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‘Westworld’ Review: Season Premiere Offers Violent Delights and Asks Many Questions

Season 1 Episode 1, "The Original," introduces some existential themes, some big secrets and a dynamite cast that's fully engaged with this fake Wild West.

Westworld Season 1 Episode 1 Evan Rachel Wood Ed Harris

“Westworld”

John P. Johnson/HBO

Diagnostic Report

Welcome to Westworld, a theme park of the future run by the Delos Corporation, where cowboys and farmgirls and hookers and bandits roam an artificial Western landscape where anything — anything — goes. Teddy (James Marsden) arrives in the small town of Sweetwater in search of adventure and finds the beautiful Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood)…

But both Teddy and Dolores, along with the vast majority of Sweetwater’s residents, are robots programmed by Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and a team of specialists operating in isolation in an undisclosed location. Their primary purpose is to keep Westworld operational and their ludicrously wealthy clientele happy, which isn’t easy when some of the “hosts” start malfunctioning. The hosts are incapable of hurting humans, we’re told repeatedly, but their old programming is coming back to haunt them — and something is brewing under the surface.

READ MORE: ‘Westworld’ Season 1 Review: Western Philosophy Tops the Wild West in Deep-Thinking HBO Drama

White Hat or Black Hat?

Your classic Westerns tend to be defined by a clean-cut dichotomy — the righteous good guy versus the vicious bad guy. (Sometimes, they’d throw in some Ugly for flavor.) But bringing in the sci-fi element means lots of moral complications. Right now, the show’s clear villain seems to be The Man in Black (Ed Harris), who gleefully shoots Teddy and drags Dolores away for easy-to-assume reasons. But his later scheming (and scalping) suggests that he knows a lot more than the park’s typical guest, and his exact purpose is at this stage completely unknowable.

Beyond that, the basic fact of Westworld’s existence offers up a huge range of moral questions. It’s easy to sympathize with Dolores and Teddy, pawns as they are in this larger scheme. But the technicians behind the scenes are intriguing in their own right; what we’ll be waiting to see, in the weeks ahead, is how deep their personal moralities may lie, especially when confronted by the ethical questions that come with creating something indistinguishable from humans?

In the Year… Wait, What Year Is It?

One of the most tantalizing/frustrating elements of “Westworld” is just how few answers it provides, especially when it comes to the question of when, exactly, this takes place.

Bernard makes reference to the last “critical failure” (we can only picture the violent carnage that ensued in the original 1973 film, when the robots went rogue) taking place over 30 years in the past. Presuming said incident took place after the park’s initial founding, and presuming that Westworld isn’t secretly operating at this exact moment in time, we’re looking at the year 2047, at the earliest.

The fact that this is decades beyond today is also supported by the incredible advances in technology we both see on screen and learn about from Dr. Ford. What happens to a society that’s “slipped evolution’s leash”? That may be what we’re about to find out.

Westworld Anthony Hopkins Season 1 Episode 1

Player Piano

One of the show’s most exciting metaphors is the player piano at the Mariposa saloon, plinking out modern favorites like Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and The Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black.” The latter, which transitions to a lush orchestral version for the dramatic action of Hector’s (Rodrigo Santoro) heist, creates a singular moment for the episode, and a reminder that as meta as “Westworld” might be about the Western genre, a great shoot-’em-out can still be hella entertaining.

Paired Off

During that heist, we get to witness some truly magnetic chemistry between Mauve (Thandie Newton) and Hector, which contributes to the lively fun of the sequence — how much of that might have been deliberately programmed by Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) is unclear, but hopefully the show keeps playing with these two in future episodes.

Meanwhile, Teddy and Dolores are almost too picture-perfect as the show’s central star-crossed lovers, but perhaps that’s appropriate, given their artificial nature. What’ll be interesting to see the show explore, going forward, is whether Westworld is the type of place to cling to virgin/whore tropes, or if even farmgirls are allowed to have a little fun.

READ MORE: How HBO’s ‘Westworld’ Shot on Film for a More Tactile, Organic Look

These Violent Delights

For a show that’s raised a lot of discussions regarding violence towards woman, it’s notable that perhaps the most gruesome moment of the episode — a thief’s face exploding outward, as he threatens Clementine — comes courtesy of Mauve’s six-shooter. Second place goes to Hector taking a bullet in the neck, though it’s perhaps the most comedic moment in the pilot, thanks to Sizemore’s dismay.

Given “Westworld’s” premise, we’re likely to see no shortage of these scenes, and the repetitive casual murder and abuse of the “hosts” could be a bit monotonous. After all, what are the stakes for any non-human character, if a few hours in the shop will bring them back online?

Westworld Rodrigo Santoro

Rodrigo Santoro as Hector Escaton

John P. Johnson/HBO

This Natural Splendor

The amount of physical production on display here is truly stunning, especially when it comes to the construction of Sweetwater and its surroundings. The Western genre is hardly cheap to execute, especially on a weekly basis, but the money spent on making Westworld as authentic as possible has real payoff, especially when we transition to Westworld behind the scenes.

Best Quote

“What is your itinerary?”
“To meet my maker.”
“Well, you’re in luck.”
— Abernathy and Ford

An exchange that could have played as over the top ended up being perfection, in part thanks to Hopkins’ offhand delivery. The religious themes that come with a story about men making new life in their own image are going to be inescapable, but hopefully they’re kept as (relatively) subtle and swift as this moment.

The Questions You’re Not Supposed to Ask

  • What happened during that “critical failure,” all those years ago?
  • Were the side effects of Dr. Ford’s “reveries” really an accident, or is he up to something bigger?
  • Nitpicky question: Why do the technicians sometimes wear period costume when visiting Westworld, but sometimes wear modern dress?
  • The photograph that the original Abernathy found in the field, of a young woman in a modern city, clearly triggered a programming glitch — but how did that photograph get into the park to begin with?
  • If Dolores is the oldest host in the park, does that mean she’s the most evolved of them all? And if she’s able to swat a fly, what else might she be capable of?

Final Reveries

One of “The Original’s” more fascinating touches is a subtle one — when the original Peter Abernathy is retired to cold storage, his replacement in the final scene is the bartender from the Mariposa saloon, subbed in for Dolores’s beloved father with no preamble. It’s something you might even miss on first viewing, but it speaks to how this world is an artificial one, where the basic nature of identity is one that can be completely overwritten — because this world puts a premium on control.

It’s just the first episode, and already that control seems in flux as more questions arise. Can’t wait to get a few more answers.

Grade: A-

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Comments

Steve

Westworld sets a new bar and rises so far above the clutter out there in TV land right now! Blast of a show and can’t wait until the next episodes!

John Hardy

IMO the seating of the fly wasn’t meant to show “learning of instinctive behavior” but to contradict the previous question “have you ever harmed a living thing”…. if she’s able to kill a fly she’s able to kill any living thing including a guest…

Danemon

Your nickpicky question. When they “freeze” Westworld in extreme circumstances, they can wear their work clothes. If they enter a storyline or want to make an appearance I presume they dress up in western garb to keep with continuity while things go on.

Trieste Justice

Nitpicky problem: When the bullets go flying it certainly seems like they intend real bullets to be flying. If the guests face no risk, (as exhibited when Teddy tried to save Dolores led to an apparent firing pin failure) how do they ensure that the bullet that goes through Hector’s cheek doesn’t wind up in a guest’s chest?

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