedly placed in scenarios where I'm not scared for them outside of the feeling of empathy for the awful things they are made to endure at the whims of callous humanity (rape, murder, etc...), I'm just not sure what I'm supposed to emotionally latch onto yet. And believe me, I really want to.
Things to Ponder ...
What exactly did Bernard say to Peter Abernathy when he was placed in his cold storage purgatory? Was it just directions, or something else? Bernard seems far too fascinated by the changes happening to the Hosts, rather than just strictly concerned. He is Ford's protege...
And for that matter was Abernathy's whispered message to Dolores just the incendiary quote, or was there more instructive information passed along from "father" to "daughter"?
How did the Man in Black figure out that scalping a Host would provide him a maze map to deeper levels of the game? Did the poor, tortured dealer know what was under his haircut, or was that a surprise for both of them? And is that an actual map, or a company symbol?
Why is Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) such an overblown crank? Everyone in the operations side seems pretty chill, yet his base reaction is bad theater actor on a bender. Take it down, dude. No wonder Theresa has no interest in your oily support.
And speaking of Theresa, she's certainly the keeper of secrets. Seems like she's super clear on the company's ultimate reasons for operating Westworld, yet she's not sharing. Is it as simple as world-domination, as it always seems to be with most corrupt omnipotent companies? Being told the presence, or importance, of androids in the outside world might help us piece that together.
If Dolores is the oldest operational Host, and she's harboring "memories" of her latent assignments, I'm curious if the show is going to explore the validity of that recall to the dreams of humanity. If dreaming is a unique element of our humanity. I'd love a thoughtful exploration of a Host's retained experiences being the bridge to sentience.
Last but not least, Dolores' last second slap of a fly on her face before the episode went to black was wonderfully underwhelming, yet possibly game-changing. All episode, Hosts patiently tolerated flies that landed on them with no reaction. Does Dolores's reaction mean she is truly experiencing another level of humanity? Involuntary reaction? Annoyance? Does that small action reveal a start in her evolution, or is she much farther along than we, or her keepers, are aware?
What did you think of Westworld? Did it live up to the hype? Will you continue watching?