Right off the bat, HBO’s newest is off to a grand start.
If you’ve been keeping up with my Fall TV coverage this year, you would know that I’ve been greatly looking forward to the premiere of HBO’s Westworld. I need another big, bold sci-fi TV series in my life, and considering the basic premise and insane pedigree behind the thing, I was extremely hopeful Westworld would end up being that show. On Sunday the first episode aired and, from the looks of things, that will very much be the case.
Note: Before we get into it, I must make clear that this post will dive into FULL SPOILERS for the first episode of Westworld. Being how that’s the only episode I’ve seen, everything else I say about future events should be considered mere conjecture on my part.
Right off the bat, the most striking thing about the Westworld premiere is how it begins — right in the thick of it, so to speak. While the show doesn’t quite begin “in media res” (although that’s debatable considering the way the episode wraps back to the opening voiceover by its conclusion), Westworld is not the type of show that really intends to hold your hand. It crafts a VERY long opening before the reality of its world really starts to unfold, and you don’t get to really understand how the universe functions until a good way into the episode. But considering what the series is trying to accomplish, that’s a GOOD thing.
Because, to the untrained eye, the opening moments of Westworld is just some fun pulpy Western material. Yes WE know that the series is science fiction and involves robots, but if you hadn’t been following the ad campaign and marketing material for the series, there would be a lot of mystery in this opening fifteen minutes. Heck, even as someone who HAD been following the marketing, there was some surprises, the key one of course being the robot identity of James Marsden’s Teddy character. It was clear from the start that Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores wasn’t human (as that fly motif established pretty early on), but having Teddy wake up on the train with the rest of the visitors, only to actually be a “host,” was a fun bit of misdirection.
But even putting that aside, centering the opening of the story on the two robots serves a grander purpose than just being a clever twist. In a pre-premiere interview from a few months ago, EP Jonathan Nolan described the show as being from a time in which humans “stop being the protagonists,” and that is pretty clear from the first episode at least. This story really does seem to be taking the “side” of the robots, focusing on their story more than anything else. Yes at its core the show focuses on the ensemble ala Game of Thrones but, like how that show has the Stark children as the centerpiece of its storylines, Westworld has the characters of Dolores and Teddy at its center. And at this point, is probably better off for it.
Of course that doesn’t mean the other side of the story doesn’t get its due attention: so far the build up for the actual corporation of Westworld has been spectacular, with a whole crew of interesting characters (all played by wonderful actors) at its core. It seems the big focus amongst them will be lead programmer Bernard Lowe, played by Jeffrey Wright. As a fan of Wright in general I’m totally game to see him get a nice big role, and it will be interesting to see how Lowe reacts to his “updates” causing such strife.
And really, the scenes at the actual facility is where Westworld really comes alive (not to disparage the actual Western scenes, which are of course great too.) A huge part of the success of Westworld goes down to impeccable production design, and the interior of the facility is no different. From the creepy white material used to mold the android frame to the line of naked, discarded androids standing blankly in the basement of the facility, striking sci-fi visuals are abound here, and Jonathan Nolan does an excellent job of highlighting them as the director of the episode.
But “The Original” really gets a lot of mileage out of these scenes by delving head first into the sci-fi, straight into a particular new sub-genre I like to call “robo-ethics.” There’s a lot of scenes in “The Original” that are just the characters talking about the sci-fi world they have created, and whether they are morally going too far with what they are making these androids do. The above headline isn’t just a keyword bonanza: this really is combining what I loved about last year’s Ex Machina with the sensibilities of Jurassic Park, which shouldn’t be shocking considering how this is based on the 1973 film from Park author Michael Chrichton. But like the best modern remakes, this take on Westworld is finding a way to take the basic idea and apply it to our modern times, really exploring the use of AI and its implications in a way that only something in 2016 could.
A big part of the Westworld crew is Anthony Hopkins’ Robert Ford, the creator (at least it seems) of the park and the androids that are such a big part of it. But John Hammond Ford is not — as a veteran of the company for decades, it seems pretty clear to me that Ford is towards the end of his rope, looking at the grand result of his creation with a bit of ambivalence. But when Ford is game, he’s game — his final interrogation of the Abernathy bot was a terrific scene, and Hopkin’s did a wonderful job of showing just how important this interplay was for the soon-to-retire creator. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Hopkin’s stretch his dramatic muscles like this in a proper venue, so that alone makes Westworld worth seeing.
And really it was the back and forth (combined with a very eerie tone) between Abernathy and Ford that made that scene work — it certainly wasn’t the answers the conversation provided. In “The Original” at least, answers were few and far between. But really that’s a feature, not a bug. The key to good sci-fi for me at least is questions, and boy did I have many by the time “The Original” concluded. If this was a single movie that could be perceived as a bad thing, but as the pilot episode to an ongoing series, one with nine more hours of story to unroll in its first season alone, I’m very much willing to let the series unfold in such a mysterious way.
We may not know much about the motives of Ed Harris’ mystery character, or what the company behind the park is actually trying to accomplish. Hell, we don’t even know how the actual logistics of the park function, or how the guest experience technically even works. But already my mind is buzzing at the many possibilities that the series has set up. And if that’s not a clear sign of successful science fiction storytelling, I don’t know what is.
- We need to talk about that utterly badass saloon heist, staged magnificently as both entertaining as hell and wonderfully disturbing. It’s a tough line to balance on, but Westworld does it will aplomb throughout the entire episode.
- Also a highlight in the scene was the score — I don’t know if it was Ramin Djawadi’s idea to set the sequence to a piano version of “Paint it Black” (of all things!), but it worked magnificently.
- So is this the fastest use of nudity in HBO history? A grand tit time of like 12 seconds here. Still though, I kind of love the way this show uses the nudity; sure there’s the occasional erotic stuff (this IS HBO, after all), but I would not describe the rest of the nakedness to be titillating in the slightest. As clinical and cold as how the Westworld workers view the robots themselves.
- The bandits headed by Rodrigo Santoro’s Hector Escaton look like a lot of fun, and I’m curious to see how the series will utilize them in the future. Additionally, I hope the failed monologue from Hector Escaton becomes something of a running gag. Sure this isn’t really a comedy, but that doesn’t mean a good joke can’t be utilized.
- Thandie Newton didn’t have a ton to do in the pilot, although the previews seem to indicate she’ll have a bigger part moving forward. One can only hope, as she is certainly one of the most talented members of a VERY talented cast.
- Also in the previews: the prettiest McPoyle. So we have that too look forward to, at least.
- And on things to look forward to, boy is the list of directors for the series a “whose who” of awesome TV folk: Michelle MacLaren, Neil Marshall, Vicenzo Natali, Stephen Williams, and many more all direct an episode this season. That’s some top notch directors, which should hopefully mean top notch material.
- Sorry Trevor — even in a cowboy hat, you’re always going to be Trevor o me. On the bright side, the nature of this series means that even though he got murdered like, twice, he can still be a recurring character on the show. So let’s hope for that, huh?
- The final shot of the episode is incredibly on the nose, but in the absolute best way possible. You knew that fly was going to get swatted, but boy was it satisfying when it did.
- I likely won’t be covering this series on a weekly basis, but you can bet I’ll be back to discuss the series if the quality keeps up throughout the season. And even if it doesn’t, I’ll probably have a strongly worded opinion piece to dish out once the season concludes. Because you guys can’t get enough of those, I’m sure.